Commentary by Cynthia Froggatt
The Bare Naked Truth ABout Telework
On August 20, 1997, Sue Shellenbarger's "Work & Family" column in the Wall Street Journal took on the advertisers: "Madison Avenue May
Need to Alter Image of '90s Telecommuter." The ads depicting telecommuters
as bunny slipper-clad, pajama-wearing women who decline to shower on work-at-home
days are inaccurate and unfair, according to Ms. Shellenbarger. Yes, as
she pointed out, the majority of telecommuters are male, and as her small
sample indicated, most shower and dress for work (even though no one may
see them). I felt the issue was a much larger one and wrote the following
I would broaden the notion
to say that U.S. organizations, and possibly society in general, must alter their
image of the worker and work. (I m not sure we can blame Madison Avenue for this
one.) Only then, will remote work or telework truly flourish. Let me explain.
Regardless of what you are wearing (pajamas, bunny
slippers, or nothing),
are you working if no one can see you? We've never fully made the
transition from manual labor to knowledge-based working. It is very easy
to see when a farmer or factory-worker, construction worker, etc. is working
because they are expending physical energy on visible tasks. In fact, it
could be argued that the harder one is working, the more they sweat (so
there is a visible hierarchy of effort).
This doesn't translate well to
white-collar work. So we have
created a complex system of visual cues to signify that (or give the impression
that) someone is working. "The office" is a stage where people
their work" for others to see. Wearing a business suit, sitting
behind a desk, talking on the phone, being in a meeting, operating a computer,
bumping into the CEO in the parking lot at 9 pm, among other activities,
send a message that the performer is hard at work. Technology has bumped
it up a notch - sending e-mail, faxes, voice-mails (especially at odd hours)
gives the impression of productivity. And frankly, all these activities
might result in very high quality work. But then again, the movement toward
casual dress codes is proof that our brains operate just as well when we
are wearing jeans as when we are wearing a Tahari suit.
Pajama-wearing need not convey a negative
image. Scott Adams, as
a ten-year-old, identified his desire for a life-long career that would
allow him to work in his pajamas. As he explained in a recent presentation
at the alt.office conference, cartoonist seemed to be the only achievable
option, having rejected the three other choices he felt permitted pajama-work:
pope, supreme court justice, and Hugh Hefner's job as head of the Playboy
empire. We all know that after a detour into corporate life, he successfully
realized his goal. Imagine a world devoid of Dilbert had that ten-year-old
set the lofty goal "to wear a suit and tie and sit in a big office" for
his working years.
I understand your concern about the TV ads
depicting an inaccurate
image of telecommuters, but on the positive side, the ads do at least challenge
the myth that you can only be productive in the "appropriate business
In all the ads I've seen, the teleworker is shown to be a high performer.
It seems that we struggle with measuring performance quality so we often
rely on the look of work rather than the results.
Knowledge work is not something to be observed
with the eye.
I confess, I was one of those annoying students in college and grad school
who didn't appear to colleagues to be working very hard. I sat in the back
of the class, rarely went to professors' office hours, did not put in much
face-time at the library, read the assignments the night before the exam,
sat down to type a major paper six hours before it was due, and was rewarded
with A's and B's. Fortunately, I was graded on the basis of quality of
result, not some outdated notion of how hard work should look.
The fact is, I was "working" when
people thought I was playing or
at least not paying attention. I could hear as much from the back of the
class as those in the front. I was thinking about the term paper
when I was walking, cycling, showering, etc. But others couldn't see
me thinking. They could see someone typing, reading, talking to a professor
after class, or sitting in the library, but these activities don't necessarily
translate into a quality product reflecting innovative thinking.
We grapple with similar issues in the
workplace. Remote work of any
kind challenges the paradigm of visual monitoring of work, and this raises
anxiety levels among management and non-management alike. It is comforting
to think that getting up, showering, dressing, going to the office, and
chatting with colleagues over coffee will be interpreted as "strong commitment
to work" before you've even turned the computer on. Re-defining, or abandoning,
the old "face-time" measurement of performance is difficult, but
teleworkers are leading the way.
I congratulate MCI and the other advertisers
for getting more people
talking about telecommuting, and for depicting a productive, flexible,
fun and growing way to work.
As for my personal telecommuting style, I
dispense with the pajamas
and bunny slippers, opting instead to be naked for about the first hour
of phone-calling and e-mailing, then I shower. Do I miss nylon stockings
and the rush-rush of the office? No. Do I feel better about my performance?
Absolutely! Do I think having the freedom to work where, when, and how
I choose might work for others? Definitely. Change is always an opportunity
Sue Shellenbarger printed excerpts of my letter
in a September 24,
1997, letters column entitled, "These Telecommuters Just Barely Maintain
Their Office Decorum." On the morning it appeared in the Wall Street
Journal, I sent an e-mail message to everyone in my address book. The
subject line read, "work naked." The message encouraged recipients to look
for my "insightful and revealing commentary on telework" in that
day's paper. The response has been overwhelming!
The majority of respondents applauded my
honesty. They agreed that
liberating ourselves from the trappings (and politics) of most corporate
environments leads to greater creativity. And they shared their own quirky
Some, though, were a little less enthusiastic:
"Aren't you afraid
your clients will wonder whether you are clothed or not when they phone
you?" CF response: I m not curious about what they are wearing. Why should
they care about me? Besides, I am judged on the results I achieve for my
clients, not appearance. "I m concerned that you might catch a cold."
CF response: Indeed, medical research has
confirmed that you do not
catch a cold from being cold!
"Working naked wouldn't work for me because ..."
(There were several
of these.) CF response: Hey, you know, whatever works for you! Saying everyone
should work naked would be as crazy as, for instance, saying everyone should
work in a business suit (oooops, we've done that, haven t we?) ...
The dialogue generated by the article became
the catalyst for a more
thorough investigation. Now, I am working with Marilyn Zelinsky - author
of New Workplaces for New Workstyles (to be published in January)
- on a book entitled, Work Naked: Uncovering Productivity Secrets of
the Virtual Office. Our goal is to profile individuals and teams who
have fully exploited the freedom to work how, when, and where they are
most creative and productive.
We are looking for candidates who have pushed
the envelope in building
"a context (or contexts) for creativity" from an entrepreneurial or corporate
teleworker perspective. I invite you to be part of the "Work Naked" dialogue
by contacting me at
- tell me your story! I m listening ... [By the way, please interpret "Work
Naked" in the figurative (freed from the bondage of corporate trappings)
as well as the literal sense.]
C. Froggatt, principal of Froggatt Consulting, has spent the last 13 years
advising clients on aligning their real estate/facilities strategies with
their business plans. New work directions, such as telework, virtual office,
and non-territorial offices, are an important part of the strategic facilities
plan. She studied environmental psychology, has a master's degree from
Cornell University in Facilities Planning and Management, and is a frequent
presenter on new work directions and strategic facilities planning.
Froggatt Consulting's approach to projects emphasizes employee
involvement and non-traditional solutions to leverage human and technological
resources and optimize capital investments. Use of the Job Activities Analysis
(to analyze how, when, and where work is accomplished) is an integral aspect
of the change management process.
Cynthia works from her virtual office in Manhattan and is not
a fan of video-conferencing!!!
Copyright © 1997 - Cynthia C. Froggatt
Photograph Copyright © 1997 - Jean Pierre Bonin
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