Future Friday: Does telecommuting cause a digital divide?

I have written a number of times that the part of the future of work is both telecommuting and a free-agent workforce. More and more companies are using or allowing a greater freedom in telecommuting. More companies are using independent contractors who do not have to be present to perform the work that can be done digitally. I think this is a great move that will improve lives and productivity for a large number of people. But let’s face it not all jobs can be teleworked and it is the contention of some that this is digital divide is leaving a segment of workers behind.

You can’t telecommute cleaning the carpet

There are just some jobs that cannot be telecommuted. Painting the walls, cleaning the office floor, putting out the fire, arresting criminals, fixing the broken air conditioner or heater, or unclogging the toilets cannot be done over the Internet. Many people think that jobs like call centers or retail operations cannot be telecommuted, but that is not correct, it just takes creativity. There is one airline that has there call center operators workout of their homes. Amazon is showing that you don’t need a retail store to sell goods. Nonetheless someone still has to show up for those jobs that require person-to-person interaction. Even if we “robotize” those jobs the robots will still have to show up.

Who is left to do those jobs?

It is the contention of author Skylar Baker-Jordan that the people left to do these non-telecommuting jobs are increasingly the blue collar worker or poor and under-educated. They increasingly, due to rising costs, have to live further and further from the places at which they work, subsequently spending more time and money commuting. He quotes a study for the Office of National Statistics in the U.K. found that “commuters have lower life satisfaction, a lower sense that their daily activities are worthwhile, lower levels of happiness and higher anxiety on average than non-commuters.” Commuting by bus is much less agreeable than commuting by plane.

Damaging to the ultimate economy?

What is bad for these lower income workers is also bad for the economies of the cities in which they work. Baker-Jordan quotes Toby Lloyd, the head of policy at Shelter, who told The Financial Times “If a city can’t provide the homes its nurses, teachers, shop workers, and cleaners can afford, eventually it will choke off its own economic success.” That will certainly be bad news.

How do we solve this dilemma?

One suggestion for solving this dilemma is to provide subsidies for those workers who cannot perform work on a telecommuting basis. Helping offset the cost of their commuting would relieve some of the burden. That however, will not alleviate the necessity of actually traveling to the job, which takes time. Unfortunately Baker-Jordan does not have an answer, and currently neither do I.

We are creating another class in our societies of telecommuter and non-telecommuter that one day may boil over into difficult situations. In HR we need to be aware of how we are affecting our cultures and our workforces when we expand our telecommuting efforts.

Photo credit: anankkml

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Originally posted on Omega HR Solutions blog. 



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