Technology and Future

A Technological Solution to Facilitate Telecommuting and Transform the Global Economy

Work from home has always been problematic. But a technological solution can make it much better for both companies and employees.

The Problem in Telecommuting

In the media we have been told for many years that telecommuting is the rising trend. But today the vast majority of workers are telecommuting only one day per week, if at all. So what is holding back telecommuting? There are two ways organizations manage people: 1) by measuring the results of their work; and 2) by monitoring their level of activity to ensure they are working hard enough. Telecommuting works well when the organization evaluates the employee by measuring their results quantitatively. But for many types of professional work, the results are difficult to quantify. Many professional employees are formally evaluated qualitatively by their results, but these employees also know that a lack of work activity would be noticed by their manager and their peers.

If the employee is telecommuting from home, then no one will notice when he spends hours on nonwork activities. So he lacks incentive to spend his hours working. The problem is compounded by the many distractions at home, such as child care, chores, errands, personal phone calls, watching TV, and browsing the internet.

Nonwork during telecommuting is more common than people realize. I was told about someone who works 32 hours per week as a software engineer for full time pay at one of the best-known software companies in the world. He has one telecommuting day per week. I was told he is “on call” during his telecommuting day. In other words, he has to answer his phone to make people think he is actually working. In another case, I overheard someone say he wants to find a tech job in which he telecommutes one day per week but does Doordash deliveries throughout that day.

Employee Monitoring Versus Privacy

So the obvious solution is to monitor the employee while she is telecommuting. But monitoring may violate the privacy of the employee. Suppose we set up multiple cameras that continuously record all her activities in all parts of her work area. Most employees would find this to be a creepy violation of privacy. But as we design our solution, privacy does not have to be an all or nothing choice. We find a balance between the need for monitoring with the employee’s need for privacy.

The Solution: A New Hardware and Software System for Telecommuting

We propose a totally new system of cameras, communications, and software to support an organization in which everyone telecommutes on every workday. At the employee’s home, a set of cameras monitor all parts of a designated work area. But the cameras are not monitoring all the time. In order to balance the competing priorities of monitoring and privacy, we define as a software abstraction a virtual office that includes a virtual door, virtual acts of opening and closing the door, and a virtual knock on the door. Whenever the virtual door is open, the physical cameras are on and monitoring the employee so that she can be viewed by her manager and other employees. Whenever the virtual door is in the closed state, the physical cameras are off. A software user interface allows the telecommuting employee to open and close the virtual door to turn the cameras on or off. Similarly, an employee may open another employee’s virtual door, thus producing a distinct sound to alert the employee behind the virtual door. An employee may do a virtual knock on the door of another employee, which produces a different distinct sound to alert the employee behind the virtual door. After knocking on the door, one can either open the door or else wait for the other to open her door, just as in a physical office.

Note that the virtual office employee has to know whether the cameras are on or off. Thus, when the camera turns off, a solid cover moves over the lens to ensure that operation is not possible.

The virtual office operates similarly to a real, physical office. Therefore, the employees have the same level of privacy, as well as the same incentives to allow monitoring.

Organizational Communication in the Telecommuting System

Some companies oppose telecommuting because it decreases the quantity and quality of communication with the telecommuting employee. But in our technological solution, the telecommuting workplace will have more effective communication, rather than less effective, compared to the traditional, physical workplace. In the new system, communication may be through audio, audiovisual, or text media, but all communication is recorded by the system. These are work communications, so privacy is not required. Most recorded communications can be accessed by any employee, while confidential data can be flagged and suitably restricted.

Regarding the communications of an employee, the system computes summary data such as amount of communication, time required by communications, mean response time by priority level, and other measures. Managers have more information to identify and address communications issues, while employees have more incentive to communicate with others, help others, and provide timely responses. Also, if an employee spends excessive amounts time on communications, then this problem can be measured and addressed. Thus, communication is more effective than in the traditional, physical workplace.

Impacts in the Global Economy

In the future, manual labor will still commute to a physical workplace, but all other types of employees can telecommute all the time. The telecommuting employees may travel to a central office once a month, or once a year, or maybe never. An employee in the U.S. may live hundreds of miles away from their company. The employee can live in areas with dramatically lower housing costs.

In fact, the employee can telecommute across national boundaries. A company can have all its employees scattered around the world, while maintaining a nominal physical central office. Even the language barriers disappear. All communications can be translated as they pass through the telecommuting system.

The impacts are large and numerous. Time and energy are saved by eliminating the commute. Companies have more recruiting opportunities, while prospective employees have more job opportunities. Housing prices dive in large, expensive cities. In poor nations, job opportunities expand greatly. Poor nations advance more rapidly.