9.336 G. Moore, "The Virtual Office"

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Fri, 1 Dec 1995 00:35:37 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 336.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: George Cook <GEORGEC@dur.utoronto.ca> (82)
From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@phoenix.princeton.edu>
Subject: The Virtual Office

[The following is an article that is just now appearing in the University
of Toronto Magazine. It is republished here with the gracious permission
of the editor and the author.]

The virtual office

by Gale Moore

"And what do you do?" is a frequently heard phrase when people first
meet. The question really being asked is "What is your job?" and the
answer goes a long way towards defining who you are. Work may be
paid or unpaid, as homemakers and others can testify, but my focus here
is on employment. A job structures time (you always know it's Monday),
it structures space (provides a separation between home and work) and
it brings access to resources as diverse as friendship and power -- at
least that's the way it used to be.
Today there are fundamental changes taking place in
organizations that have profound implications for the future of work.
Globalisation, restructuring, strategic alliances between former
competitors, and contracting out have consequences, and one of these
is a shift in the nature of the employment relationship. Today's
organisations must be lean, flexible, agile -- bizspeak for job loss, more
*employees* on contract, able to move quickly (out of the country if
Central to these changes is IT -- information technology -- the
result of the linkage of computer and communication technologies.
Developments in IT mean that it is now possible to work globally
exchanging data, documents, information, voice and video images
electronically. No longer do we need to be together to work together.
Paris and New York are as close to Toronto as Hamilton if you're digital
and travelling via satellite or high speed network. But this technical
capability shouldn't blind us to the role of human decision making --
people make choices in getting it built, designed, deployed and used.
Organisations are not restructured by technology but by people.
IT creates jobs! IT destroys jobs! shout the headlines (both true)
but why do we get specific numbers for jobs lost -- 10,000 disappearing
at Bell, for example -- but hear only optimistic mumbling about the jobs
being created? Choices are being made and it is easy to hide behind the
technology -- IT made me do it! But are the choices that seem rational in
the business world today necessarily rational in the long term? There are
consequences when business severs its traditional ties to the
community while the state (impotent, uninterested or cheer leading)
stands on the sidelines.
Take teleworking as an example. Teleworking -- the
organizational fashion trend of the year -- means *sending* employees
home. There are obvious benefits for some people to working at home, at
least part of the time. Organizations see it as an opportunity to reduce
the high costs of office real estate. But some less visible overhead gets
passed on to the employee -- guess who's now paying the heating bills
at the home office? And there is absolutely no support staff, except
perhaps your children. Then there's the equipment. Many organizations
still supply teleworkers with the fax machines, computers and software
they need to do their job, but who pays the phone bills? Who pays for
maintenance and can you get a house call when the printer dies? And
does being out of the office mean decreased visibility and isolation,
longer working hours and no time you're really free? There's a silent
invasion of family life -- e-mail and the office are just steps away. Then
there's the idea that child and elder care can be more easily
accommodated -- this clearly from people who have never done either!
At the high end of the teleworking continuum working at home is a
creative option, but at the low end because of electronic monitoring --
requiring 11,000 keystrokes per hour is not unusual -- it's a reminder of
the Victorian sweatshop. The women in the garment industry in the
1890s often had to buy not only their thread, but also their machines.
Once employees are *externalised* it makes it easier to move to
contractual employment and then who will be responsible for the
equipment? And most accidents occur in the home -- did you fall down
the stairs on the way to your office or on your way to pick up the
The profound transformation taking place today deserves a more
intelligent response than the flurry of cheerleading that surrounds the call
to telework. For better and worse, we are witnessing the reversal of the
pattern of bringing people physically together to work that was
established more than 200 years ago at the dawn of the industrial
revolution. Now it*s distributed networks and distributed workers but
concentrated power and profits. Work remains a central thread of our
social narrative, knitting together lives and communities. As the nature of
the employment relationship changes -- or unravels -- choices are being
made. Who*s choosing? In whose interest?

Dr. Gale Moore was head of social sciences for the Ontario
Telepresence Projects and is currently research and education
specialist for the social sciences at the University of Toronto Library.
This text first appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of the University of
Toronto Magazine.