Telecommuting is the mundane version of the jetpack, a long-promised, much-anticipated technological system that's never arrived.
There are undoubtedly a lot of reasons that telecommuting hasn't taken off in the way some imagined, despite the fact that most information-age jobs could nominally be done from anywhere. In his new book, physicist Michio Kaku argues that the current telepresence technology "doesn't offer the full spectrum of sensations that come with being there in person." Others suggest companies want to keep an eye on their employees or employees fear being out of sight and therefore out of mind, even though telework hasn't been shown to hurt career advancement. Certainly people who are uncomfortable using networked communication tools would like out-of-office work less, too.
As the Internet-native generation starts to have kids, they'll care less about office life and more about home.
But I think the real reason that telecommuting hasn't taken off -- despite the massive time and energy savings it could deliver -- is that it's just less fun, particularly for the people most likely to adopt it. For younger people, going to an office is more fun than sitting at home. It's where they make friends and find camaraderie. Home is great for a few hours, and then it's kind of lonely and dull. While there are coworking spaces and coffeeshops, the easiest solution is to just go into the office.
So, here's my plausible thought about the future. As the Internet-native generation, which communicates by IM even in the office, starts to have kids, they'll care less about office life and more about home. Telecommuting will take off. The (now smaller) fun factor will be delivered by social tools like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ as well as better and easier video conferencing like Skype-in-Facebook and Google Hangout. The demographic that's most comfortable with working collaboratively online will have a reason to use those skills.
There is already some evidence that suggests parents are bigger on telecommuting. For example, a San Diego study from way back in 1998 found that "respondents with children rated the stress reduction and family benefits of telecommuting more highly than did those with no children at home." The bulk of current parents, though, didn't grow up socializing online. Many are great at it, but it was not embedded in the fabric of their relationships for their entire adult lives.
In the older study, too, parents were "more likely than those without children to be concerned about the lack of visibility to management." Other structural forces in the economy will make that less of a big deal. The continuing downward spiral in depth of connection between employers and employees will mean that fewer people will worry about their career paths within one organization. Information workers will be judged even more like machines -- i.e. on the basis of their measured output -- meaning face time will mean less and less.
The generation that grew up with the Internet (or at least online services like AOL) runs from about 30 years old on down. We're all just starting to have kids. Is now the time when we see telecommuting take off?
A Plausible Thought About the Future is a new series that presents reasonable ideas about how our world could change. We expect and invite disagreement. If you'd like to write an entry, contact Alexis Madrigal at amadrigal[at]theatlantic[dot]com.