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The Potential of Remote Work for Professionals Margrethe H. Olson Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines a profession as "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and in- tense academic preparation." It does not necessarily imply a for- mal licensing or certification, and does not prohibit membership in a formal organization as a full-time employee. My focus here will be primarily on professionals as organizational members, loosely defined to include those with a high level of specialized knowlecige that is applicable across different organizations. Anyone who works in an organization has some common sense notion of the difference between professionals and nonprofession- als or nonexempt employees. First, the professionals' skills are generally in demand; this gives them bargaining power and privi- leges within the organizational hierarchy that are unavailable to others. It also, of course, brings them higher monetary rewards. This may not be true, however, in the so-called glamour profes- sions, such as medical research (non-M.D.} and civil rights legal defense, where a job carries prestige, autonomy, and other perqui- sites of professional status without high monetary rewards. The job of a professional also may be characterized by long- term deadlines and variety as opposed to minute specialization of Margrethe H. Olson is associate professor of computer applications and information systems, Graduate School of Business Administration, New York University. 125
126 THE FUTURE labor. It tends to be low on specification of rules and procedures and high on flexibility and autonomy. As a consequence, the professional employee may face a high degree of ambiguity in his or her relationship to the organization. Criteria for performance tend to be unclearly specified. The pro- fessional may have a strong sense of autonomy and a strong com- mitment to his or her profession, particularly in those professions where barriers to entry are wed clefined. One consequence of both autonomy and commitment to profession is low organizational commitment. Professionals, therefore, tend not to be unionized. Given these characteristics, the work-at-home option is rela- tively easy to implement for professionals. If their skins are in scarce supply, their organizations are more likely to respond to their demands for flexible work options. Performance evaluation takes place on the basis of long-term deliverables based on gener- ally ambiguous performance criteria. Remote supervision, then, is relatively easy to accommodate. Professional employees typi- caBy may work at home two or three days a week and increase their productivity substantially because of the ability to concen- trate in the home environment. Usually they continue with full salary and benefits and are evaluated on the same, relatively am- biguous performance criteria as before. Does this make work at home an ideal option for professionals? Or do similar problems exist as those Judith Gregory outlines (see pages 112-124) for clerical workers? The answer is, of course, "it all depends." Given the potential of technology to alter traditional work pat- terns, how might an organization take advantage of its increased flexibility? On the assumption that the professionals have skills that are in demand and therefore have the flexibility to choose from multiple work options, ~ see three alternative scenarios for organizational structures emerging: the location-independent organization, the contract organization, and the human resources organization. Work at home is a part of each scenario, and each can be analyzed in terms of its responsiveness to organizational and individual needs and pressures. THE LOCATION-INDEPENDENT ORGANIZATION The physical relocation of organizations tends to be guided by economic constraints of building costs, taxes, and the availability
TO POTENTIAL OF REMOTE WORK FOR PROFESSIONALS 127 of labor. The existence of telecommunications technology permits a wider set of choices. Work groups can be formed temporarily, bringing persons of particular skills together through the use of electronic equipment, without incurring employee relocation or travel expenses. This greatly facilitates the low-cost reorganiza- tion of divisions and authority structures. At the individual level, location independence is achieved through communications systems that permit employers and em- ployees to keep in touch regardless of location. Electronic store- and-forward message systems and "beepers" are familiar exam- ples. Many organizations utilize centralized message centers to reduce the administrative cost of handling communications. One significant result is the location independence of those whose messages are handled. Cellular mobile telephones wiB help in- crease this capacity. Where will people work when their location is not critical? Most will continue to work in traditional offices. Those offices, how- ever, may be physically separate from their immediate work group or subordinates, resulting in remote supervision. Certainly they will have a computer terminal or personal computer at home, but this will be used primarily after regular work hours and wiB either replace longer hours in the office or reduce the amount of work lugged home in a briefcase. As now, there will be informal arrangements or work at home in special cases such as maternity leaves and long-term disabilities. Others will work at home occa- sionally as many do now on an informal basis such as once a month or when facing an imminent deadline. The total amount of office space required to accommodate managers and profession- als will not be reduced significantly, although as previously noted, it may be allocated more efficiently. THE CONTRACT ORGANIZATION One response to economic uncertainty is to reduce the number of full-time salaried employees and purchase particular, special- ized skills as needed on a contract basis. An ideal contract organi- zation brings together significant numbers of personnel who would previously have been full-time employees but now contract out their specialized skills to different organizations. The em- ployee benefits through increased autonomy; if the skill is in short supply, the arrangement can be significantly more lucrative. The
128 THE FUTURE employee loses the protective benefits and job security of the or- ganization, however, and income levels may be uncertain. Retirement takes on a whole different meaning. Although the organization may benefit from its lean staffing, it loses employee commitment. Those motivational bases of work that depend on organizational membership contribution to production of goods and services, social interaction, and statusare lacking or signifi- cantly reduced (see Brief, pages 66-751. Technology permits a significant degree of location indepen- dence for those providing valued needs and services. Public data services, such as the Source, con be envisioned providing adver- tising to match individuals with an organization's requirements for specialists. This scenario assumes the requisite skills offered by the specialist and needed by the organization can be provided through computer and communications technology, or at least that the results of production can be transmitted electronically. THE HUMAN RESOURCES ORGANIZATION In another very different scenario, companies take innovative approaches to invest in human resources on a long-term basis. Organizations that are committed to long-term employment seek out methods of accommodating employees' nonwork needs through various work options. Work at home, either occasional or long term, is one option. Others are extended leaves of absence, job sharing, and flexible hours. Technology plays a significant part by facilitating that increased flexibility. Location indepen- dence, too, helps increase flexibility; employees might work at a regional office closer to home to reduce commuting time or choose work hours to allow time for nonwork responsibilities such as child care. How do each of these scenarios respond to individual and orga- nizational needs and pressures? ORGANIZATIONAL NEEDS AND PRESSURES In these times of economic uncertainty, we hear that businesses are continually seeking ways to increase their flexibility in em- ployee selection, retention, and termination. Employees with unique skills are especially susceptible to employment shifts if
THE POTENTIAL OF REMOTE WORK FOR PROFESSIOI!lALS 129 organizational demand for those skins is not consistent. At the same time, significant shortages of certain specialized skins, par- ticularly computer skins, continue to plague management. Many experiments with work at home are motivated by a need to attract and build a labor supply that would otherwise be unavailable. Pi- lot programs are thus targeted to those skins. Finally, as the costs of facilities continue to rise, companies seek ways to provide space while minimizing fixed capital costs and maximizing flexibility. Aspects of each of the three scenarios provide positive re- sponses to these organizational needs and pressures. Certainly the contract organization appears to be an efficient method for acquiring skills on an as-needed basis, thus improving organiza- tional flexibility. Facility costs are lower since they are borne by the individual. The human resources scenario, however, banks on the improved contributions of existing long-term employees when organizational commitment to their security is guaranteed. The location-independent scenario provides significant, organiza- tionwide flexibility, regardless of geographical location, for the utilization of employee skins and facilities. INDIVIDUAL NEEDS AND PRESSURES The United States is a nation in which the majority of two- parent households have both parents working outside the home, where women have entered the work force permanently in large numbers, and the number of single-parent families is steadily ris- ing. In today's work environment, employees need to accommo- date the demands of their nonwork lives as wed as the demands of their work. In this volume Judith Gregory writes of the female clerical workers who are trapped within a limited set of less-than-ideal choices. By way of comparison, do individual professional women suffer a similar fate? Or do they face a different, also less than ideal, set of options? A recent study showed that in the software development pro- fession, women are significantly underrepresented at middle management levels and dramatically nonexistent at higher levels of management.) This is particularly significant when one recalls that the software industry has always been touted for its lack of
130 THE FUTURE barriers to entry for women. Other minority groups have more severe underrepresentation. According to the author of the study report, "Blacks need not apply." Another recent study indicates that for professional couples who both work full time outside of the home, women continue to bear most of the responsibilities for child care and other aspects of household maintenance.2 At the same time, equality is expected in the office women must work as hard as men to get ahead. Is it any surprise that women are underrepresented at middle and up- per management levels, when the most important years for career development (i.e., ages 25 to 35) coincide with the most important years of childbearing? What does this have to do with work at home? Clearly, profes- sionals, especially women with family responsibilities, need greater flexibility in their work lives. Is work at home a good solu- tion to this need for flexibility? Is it better than other solutions such as high-quality affordable day care? In my own interviews with professionals working at home, ~ found that those who chose the arrangement strictly out of per- sonal preference were almost exclusively men. They often re- ported improved relationships with their children, but there was always someone else (usually a spouse) there full time to "keep the kids out of Daddy's hair while he's working." All of the women professionals ~ interviewed considered work at home a trade-off, reporting that although it is difficult and stressful to hold two jobs at the same time, it helps them keep their skills up-to-date and is "better than not working at all." In many cases the money is not as important as the intellectual stimulation. These women often live in suburban communities where the commute time, added to an S-hour workday, would be prohibitive. To ensure the concentration they need to perform their work at home, most have full-time babysitters, even live-in help. But the stress from role overload, role conflict, and social isolation is readily apparent. Many professional women choose the work-at-home option or leave their jobs for a more flexible alternative such as indepen- dent contract work at the point in their careers when they might otherwise achieve a higher level of management. In an organiza- tion where work at home might be institutionalized (as opposed to, for instance' corporate day-care facilities) another barrier to
THE POTENTIAL OF REMOTE WORK FOR PROFESSIONALS 131 higher levels of management is created since visibility is still key to promotability. What about mixing work and nonwork? Is it healthy for or det- rimental to families? This is still an empirical question. Today, however, with the imbalance in the division of responsibilities in a typical home, integration of work and nonwork activities can be highly stressful. I: prefer to think of a more positive approach to the problems of work versus nonwork for professionals, embedded in the philoso- phy of the human resources organization. In this view, a cafeteria of flexible work options are put in place for both men and women; work at home is only one option and can be combined with others. Since this sort of organization demonstrates a high level of com- mitment and trust in the individual, his or her response is to pro- duce high-quality work without being "policed." Long-term employment also can facilitate flexibility in career paths since employees do not have to endure the pressures of a short-term test of their career potential during critical years for family growth. Furthermore, true equality between men and women in our society wiD not be achieved until it is achieved in the workplace, and the combined scenarios of the location-indepen- dent and human resources organization can facilitate workplace equality by providing and encouraging greater flexibility for both men and women. CONCLUSIONS The alternative scenarios presented here are not mutually ex- clusive. ~ believe that we will see the implementation of moderate aspects of at least the first two scenarios in most large business firms. The degree to which any scenario changes an organization's structure is of course dependent on many factors besides technol- ogy primarily economics. The real point of these scenarios is to demonstrate that remote work at home has a broad interpretation when applied to professionals as members of an organization. With integrated computer and communications technology, it is possible to reduce the intellectual challenge of many jobs, both clerical and professional, through division of labor, routinization, and systematic de-skilling. It is also possible to monitor that
132 THE FUTURE work without the employee's knowledge. In such a work env~ron- ment, work at home can be an unhealthy extension of manage- ment tactics that discourage employee motivation and commit- ment in the office. On the other hand, new technology makes it possible to effec- tively decentralize control over work, shifting control to the indi- vidual or work group. Individuals working on contract enjoy this autonomy. In an organizational context, jobs can be designed to provide variety, enhance skies and knowledge of results and their effect on the organization, and increase individual autonomy over work sequencing and scheduling. Many professional jobs already have these characteristics. When nurtured in a management climate of openness and trust, work at home can be implemented as a simple extension of a high-quality work life. Thus, from the point of view of accomplishment, many potential problems posed by work-at- home programs are really problems of poorly designed jobs in an unhealthy management climate. In an environment where jobs are wed designed and there is a management climate of trust and openness, implementing work at home in a positive way is easy. The concerns that ~ have ex- pressed here also can be alleviated if the positive quality of work life is embedded in the long-term commitment to employee wel- fare in the human resources type of organization. IdeaBy, this high quality of work life and long-term commitment to employ- ees, in which work at home is a straightforward and positive op- tion, should be available to ad employees: clerical, professional, and managerial. NOTES 1. Kraft, Philip and Steven Dubnoff. Software workers survey. Computerworld, November 14, 1983, p. ID/3. 2. Blumstein, P., and P. Schwartz. American Couples: Money/Work/Sex. New York: William Morrow, 1983.