Durham: Reasons for, and Not Many Against, Telecommuting

I'm a basement dweller. I'm a mole man. I rarely leave my house.

Yet, I earn a pretty decent living and some fantastic benefits. I'm part of a close-knit team, and I take my job very seriously.

I'm a telecommuter (a.k.a. a "teleworker"). I brag to friends that I work in my underwear, though I usually wear sweats and a t-shirt. My office/lab is in the basement of my house.

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The perks are innumerable. I get my kids on the bus in the morning and I'm there to greet them when they return home. I can wander into the kitchen and grab a glass of water, a cup of coffee, or a burrito whenever I want to.

If I'm not doing something in my lab, I can flop onto my bed with my Wi-Fi notebook PC and write whatever I have to write. I can work in the living room while hanging out with my wife (when she's not at class).

Yeah, it's the life. But here's the thing: I wield fierce discipline to get my work done on time while making sure it's accurate and of the highest quality I can manage.

I make myself available to my co-workers by email, phone, IM, Skype, and so on. I'm as much a part of the ExtremeTech team as everyone else, even though I live 3,000 miles from the office and I yawn a lot.

I spent quite a few years as a freelance tech and gaming writer before Loyd Case and Jim Louderback decided to hire me. Although I loved the freedom of doing my own thing, I missed some aspects of full-time employment: mainly, regular checks and benefits.

I surfed the tech job sites, looking for something in media, knowing from experience that I could do a fine job working from home.

Ad after ad concluded with the depressing proclamation: NO TELECOMMUTING.

Not only had I written for magazines and Web sites all over the globe, but I'd also spent a full year working on staff at Gamecenter, CNET's sadly-defunct gaming site, as the technical editor.

Telework can be extremely successful and gratifying, both for the employer and the employee. I knew it from experience.

Puzzled, I contacted a few of the hiring directors behind those no telecommuting ads with a simple question: Why not?

Each reason they gave now seems silly to me in my current capacity.

"We need you to be here for team meetings." Well, I phone in to meetings every week. So do other ExtremeTech writers. It works just fine.

"We need you to use our network resources." Hmm. I just picked up a laptop from Ziff-Davis' IT department that the IT guy configured for VPN access. I can use the ZD network any place in the world with available Internet access.

"We have set hours and expect you to work them." That's odd. Shouldn't the results trump the time clock? When I first started with ExtremeTech, I told Loyd the hours I planned to work. He indicated that he didn't really care — he's more concerned with the timeliness and quality of my articles.

Even before Ziff-Davis hired me, I knew this stuff was possible. So I'd ask: Any other reasons?

"Telecommuting is against our policy." I heard that a lot. Usually, at that point, the conversation was pretty much over.

In some cases, talking to these people was like trying to reason with a 3-year-old.

I had a conversation about this with my friend Keith last night. He's a genius coder, and he's dealt with companies that forced him to suffer a two-hour commute simply for face time.

Keith and I understand that not all tech jobs are logical positions for telecommuting.

An IT guy can't press a reset button on a locked-up server from across the country. A beat reporter can't cover a specific metro area from a different city. A publisher can't administrate without an office and constant access to the suits and the lawyers.

But a programmer? Keith had a more powerful computer at home than the one the company provided for him at work. He could be more efficient sitting in his living room than he ever could at his desk in a cubicle.

But Keith's boss wouldn't have it—and the reason, Keith speculated, didn't have anything to do with function.

It was political. The boss could bark at him whenever he pleased if Keith was within earshot. Ironically, the micromanagement festooned upon him made Keith even less efficient than if he'd worked at home.

As I type this, I'm sitting in a cubicle in the ExtremeTech offices in San Francisco. The company flew me out to help cover the Game Developer's Conference (GDC).

Obviously, I can't cover a conference from my basement in my socks, but I'm always open to travel.

I fly coach. I stay in inexpensive hotels. I eat cheap food. I don't abuse my expense account. I'm ready to pack my bag and fly anywhere on short notice, and I'm very flexible — heck, the very day this column goes live is my 10th wedding anniversary and here I am, a 5-hour flight from my wife. Happy anniversary, Emily!.

There's even an argument that allowing employees to telecommute saves a company money. The facility can be smaller. Reduction in square footage means less rent, a lower cost of utilities, and, if the telecommuter already has his own equipment (I did), lower IT costs. I think that might make up for occasional travel allowances.

Scouring the Web, doing a search for the word "telecommute" reveals differing attitudes on the subject.

Detractors claim that balancing work and home life from the same location is too big a challenge for some workers; that's true enough. My father-in-law does some freelance work, but he often tells me he lacks the discipline to do it at home.

Some teleworkers have problems separating work life from home life, and I may be one of them; I check my work e-mail at all hours, and when I can't sleep I tend to work on stuff at, say, 3 a.m. I make it a point, however, to give my family my full attention and lots of quality time.

Some workers have indicated that, by telecommuting, they get passed over for promotions because the bosses have closer relationships with the cubicle dwellers. That's unfortunate; quality of results should be one of the major determining factors in the promotion process.

Being relatively new at this job, I don't know how promotions get doled out, but I do know that my direct supervisor, Loyd, spends a lot more time in his basement at home than in his office downtown.

It still puzzles me when I see a job description that lacks any reason to work in an office emblazoned with the words NO TELECOMMUTING.

What do the employers fear? Is it micromanagement, as Keith alluded to? Is it a lack of technical savvy on the part of the decision makers? Is it some sort of weird Luddite philosophy?

As I look forward to GDC and, after that, my flight home, I hope that more companies become as progressive as Ziff Davis. I suppose the anti-telework faction has a few decent points, but the right kind of person in the right kind of job can thrive working from home.

Best Buy introduced the ROWE initiative, which allows employees who can work from home to do so; the benchmark for their success is the results of their work.

That, my friends, is the way it should be. Hopefully such programs will be seen as inspirations and not oddities, but only time will tell.

What I do know is this: Next week I'll be home again. You won't know, because my articles will be on time and, I hope, be good reads. Meanwhile, I'll be in my underwear.