Thursday, April 07, 2005

Telework and terror

From the Associated Press (via the Washington Times) comes a news report of a Fairfax County VA official promoting teleworking (or as it is commonly but mistakenly called here in the US, "telecommuting") as a strategy to recover from a terrorist attack:

"I won't be surprised if in the future the federal government requires every federal contractor to file a continuity of operations plan," Mr. Connolly said. "God forbid, but if there is a dirty bomb downtown and you can't get into the U.S. Transportation Department, how will you perform your job?"

Similary, a Northern Virginia Transportation Commission official claimed that

"Teleworking significantly improves the survivability of the public and the ability of the transportation system to do what it needs to do."

Obviously local officials from the Washington suburbs now consider issues of "survivability" in their routine urban planning roles; the Pentagon was burning due to a terrorist attack only four short years ago, and the unsolved anthrax attacks helped shut down significant parts of the Washington postal service. But this is also a site where telework, defined by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (again, incorrectly, I'd argue) as "working at least one day per week from home," is both popular and feasible: "About 310,000 people in the region telecommute" and "There are another 420,000 people who would telework tomorrow if given the opportunity," according to local officials.

For example, Federal News Radio reports that the GSA is heavily into telework:

The Public Building Service of the General Services Administration has one of the most far-flung (and best rated) telework operations in government. Its Energy Expertise Center is headed by Mark Ewing, whose office is in the southwest part of Washington, D.C. But he's got staff in Boston, Karen Kern to be precise, and a number of people in Texas (like Rita Owens and her team mates), and Cheryl Pool in Vancouver. The unit monitors energy use in federal buildings, negotiates deals for electricity and natural gas and pays the bills. The Government Accountability Office recently gave it the best-in-show award for its operations. That's a big deal.

The government says money on office space it doesn't have to buy or lease. Employees save commuting time because it only involves going from the kitchen or living room into their government-issue office at home. People with kids (or elderly parents) must arrange for professional day care help. They sign on and off, and can be monitored. People are never "late" for work, and employees say that the use of sick leave is minimal. Sometimes an employee will take an hour of sick leave, rather than losing a day.

The best part is that the GSA/PBS program is now in its 11th year. Obviously somebody on high thinks it's working. Including the workers.

Not surprisingly, in a neoliberal environment of endemic budget crises coupled with constant efforts to lower taxes and "shrink government," quantifying the "tangible" (read: economic) benefits of telework is key to any Federal telework project, as this press release found on Business Wire illustrates:

The Telework Exchange(SM), a new public-private partnership focused on eliminating telework gridlock, today unveiled, an online community focused on demonstrating the tangible value of Federal telework initiatives, serving the emerging education and communications requirements of the Federal teleworker community, and measuring Federal agencies' progress on telework requirements. The Telework Exchange announced Intel Corporation, CDW-G, Citrix, and Juniper Networks as founding industry members. [...]

The Telework Exchange community features a series of Telework value calculators that tally the cost of Federal commuting. The calculators draw on Telework Consortium and Department of Energy translation ratios to quantify potential telework benefits. Specifically, the site features two calculators - potential cost savings and environmental impact. Federal employees can register on the site and log the number of roundtrip miles they commute to work or avoided commuting by teleworking, the number of days they work, the type of car they drive, and their agency affiliation. The calculators automatically compute the potential cost savings and environmental benefits associated with Federal telework. The calculators empower Federal employees to understand their personal cost of commuting - as a raw figure and a percentage of after-tax income - as well as to understand how many tons of pollutants they are pumping into the environment each day as they travel to and from work. Starting in May 2005, the Telework Exchange will leverage registration information to publish a third Telework Dividend calculator, which will quantify actual Federal telework savings. Importantly, the Telework Dividend calculator will provide the first metrics to track the relative performance of Federal agencies in meeting the mandated requirement to support Federal telework operating models.

Unfortunately, the simplistic and rather utopian understanding of telework as self-sufficient individual experts working from their suburban homes and modeming their work back and forth through a largely automated Internet to a centralized urban office site (the classic US telecommuting model) is itself inadequate for a variety of reasons:

- Teleworkers are not a homogenous group of stereotypical suburban electronic-cottagers. Many teleworkers live within the urban core, escaping not a long daily automobile commute (in the classic suburban telecommuting definition) but an office environment filled with distractions and demands ranging from business dress to water-cooler gossip. Other teleworkers actually do commute each day, but to non-office or non-employer sites (ranging from "Internet cafes" and airport terminals to client sites and regional "teleports"). And a significant number of teleworkers are using their very time stuck in the daily automobile commute as a productive workspace, through their cell phones, PDAs, voice recorders and laptops.

- Teleworkers, even when embedded in single-family suburban homes, use more information/communication technologies than just their Internet-connectted computers. Besides of course electricity, they require Internet infrastructure (largely still phone lines or cable lines, though urban wireless is gaining), voice communication (largely still land-line or cell phone networks, though Internet phoning or "voice over IP" is gaining), and even sometimes television (folks following markets, closed-captioners). More crucially, they still require transport; even if they themselves are not mobile, they often require that documents or even equipment be shipped back and forth to them.

- Teleworkers privileged enought to be able to choose this division of labor for themselves do so not only for spatial reasons (avoiding automobile trips to a work location) but for temporal reasons (structuring one's work day more flexibly). And a main reason workers seek temporal flexibility is to manage the various spaces of their daily lives: home provisioning (grocery and clothes shopping), and child management (ferrying to school and sports and lessons) being the two most common examples. Indeed, personal mobility during the working day is another one of the benefits offered by cell phone and PDA use. Such errands will still leave workers on the road for part of the day, subject to traffic gridlock and road closure.

- Not all teleworkers are stereotypical "information professionals" able to structure their working day and working tasks as they like, operating autonomously for extended periods of time. Many teleworkers are low-wage, (supposedly) low-skill, low-autonomy data-entry or data-processing workers who expect and require a daily list of tasks, deadlines, input material and output destinations, to be able to work remotely at all. And even the highest-paid and highest-autonomy teleworkers require that other individuals be "in place" through the working day (and night) while they themselves operate remotely: network systems administrators, office administrative assistants, telephone switchboard operators, employee travel agents and computer support professionals to name a few.

What this all comes down to, from the perspective of my research on "information labor," is that telework should be perceived relationally, as a set of technologies and privileges and practices which fragment work across the space and time of "personal life" but do not necessarily or completely disconnect work from the space and time of "office life". Unlike the "identity" model of telecommuting, where individual monads autonomously and automatically produce value at a safe distance from a traditional work site, relational teleworkers in all their diversity and complexity still depend on a well-functioning and well-planned urban fabric of technological and social infrastructure. A terror event of any scale which disrupts these will inevitably disrupt the utopian dreams of telecommuting as well.

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