Illustration by Thomas Woodruff

Launched in 1992, Worth turns 25 this year. To celebrate, we’ll be posting articles and illustrations from the archives throughout this year. 

In “The Dis-Organization Man” in the July/August 1995 issue, Worth examined the then relatively new trend of telecommuting, presenting the pitfalls and perks of working remotely. In this piece that seems dated now we live in a world where people can and do work any and everywhere, author Richard Todd writes: “All around you people are saying goodbye to the office and setting up at home…. But beware: The solitary work life is a complicated one financially, emotionally and electronically.”

I work at home. Of my old house, exactly 11 percent of the floor space (as recently calculated for the IRS) devotes itself to business, though that might not be the impression if you walked in through the back door. I charge my fellow taxpayers nothing for my use of my dining room table as a storage area, nor do I take off anything for cordwood on days when the office is too cold to occupy and I move to the kitchen table, nearer to the wood stove. The office in question, though its floor slants and its walls admit the west wind, holds (besides me and my desk) two phones, a fax, a word processor, a computer and modem, and a photocopying machine.

I am sort of a Luddite, as it happens, but one has to concede that this stuff (ridiculously cheap, considering its powers) makes my domesticated enterprise possible or at least plausible to others, which may be the same thing. I can store data. I can generate documents. I can be reached.

And while we’re blessing technology, how about a word for the invention that really sustains things around here the hub concept of delivery, used by Federal Express and its brethren?

So thanks to all modern geniuses for this life, which seems in some lights a kind of idyll. Certainly, it seemed so when I was office-bound at a magazine and yearning to be free, in an era of Friday night drives to the country, with the children half asleep and Happy Meal boxes on the floor and a cat on one’s shoulder. Wouldn’t it be better just to live here? Now I do. Field and wood begin outside the door, and though I am not much of a wing shot myself, I can generally flush a grouse on an autumn afternoon and, if accompanied by a better shot, bring it home for dinner.

Fewer people worked at home in the early 1980s when I chose this way of life, but wait… Did I choose it? In one of the more interesting confessions in his recent book, Robert McNamara admits that he isn’t sure whether he resigned from the Johnson administration to join the World Bank or whether the World Bank hired him so Johnson didn’t have to fire him. This should give one pause. I don’t mean that any such thoughtful conspiracy was at work in my case, only that it’s usually wise to be suspicious of freewill, especially when you find yourself participating in what turns out to be a trend.

Around here, everyone I now see in the evening has just put in a hard day at the home office. I live in one of those places that was ripe for this, a long territory in western New England stretching from Litchfield County, Connecticut, to Burlington, Vermont, a region where until recently (no more, alas) de Laval milking equipment out sold Compaq computers. Plenty of such places all across the country are filling up with lone entrepreneurs and telecommuters.

Whether we are pioneers or refugees makes a nice question. Yet the sun shines today on my little community. I have just come back from seeing my friends on the hill, newsletter publishers. They have the coveted Hewlett-Packard combination printer-copier-fax. Also a scanner that somehow receives documents and sets them directly into type, so that the next thing they see after the phone rings is a page proof. Outside, a well-tilled garden awaits its seeds.

So all’s well here, and more of you are coming to join us, aren’t you? I can’t stop you, don’t want to stop you, surely you’re doing the right thing. But I have stared out the same window for sometime now, and I have some darkish thoughts about this life. The first concerns…

TIME.

Time remains the great promise of the work-at-home life, time that expands in every direction. There is something to this.

I have a time guru, my friend and sometime colleague Robert Grudin. He’s a Shakespearean scholar by trade, but he has also written a truly wonderful book in what might be called the higher self-help genre, Time and the Art of Living. At a conference earlier this year, Grudin suggested that a cash value could be assigned to time not spent doing some of the noxious business involved in organizational life, notably commuting. Even a lower income might justify itself on the balance sheet: “These dollar losses are in fact capital investments in the long-term prosperity we call quality of life,” he said. We’re dealing here with that kind of interesting and not unappealing money that economists like to write about; its only deficiency is that you can’t spend it. In any case, Grudin is surely on to something.

A cash value could be assigned to time not spent doing some of the noxious business involved in organizational life, notably commuting. 

The favorite time for home-office workers immediately becomes 7 to 9 a.m., or whatever hours were once wasted getting to work. To tumble downstairs and go directly to your desk is to have a leg up on the whole of the conventional world. Norman Mailer speaks of the special access to your unconscious that you enjoy on first awakening, and though this may matter more to Mailer than to you, you know your creative powers are little enhanced by putting on a starched shirt and heading for a train station in the first light. A time of similar value appears at the other end of the day (particularly if you have napped), but it maybe complicated by Little League practice or some other thing you’re now able to do because you have “more time for your family.” (I took up this life as my family was beginning to have less time for me, which—from a standpoint of strict efficiency—is not a bad idea.)

So: By forsaking the commute, you gain several glorious hours a day. It’s the other hours, what used to be known as a business day, that pose the problem. Communication now occupies an inordinate part of your day. Because you don’t see anybody, you discover you are using your communications equipment to find out the most trivial piece of information, and sometimes you’re too embarrassed to ask only about who’s on the A-list for the product-launch launch so you end up inquiring about the long-range planning mission, thus inevitably winning yourself a spot on the committee and generating more work for yourself.

Errands also stake their claim, and you wonder, as people on vacation do, how you manage to get all the things done—cleaners, shopping, dentist—that you used to get done when you worked in an office. (The answer is simple: You got paid to do them. You stole the time.)

These are relatively minor worries; you must also face the noble distractions. Virginia Woolf writes affectingly about the struggle to stay home and write, that is, to take herself seriously as a woman working in isolation. She says it was necessary first to kill “the Angel in the House,” that imagined ideal that haunted her, the image of a perfect woman in the domestic setting. “She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life…. I turned upon her and caught her by the throat.” This famous violence has outlived itself, and yet I think many women setting themselves up at home must still in some way or another reenact it.

An analogous act of courage is demanded of gents, though it’s more like a fistfight than Woolf’s elegant slaying. I think of it as “Killing the Handyman.” I could also describe for the reader’s brief diversion and my lasting humiliation some of my enduring misallocations of effort, ventures in the sheep industry, woodlot management, and antique farm machinery, but another day. The definitive text in this area is Rust Hills’ How to Retire at Forty-one, which was ostensibly about “dropping out” but can be seen now as an early contemplation of working at home. No one who has read this book will forget Hills’ description of a morning spent hanging a tennis ball from the rafters of this garage to mark the correct spot to park his car.

Because your time is nominally your own, you begin to resent time spent on work, even if you are spending less of it.

An essential philosophical problem underlies all of this. When you move home, your concept of wasted time and time well-spent becomes hopelessly confused. Because your time is nominally your own, you begin to resent time spent on work, even if you are spending less of it and in more comfortable circumstances than before. The ultimate result is that you devalue what you do because it constantly interferes with what you think you could be doing. Worse, even as you cease to believe in your work, you come to think that you can’t be very good at it, or else you would be able to get it done much faster. If, for instance, you go for a season without climbing to the top of a nearby hill, you begin to think of yourself as incompetent for having let a pile of memos and reports come between you and what you now regard (without having articulated this) as you highest calling: walking up the hill.

You may soon have reached that perfect Thoreauvian state in which you say with him in defiant tranquility: “For the most part I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune…”

Before you reach the state it might be wise to think about the next topic…

YOUR FUTURE.

There’s not gentle way to get at this. So let’s just say plainly that as a home-office person you must salt away money constantly, with the slyness and dedication of a drunk hiding whiskey. If you work for a company enlightened enough to let you work at home, it is probably enlightened enough to put you in charge of your own 401(k) retirement fund. If you are self-employed, then of course you have your Keough plan to fund.

This ought to be the easiest money to allot, because it makes all the other money so much more valuable. It makes you appear less rich, maybe even poor, in the eyes of those whose low opinion of your net worth is valuable: mostly the IRS, but others too, such as Princeton’s director of financial aid, or the food stamp people, if it comes to that.

Perversely, though, having chosen a life bereft of title and corner office, you become more concerned about status than ever. Certainly, you don’t want this bold move to seem a flop. You don’t want to appear poor to anyone, and you find yourself performing for those before whom you want to seem rich: your neighbors, American Express, Princeton’s dean of admission.

Enough said.

As your future, in one important sense, it’s assured: You’ve crossed the Rubicon, and it’s a long swim back.

I maintain a corporate affiliation, which requires me to appear in an office every couple of weeks. Not a problem. Always good to keep in touch. And yet it did not take long for me to realize that an irregular participant in office life is a stranger in a strange land. People begin to look at you with the gaze we turn on someone who has been life threateningly ill or institutionalized. They seem to think that you know something they do not, and that you have paid an unacceptable price for your knowledge. Of course, they may be right on both counts.

In candor, they begin to seem a bit odd to you, too. Because people change jobs so quickly these days (and you don’t), and because no one is ever replaced by anyone older, you find yourself increasingly aware of the infantilization of the American workforce. When you see, or think you see, successive generations in the same role, it has an unsettling effect. For you, the office represents stability; you want it, like a homeowner, not to change. But in fact, office life starts looking more and more like a state play. And the players seem so young, so tender, so grave. You want to be among them like an Eastern holy man, saying, “There, there, unfurrow that comely brow; it’s going to be all right.”

Do not, however, do this, because you need their help more than they need yours. They know something that is hard to face: You are hopelessly and irretrievably out of the loop.

The work of companies may happen digitally, but their life happens in old-fashioned analog form.

You may be deceived about this because of the way office life has changed. Offices depend absurdly on the same electronics that form your own life-support system, and it is always odd to see people within hailing distance resort to email for communication. Don’t be fooled. The work of companies may happen digitally, but their life happens in old-fashioned analog form.

You are still appraised by your willingness to sit attentively through the interminable BOGSAT (Bunch of Guys Sitting Around Table) meetings that on your days at home you feel so smug about missing. You are still rewarded according to the maxim for which Woody Allen will be remembered: “80 percent of success is showing up.” And showing up is exactly what you fail to do.

The indisputable bright spot in your future is that you will never have to face your own retirement party, because by the time that day arrives, everyone will assume you retired years ago.

Is this too bleak to bear? Have you made a tragic error? Will they let you back in? Will, they might, but don’t count on it. In the end, though it doesn’t matter, because you will say no. When you look at those trapped within, you see people defined by roles. To be outside is to be protean. In your heart you know that a horse out of harness is still a horse, but you cling to the idea that soon, any day now, you will be a new person. This brings us to the most important consideration, to an ultimate question of sort…

CHARACTER.

“A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world’s torrent,” said Goethe. You know what he meant, and this is doubtless a wise cautionary quotation to pin on your home-office wall. In fact, character gets shaped by the system, no matter how energetic one’s flight.

In 1956, about the time today’s corporate Old Guard was beginning its business life, a spectacularly popular business book was published: William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man. It seemed instantly to define what was wrong with American business—more than that, what was wrong with the American character. Although the book’s title has survived as a faded cliché, the book itself has vanished. Too bad, because it is instructive about its own age, and by contrast, about ours as well.

Whyte looked at postwar America and swa an ominous trend toward the collectivization of corporate life. The company provided graduation-to-grave security for its employees, but employees sold their souls in the bargain. As a nation—to be sure, the white, male and middle-class slice of the nation—were trashing our most precious cultural inheritance, individualism, in favor of group identity. Companies were, in the words of a love song of the era, a “tender trap.”

“In our attention to making organization work we have come close to deifying it,” Whyte wrote. “We are… denying that there is—or should be—a conflict between the individual and organization. This denial is bad for the organization. It is worse for the individual. What it does, in soothing him, is to rob him of the intellectual armor he so badly needs. For the more power organization has over him, the more he needs to recognize the area where he must assert himself against it. And this, almost because we have made organization life so equable, has become excruciatingly difficult.”

It is not that companies were taking unfair advantage of youthful recruits. The book wonderfully evokes a bygone era with jobs hanging like clusters of grapes in a corporate paradise, ripe for plucking.

You want to move among young players like an Eastern holy man. Do not. You need their help more than they need yours.

Well, times have changed. Give us some of that oppressive security, cries the ’90s graduate, who, if he gets a job, knows that he better leave it in 2.3 years just to keep the old résumé honed. Corporations have lost interest in keeping people around for 40 cozy years; they’re not at all confident they will be around that long themselves.

And now in growing numbers, like deer fleeing ahead of the forest fire, people bolt from this fraught world to become the home-office worker, humble or grand. Many are the paeans sung to this way of life in various magazines, including at least one journal, Home Office Computing, devoted exclusively to people of our happy station. These tend to be Amazing Grace stories, people rescued from bureaucracy, delivered to new freedom.

“…advises corporations on international protocol from her apartment in Houston…”

“…produces advertising and brochures for the horse industry from her Dayton, Ohio, home…”

“…runs a modern test lab in his Incline Village, Nevada, home…”

I don’t know why these stories make me so sad, but they do. You must marvel, surely, not just at the technology but at the glories in the market economy that make this possible. But then you wonder at the nature of the economy that makes it necessary for people to be so clever. Are we turning into a nation of the niche marketers? Reading about these plucky souls, I sometimes think about those announcements on TV during snow emergencies, when offices are closed except for “essential personnel.” Who exactly are the essential personnel to our economy? What is the work that needs doing?

It’s as if we have turned 180 degrees from Whyte’s time and its worrisome and slavish devotion to authority. But the worries today seem no less solemn—that we are going off in an infinite of separate directions, that far from a collective society have become an atomized one. In a dark mood one can think that all the brace figures personal-space consultant and dashboard publisher and pet-care-software expert, are but the leading edge of disintegration. Suddenly, the Organization Man looks like the very picture of mental health!

I have recently seen the home office of my dreams. A friend built it. He felt it was time to move beyond the converted bedroom. He had to get back into the woods. He commissioned a cabin, 10 by 15 feet, with a steep pitched roof. It is, in fact, a replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, snugly built on a stone foundation, framed in post and beam, shingled in wood. True to the spirit of the original—simplify, simplify—it has no electricity. It cost just $3,200.

With a Powerbook and a cellular phone, it’s about all you need, and for well under $10,000 you would have an office that’s  more than an office, a perfect symbol of the age, a cybershack, bringing together two strands of our culture—technology and independence—in exactly their current twist. So serenely does this little structure sit upon its knoll! It doesn’t seem wildly futuristic to imagine a landscape of hundreds of thousands of such cyber shacks, owned by hundreds of thousands of marchers to different drummers. But I am not sure this vision constitutes utopia.

Reprinted from the July/August 1995 issue of Worth.

8 Million, 2 million… but Who’s Counting?

One little hitch in this revolution: The true numbers of telecommuters don’t yet match the hype.

In February [1995], Link Resources, a New York–based consulting firm, issued a press release announcing that half a million people had joined the ranks of telecommuters last year. That increase pushed the number of home workers up to 8.4 million, Link said—a level projected to grow another 10 percent by the end of 1995.

It’s the kind of statistic that is irresistible to newspapers and magazines. Indeed, Business Week, Fortune, the Chicago Tribune and, yes, Worth all found the opportunity to quote Link’s study. But to put Link’s results into perspective, consider that the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the total number of nonagricultural employees in the U.S. as of December 1994 at 112 million. (That doesn’t include the self-employed, who don’t qualify as telecommuters. Typically, a telecommuter is defined as a company employee who performs some of his or her regular work at a place other than a company office. That definition also doesn’t include overachievers who simply take some extra work home from the office.)

In effect, then, Link was saying that about 1 of every 13 employees—7.5 percent of the entire U.S. workforce—was already telecommuting.

Amazing? Yes. True? Well…

A few large companies actually have more than 7.5 percent of their workers in true telecommuting arrangements. IBM estimates the telecommuting force among its 104,000 U.S. workers at 20 percent. AT&T figures 19 percent of its 250,000 workers are telecommuters, and DuPont puts the number at 10 percent of its 60,000 U.S. employees.

But take J.C. Penney, a company sometimes cited as a telecommuting leader. “We’re leaders?” asks a surprised Duncan Muir, a J.C. Penney spokesman. Of the company’s more than 200,000 workers, Muir sayd, just 200 are telecommuters. That’s 0.1 percent, all of them working at home full-time in Penney’s catalog-sales division.

Even with the federal government, which has an official policy of encouraging telecommuting for its 2 million civilian workers, only 3,000 telecommute, according to Warren Masters, director fo cooperative administrative support programs at the Office of Workplace Initiatives. That calculates out to 0.15 percent of the total.

The real number of telecommuters may be closer to 2 million or 2 percent of the non-ag workforce. Those are figures suggested by a study published in October 1994 in Working Mother magazine along with its annual list of the best companies for working mothers. In its study—unabashedly skewed toward employers sympathetic to home-based workers—the magazine asked companies how many employees did part of their regular job at home. The study included telecommuting data for 68 companies with a total of 1.64 million workers. The sum of home workers was about 34,000 or about 2 percent. Apply that percentage to the total U.S. non-ag workforce and you wind up with 2.3 million telecommuters, barely one fourth of Link’s estimate. That’s not out of line with a 1991 federal study that found a total of 1.9 million telecommuters.

Why all the confusion? Link uses an expansive view of telecommuters, one not stated in its press release. Link’s estimate of 8.4 million telecommuters, based on a one-shot telephone survey of 2,500 people, includes any employees who worked at home for as little as one day during the year—say for an illness—with or without company blessing. There was also no requirement that the telecommuting be done on a regular basis. “It’s a broad definition,” acknowledges spokeswoman Kim Bull.

By contrast, all the organizations mentioned above consider someone a telecommuter only if he or she telecommutes regularly—usually, at least one day out of every pay period. The lesson of statistics, according to Paul Rupert of Work/Family Directions, a workplace consulting firm: Be skeptical. “It seems like there have been more articles written about telecommuters than there are telecommuters,” Rupert says. “It’s the most written-about flexible work option, and the least used.”—William P. Barrett

Reprinted from the July/August 1995 issue of Worth