Teleworking: Margaritaville or Misery?

This is National Telework Week, a celebration of the wonders of teleworking. For many workers stuck in a traditional office environment, teleworking conjures dreams of a seaside bungalow where your biggest worry is spilling a Mai Tai on your keyboard. In reality, though, teleworking is something far different and more quotidian, offering a strange brew of  freedom and existential loneliness. The key for teleworkers is to find ways to maximize its benefits while not losing connection to the workplace hive of activity.

Like many of you, I am a teleworker. Yes, I occasionally put on shopworn business attire and wander through offices, classrooms and conference rooms, but for the most part my days are spent in front of a computer screen in various states of engagement with emails, reading, student papers, writing, taking notes and goofing off. It is nice to be able to get dressed when I want, but I never feel like I am off duty. Sound familiar?

Teleworking is usually described in rapturous tones by its proponents. Upon close examination, however, the benefits show themselves to be of the garden variety sort, or worse, completely unproven. For example, the official website of National Telework Week, which is jointly sponsored by a federal government consortium and computer giant Cisco (What did you think? An office furniture manufacturer would sponsor a week promoting teleworking?), describes the benefits of teleworking thusly:

  • Reduction in emission pollutants (I buy this, unless we find Starbucks causes global warming).
  • Business continuity (I guess this means if the home office gets waxed by an asteroid you’re the MAN).
  • Improved productivity (You can post cute pictures of your puppy in real time).
  • Work-life balance (It removes the life part of the equation by ensuring you are on-call 24/7).
  • Ease in recruitment (No need to buy office supplies anymore!)

My personal favorite is that National Telework Week promotes compliance with a federal law passed in 2010 to encourage more teleworking. So in other words, it is a week designed and created by the government to promote compliance with existing laws, sort of like “Don’t Murder Anybody Week.”

This discussion is really a moot point. Teleworking is here to stay, and there are undoubtedly many benefits to teleworking. Nowhere, however, do the sponsors of this celebration address this question: does teleworking improve our well-being? This miracle of modern digital life was supposed to make us happier at work by allowing us to work anywhere, on our own time, correct? Why isn’t there any evidence that has happened? Almost all of the evidentiary benefits of teleworking are in the aggregate, such as sustainability, and don’t address what is happening to you and me psychologically and emotionally.

Those who study happiness suggest that it is not too good. Perhaps the best modern summation of what makes people happy is offered by psychologist Chris Peterson when he says “other people matter.” Organizational scholar Jane Dutton of Michigan’s School of Business found in her research that the key to workplace happiness is something she calls “high-quality personal connections.” Sociobiologists such as Edward O. Wilson teach us about the importance of “hive” activities in the development and flourishing of living organisms, a hive being exactly what you think it is. The work of Martin Seligman and researchers at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center have shown in numerous studies that humans tend to report their highest moments of joy when engaged in group activities. None of these experts suggest the key to happiness is spending more time in our basement, alone in our shorts, crunching numbers.

The current issue of Time magazine declares on its cover that the “top” idea “changing our lives” in the U.S. is the notion of living alone. While it doesn’t address teleworking directly, it is not much of a leap to apply its reasoning to telework. In contrast to the scholars cited above, it suggests teleworking is as wonderful as the sponsors of Telework Week say it is. Aloneness helps us pursue “sacred modern values – individual freedom, personal control and self-realization,” argues author and NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg. To reach this conclusion, however, he has to summarily dismiss evidence from a number of seminal texts of the last decade, such as Bowling Alone, The Lonely American and Loneliness, and a oft-cited longitudinal study from the American Sociological Review, which collectively advance the proposition that the solitariness of modern life is damaging to our health and happiness. I am not sure he carried his burden of proof.

I was planning to end this post with a list of tips to increase happiness while telecommuting, but glibness and superficiality is beneath you. While I have some suggestions – join organizations, get exercise, move your work station from place to place, play around a bit with social media – they might not work for all. Plus, I am aware that I might be PLAIN WRONG. So, instead, I want to hear from you: Is teleworking improving your life, leaving you with a sense of alienation, or neither? Please share your comments on this page, and vote on one of the choices below.

a) Teleworking is great; no way I am ever going back to that Grendel’s cave they call an office.

b) Teleworking is so bleak and lonely an existence I am reduced to reading  your blog, Dan.

c) What’s the big deal, dude? It’s 2012.

Now, back to my laptop, Mai Tai delicately balanced.