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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work 1 Technology and the Changing Workplace NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR FLEXIBLE WORK To the extent that a job involves or is enhanced by the creation, manipulation, storage, or communication of information, it is increasingly possible to do that job anywhere that the appropriate information processing equipment and telecommunications links are found. This is true not only for jobs performed by a single isolated individual, but also for group tasks, such as decision making, that involve multiple individuals in dispersed locations. There are many potential benefits of the flexibility that locational independence provides. For an employer, those benefits may include the ability to recruit the best workers anywhere without requiring them to move to a central location, the ability to assemble and disassemble teams on an as-needed basis, the ability to offer improved customer service through coverage over longer hours and a greater geographical area, and savings in overhead costs through more efficient use of space. For a worker, the benefits of locational independence may include a more desirable lifestyle: greater choice in residential location, type of job, and allocation of time between work and personal interests. For society, benefits may include greater economic efficiency, opportunities for economic development in underdeveloped areas, expanded employment opportunities for individuals with limited mobility, and more efficient use of the transportation infrastructure.
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work However, the potential benefits of greater flexibility in where and when work can be done must be balanced against the potential costs or disadvantages. For an employer, disadvantages may include the direct costs of investing in the requisite technology, the intangible costs of learning how to use new tools and develop new styles of management suited to distributed work, less opportunity for certain kinds of serendipitous productivity (e.g., clearing up of a misunderstanding during a chance meeting at the coffee pot), and some loss of distributed workers' identification with an organization. For a worker, disadvantages may include loss of privacy, the blurring of boundaries between work and personal activities, fewer chances to interact socially with colleagues, and the increasing domination of work over other aspects of life if the worker is expected to be constantly on call for the employer. Employees may bear part of the costs of a new distributed work style if, for example, the employer allows telecommuting only by those who are willing to provide their own computers. Loss of job security and fringe benefits can result from any shift toward a greater use of temporary and contract workers and the flattening of organizational hierarchies. Increased social isolation may be a negative outcome for some distributed workers. For society, a negative consequence of greater flexibility may be a fragmented populace that is increasingly able to segregate itself into homogeneous strata. The ability to enjoy a distributed work style may be inequitably distributed, and the socioeconomic gap between the information "haves" and "have nots" may continue to widen. The off-shore relocation of some location-independent work, increased automation of jobs, and associated organizational restructuring may contribute to increased domestic unemployment (CSTB, 1994a). Finally, greater flexibility for workers in choosing where to live may further exacerbate urban sprawl and result in too-rapid growth in rural areas. (See the report Energy, Emissions, and Social Consequences of Telecommuting (U.S. Department of Energy, 1994) for detailed discussion of many of the societal impacts of telecommuting.) Until recently, the information technology that was commonly available, the communications infrastructure, and prevailing work practices have inhibited individuals and organizations from taking full advantage of the potential benefits of flexibility in the place and time of work. For example, when 300-baud modems were the norm, each full computer screen of text took approximately 50 seconds to transfer, and most file transfers had to be manually initiated at both the origin and destination. Increasingly, however, the proliferation of more affordable, more portable, more powerful, and somewhat easier to use computing systems and telecommunications equipment
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work has broadened the opportunities for effective, efficient location-independent work. Developments on the horizon, such as greater integration of information, communications, and multimedia systems, suggest that these opportunities will continue to expand. Simultaneously, on the demand side, changes in the economy, increased time pressures, a desire to reduce energy consumption, corporate layoffs, and the growing use of work teams have resulted in increased interest in implementing telecommuting and distributed work programs and projects. Together, the new enabling technologies and an increase in demand are likely to result in an increase in location-independent work. How such work can best be facilitated and integrated to meet individual, group, and national needs and expectations is a topic that merits careful study. THIS REPORT Approach and Emphasis Despite the growing interest in and potential benefits of distributed work, there are many technological, economic, and social barriers to its wider adoption. Although in its deliberations the committee focused initially on developing a technical research agenda, it quickly realized the importance of acknowledging context. Distributed work is an area for which consideration of purely technical issues is potentially misleading and counterproductive. Thus, in addition to outlining goals for technological research that could facilitate wider adoption of distributed work among individuals and organizations, this report also emphasizes the need to understand the broader social, economic, and public policy impacts of wider use of computing and communications technology, including possible negative impacts and how to ameliorate them. Although detailed treatment of such issues is outside the direct charge to the committee, social and economic considerations—e.g., the capability for ubiquity of connection, or the willingness and ability of people to work independently and often in relative isolation—provide the larger framework within which specific technical decisions are made and directions taken. The committee concluded that understanding that framework is an essential precondition to making the most effective technical decisions. The results of such decisions will be seen in the long-term ability of comparatively new activities like distributed work to contribute positively to U.S. national life.
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work Scope and Definitions—Telecommuting Versus Distributed Work One difficulty in discussing new work styles is the widespread lack of consensus on the use of terms such as "telecommuting" and "teleworking" (see Kraut, 1988, for one discussion of the difficulties associated with defining and measuring the amount of telecommuting). It has been suggested (Mokhtarian, 1991a) that two factors that distinguish telecommuting from other forms of remote work are remote supervision and a reduction in commuting. Under these criteria, overtime work done at home in the evening by an insurance company executive, for example, would generally not be considered telecommuting because it does not involve a reduction in travel. In contrast, an employee of a software publisher who answers telephone requests for technical assistance from his or her home, instead of answering the questions while present at a centrally located help-line location, is certainly engaged in telecommuting. Likewise, a person doing transcription for a medical clinic and submitting the completed work via a modem and telephone line is a telecommuter. However, to focus exclusively on telecommuting, as narrowly defined, is to overlook the sweeping nature of technology-supported changes that are affecting virtually every employer and every worker. These changes are leading to a work style that may be broadly referred to as distributed work: work that is done in a location different from that of the supervisor, subordinate, or fellow team member. Distributed work includes mobile work (work done while traveling), computer-supported cooperative work, field work, off-shore information processing, teleconferencing, and numerous other arrangements as well as home-and center-based telecommuting. To encompass the diversity of current approaches to location-independent work and to develop a correspondingly broad research agenda, this report examines distributed work of various kinds in an effort to delineate the strengths and limitations of current computing and communications technologies for enabling effective work. TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY It is important to view technology in its proper role as an enabler of, or constraint on, change, rather than as the direct motivator of social or individual change. An individual may be motivated to telecommute not because technology permits it, but rather, for example, to avoid an onerous commute, to get more work done, or to have more time to spend with family. An employer may be motivated
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work to adopt telecommuting for its staff not because technology makes it possible, but rather to improve recruitment and retention, save money, increase productivity, or help comply with mandated trip-reduction goals. Confusing an enabler of change with a motivation for change is likely to lead to overstating the potential impacts of the enabler, which does not alone guarantee that change will occur. Change will occur when there are no binding constraints and when one or more motivations are present (Mokhtarian and Salomon, 1994). New technologies sometimes emerge because they are needed; that is, researchers are motivated to develop a technology because they are aware of a need that the technology can satisfy. Often, there is a cyclical interrelationship between technological and social issues related to the work environment: the social context gives rise to the need for a given technology, and over time, that technology may have social impacts that are significant enough to alter the social context, giving rise to the need for another round of technological innovation. For example, Yates (1989) has shown that as corporations grew and organized into divisions, the internal office memorandum was developed to increase communications and document organizational procedures. Typewriters, filing systems, various copying technologies, and word processors were all developed to meet the demand for more memoranda and other written materials. More recently, electronic mail was developed to meet a variety of immediate communication needs in an increasingly distributed environment. Each of these technologies affected society by creating new classes of jobs, which in turn often led to further organizational division and the resultant need for even newer, better forms of communication. In other instances, technological research is driven by the desire to expand knowledge and capabilities for their own sake, without consideration for their likely application. Research and development conducted without specific needs in mind may produce important scientific understanding, new technologies, and solutions to problems that are not yet widely recognized. However, research that is exclusively technology-driven also may produce solutions that no one wants and for which there is no market, or solutions that some may even view as potentially damaging. The social context of research efforts helps ensure that some of each type of research is conducted. Generally, exploration of technology for its own sake is balanced by economic and social realities, and pragmatism is balanced by opportunities for unexpected discoveries. Regardless of the motivation, new technologies may permit us not only to do the old things better, but also to do new things that
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work are not imagined until the enabling technology is available. The practice of distributed work and the technologies developed to support it are best examined in relation to society and with an understanding that they will have important impacts on all of us. The Rise of Distributed Work—Representative Concerns Impacts on Transportation and Land Use Telecommuting per se is frequently proposed as a strategy for reducing peak-period vehicle trips, fuel consumption, and air pollution by substituting communications for travel. It has been included as such in a variety of federal, state, and regional or local policy statements (see, e.g., Mokhtarian, 1991b). A great deal of research has been conducted on the transportation-related impacts of telecommuting. Some of the early studies hypothesized about the ultimate extent of telecommuting and its effects on transportation (for a review, see, e.g., Salomon, 1986). It was suggested, for example, that the travel mileage saved by telecommuting might be partially or completely offset by an increase in noncommuting trips motivated by some inherent desire for mobility or travel. Empirically, this effect of generating more travel has not been found to date. The measured net impact of telecommuting on transportation has been a relatively uniform reduction in miles traveled: an average of 36.1 person-miles saved per telecommuting occurrence (Mokhtarian et al., 1994). However, these findings are based on short-term studies involving small samples of early adopters of telecommuting who may be unrepresentative of the population that eventually engages in it. For example, studies published to date have found that telecommuters live about twice as far from work as the average commuter in their region. As telecommuting moves into the mainstream, the per capita travel savings of telecommuting is likely to decline but will probably remain positive on balance. A broader critical issue concerns the transportation-related impacts of enhanced computing and telecommunications capabilities generally, not just those of telecommuting. What will be the impacts on transportation of distributed work activities such as the remote acquisition of goods and services, tele- and videoconferencing, product or project coordination with business partners, and consumer activities such as teleshopping? There are a few isolated empirical and anecdotal examples of complementary effects (Mokhtarian, 1988, 1990), such as electronic access to information and people prompting travel
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work to obtain further information or to develop a relationship, or a regional videoconference stimulating travel because it is accessible to more people than would be a single national conference without video. However, such complementary impacts of distributed work activities on transportation have not been studied as extensively as substitution and generation impacts. Thus the possibility of distributed work leading to more employment-related travel remains a fertile area for research. Another important social impact of using computing and telecommunications technology for distributed work involves changes in land use patterns. A commonly held hypothesis is that distributed work will make it possible for people to move even farther from central sites than they currently live, possibly leading to a net increase in travel. Again, the empirical evidence to date (Nilles, 1991; Mokhtarian, 1994) has not borne out the hypothesis that distributed work will lead to fewer but longer commuting trips in the aggregate, although no long-term evaluation has been made. A simple theoretical model based on economic location theory (Lund and Mokhtarian, 1994) suggests that even after optimal residential relocation occurs, total commute-miles traveled will generally be lower because of more widespread telecommuting, but more research is needed to refine such a model and to test it empirically. In the literature on the general impacts of computing and telecommunications on land use and urban form, the most commonly expressed expectation is that their use will lead to greater decentralization. However, it is also pointed out that telecommunications is usually a facilitator, not a driver, of decisions about residential and industrial location and that it can support centralization as well as decentralization. For example, although the elevator is considered to have made modern skyscrapers possible, the telephone played an equally important role in making them practical (de Sola Pool, 1980). Although computing and telecommunications may support a relative decline in the advantage of central locations, these locations will retain a competitive advantage due to the economics of agglomeration and the existence of their massive, already-built environments (Nijkamp and Salomon, 1989). Social Isolation One reason for early skepticism about the widespread adoption of telecommuting was the idea that people would not want to be isolated from others. The assumption seemed to be that telecommuting was to be full-time work from home. Current experience indicates
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work that telecommuting is most often part-time: one or two days per week on average. At this level, isolation and related issues such as visibility to management are not often cited as concerns by telecommuters. However, there is obviously some self-selection bias in considering the responses only of telecommuters, while not obtaining and considering the responses of those who may have chosen not to telecommute because of the possibility of isolation. Even when telecommuting is virtually full-time, telecommuters and, for that matter, millions of home-based business owners have found numerous strategies for circumventing isolation (Christensen, 1988; Race, 1993; Shellenbarger, 1993). These strategies include participating in local chapters of professional organizations, having lunch with colleagues, and using electronic mail extensively. Thus, the same technology that permits increased isolation can also be used to decrease it. Finally, experimentation with telecommuting at satellite work centers like the federal telecommuting center in Waldorf, Maryland, is increasing (Bagley et al., 1993). One hypothesized advantage of such centers is that they offer an opportunity for some social and perhaps professional interaction. The effects of isolation may reach beyond the individual actively engaged in telecommuting. For example, individuals who become isolated as the result of corporate downsizing (a department of specialists may be reduced to a single individual) may require contacts with other human beings (i.e., networks) in other organizations to survive in their jobs. In such cases, too, distributed work technologies can decrease isolation as well as cause it: electronic mail, computer-aided conferencing, and the on-line availability of conference proceedings can help individuals to keep current within their occupations. A broader question concerns the impact of computing and telecommunications in general on social isolation. Arguably, these technologies, much like television, have contributed to social isolation, although just as arguably, they have also given rise to new forms and norms of socialization. Technology is a tool that can be used to break down social barriers by enabling egalitarian access through such mechanisms as electronic mail communications, as much as it can be used to facilitate separation through mechanisms such as the increased opportunity to choose isolated residential locations. Management and Personnel Considerations The process of selecting personnel for telecommuting can be usefully represented as a triangle: the right employees, jobs, and managers must be selected to ensure the success of telecommuting. More
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work than 10 years of practical experience have helped define the selection criteria for each. Most important is the selection of remote workers, which should be based on a combination of well-informed volunteerism from the employees and final selection by management, based on the employees' work habits, skills, and knowledge of the organization. Supervision of remote workers has been the primary stumbling block for many organizations considering telecommuting. The perennial question is, How can I tell they're working when they're not here in the office? The best answer is brought out by another question, How can you tell they're working when they are here in the office? This exchange highlights the fact that many managers practice ''eyeball management," often erroneously assuming that if work and workers can be seen, workers are working and being supervised. Effective managers of telecommuters learn that it is the product, not the presence of a person or a visible process, that counts; they should be selected and trained so that they are comfortable managing workers according to the end product produced. Likewise, jobs that have, or can be modified to have, ascertainable end products and quantifiable standards for quality should be considered as the prime candidates for distributed work. Managing or working successfully to produce expected deliverables means that telecommuters are relatively free to work how and when they want as long as the end product meets expectations. Conversely, managers and workers who prefer command-and-control organizational styles may find it uncomfortable, if not impossible, to manage and work at a distance. Thus, in the short term, the perceived loss of control of remote workers is a concern that could inhibit more widespread implementation of distributed work practices. Other Impacts and Public Policy Considerations Beyond concerns about effectiveness, efficiency, social consequences, management, and personnel issues that will be resolved largely on a case-by-case basis are a number of broad public policy issues associated with the expansion of distributed work. They will need to be discussed, understood, and addressed in order for distributed work to expand to the fullest extent possible. Perhaps foremost is the question of the amount of private and public support for the infrastructure that is likely to be needed to provide the enhanced communications services required for distributed work. In the past, the nation has supported infrastructure development by providing general or limited monopolies, loans, grants, construction subsidies, and tax incentives. In most recent developments involving technology,
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work however, the private sector has been the main investor in new facilities. Given the broad range of technological capabilities that may be needed for distributed work, it seems likely that private funding will play the major role, with government supplementing efforts only in areas that will not be addressed without such assistance. User fees and access to new services are also a concern to many, particularly to those who believe that access to information and communications over the National Information Infrastructure will be necessary to fully participate in tomorrow's society and economy. Financial considerations will also affect our ability as a nation to further develop and expand our capabilities for distributed work. Although since World War II the federal government has played a crucial role in financing both basic and applied research in numerous fields, that role is now in transition, and there is great uncertainty regarding the philosophy for support and levels of federal funding for various fields. The increased practice of distributed work also raises concerns about intellectual property rights, privacy, and the security of information as it is stored, accessed, and processed electronically. Several reports of the National Research Council have detailed these issues. Computers at Risk (CSTB, 1990), Realizing the Information Future (CSTB, 1994b), and Rights and Responsibilities of Participants in Networked Communities (CSTB, 1994c) are helpful for their discussion and recommendations on these and related issues. SUMMARY COMMENTS The overall societal consequences of distributed work practices are not yet completely clear, and their treatment is not within the scope of this study. Many researchers in academia, industry, and government are currently examining distributed work, including telecommuting, in order to gain a better understanding of its advantages and disadvantages. A recent Department of Energy report, Energy, Emissions, and Social Consequences of Telecommuting (U.S. Department of Energy, 1994), summarizes much of this research, and the Department of Transportation's Transportation Implications of Telecommuting (U.S. Department of Transportation, 1993) focuses more detailed scrutiny on transportation. Intellectual Teamwork: Social and Technological Foundations of Cooperative Work (Kraut et al., 1990) is also useful for its linking of social and work issues and technology. The committee underscores the need for open and detailed discussion of the public policies that may be implemented with respect to
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Research Recommendations: To Facilitate Distributed Work the practice of distributed work. Technology and society have a complex relationship that is constantly changing (see, e.g., CSTB, 1994a). It will be important for researchers to address not only the technical agenda recommended in this report, but also interrelated social and economic issues.
Representative terms from entire chapter: