Technically Speaking: The Office-Free Lifestyle
Work is moving back to homes and hearths. We need some new words for that
Illustration: Greg Mably
I wonder why a company pays to transport a 170-pound body 20 miles downtown when all it needs is the body's 3-pound brain. —attributed to management consultant Peter Drucker
Once upon a time most people worked where they lived. The barn was just steps from the farmhouse, weavers wove on their own hand looms, bakers baked bread on the same hearth where they cooked dinner. The blacksmith's anvils and forges were in a workshop right next door, as were the woodworker's saws and benches. Home was work and work was home.
All that changed when the engines of the Industrial Revolution came rumbling through. The hulking factories and warehouses of mass production required huge tracts of land outside of cities and towns. The world's butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers had no choice but to ply their trades (or more precisely, some repetitive and soul-destroying substitute for a trade) in faraway enterprises. As a result, for the better part of 200 years, most workers have been leaving their homes and heigh-ho, heigh-ho-ing their way to work.
But now a postindustrial revolution is rapidly taking shape. What was once a steady stream of workers bringing their work home is beginning to look more like a raging flood. A recent Associated Press article reported that an eye-popping 20 percent of U.S. employees do some or all of their work at home. For language hounds, raging sociological floods have the added advantage of churning up lots of new words and phrases.
The granddaddy of these words is telecommuting, coined by University of Southern California researcher Jack Nilles after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo led energy-saving North Americans to substitute communications technologies for commuting ones. Most large U.S. corporations have or plan to have telecommuting programs, but there are still many that don't. Closet telecommuters or guerrilla telecommuters have only their bosses' permission to work at home.
If you could mind-meld with managers to determine their real concerns about office-free workers, the greatest fear and loathing would surely be the sneaking suspicion that remote employees are slacking off. They're concerned, in other words, that their teleworkers will teleloaf. However, the opposite seems to be true: Studies show that employees tend to work longer hours at home than at the office. If they go too far, they're said to be suffering from a malady called teleworkaholic syndrome. Another downside to telecommuting is that many home workers feel a sense of loneliness and isolation, a phenomenon called watercooler withdrawal.
It's becoming increasingly clear that a lot of people are looking for a zero-commute lifestyle and to become part of what some call Generation 1099. (In the United States, freelancers' earnings are reported on Internal Revenue Service form 1099; not surprisingly, these workers are also called 1099ers.) Folks are remodeling their abodes to accommodate not just one person working at home but also the increasingly common work-at-home couple, resulting in a HOHO setup: his office/her office.
Another trend is to eschew both the office and the home and to work more or less permanently on the road. The result is the phenomenon of the digital nomad, a person who uses technology, particularly wireless networking, to work without requiring a fixed address. Practitioners of this digital nomadism rely on nearby Wi-Fi connections a lot, so they're also called Wi-Fi warriors. The tech journalist Mike Elgan calls them lippies (location-independent professionals).
I haven't gone that far, but I've worked out of my home since 1991. My commute, a single flight of stairs, takes about 20 seconds, unless there's a traffic jam—my wife coming downstairs while I'm going up. Most of my meetings are with the dog and often involve a quick pat on the head. The cafeteria is the kitchen, where I can make myself a cappuccino whenever I feel like it. The boardroom—in the summer, anyway—is the deck behind the house. It's a life that suits those of us who WFH (work from home) to perfection.
About the Author
Paul McFedries has been writing the Technically Speaking column since June 2002. Inspired by his trip to the office—up one flight of stairs—he writes this month about telecommuting terminology. McFedries, a multiplatform kind of guy, recently authored user's guides for both Microsoft Windows 7 and Mac OS X Snow Leopard. He also runs Wordspy, a Web site that tracks emerging words and phrases.