Is Telecommuting a Fad?

I’ve been on the road this week speaking to some fairly traditional groups--lawyers, insurance executives--and I’m getting questions about Marissa Mayer’s dictum that canceled work-from-home arrangements for Yahoo workers:

“Listen, if a Silicon Valley outfit can’t make it work, then maybe this telecommuting thing just isn’t such a good idea.”

First, I explain that the Yahoo situation isn’t typical.  Mayer inherited a company that, having lacked direction for years, probably doesn’t even know what all its people are doing in the first place.  Temporarily herding them all into the office is likely a good way to sort it out.  (Not to mention that new mother Mayer built a nursery next to her office, so the work-at-home issue is moot for her.)

But then I emphasize that telecommuting itself is here to stay, and will grow only more important. We tend to forget that the US is still the fastest-growing developed nation on earth--now over 300 million, on our way to 400 million sometime in the early Forties.  If you think it’s crowded out there now, just wait.  Traffic congestion already adds one entire work week of sitting in the car to the average worker’s life each year, and that number keeps going up.

It’s going to be increasingly difficult to explain to young office workers why they have to get in the car and commute every day in order to sit in a cubicle and send emails and IM and do videoconferences.   That will become even more of an issue for employers later in this decade as baby boomers finally retire and the competition for talented millennials really heats up.

Sure, there will always be good reasons for people to meet in person, although those occasions may diminish as telepresence systems get ever more “real” and the next generation of workers brings a new comfort with virtual work.  But the need to meet in person every once in a while doesn’t mean that you have to move your entire workforce into the office every day.

The trend is utterly inevitable.  And perhaps fifty years from now there will even be an online trivia competition in which one of the questions is:

“What was a rush hour?”