If you were in Washington for the big snowstorm of February 2010, or Snowmageddon, then you remember over 20 inches of snow that reduced the city to a frozen standstill. Streets were blocked with unplowed snow, electrical power was lost, supermarkets were laid bare, and schools were closed for days. Among those impacted by the storm were the 2 million members of the Federal government workforce. Most being commuters from adjoining jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia, these employees found getting to and from offices in D.C. a dangerous proposition that could only have been made safer with sled dogs. Well, we got through it, and the snow melted, but it left something more than salt in its wake. It left…teleworking.
Based on the premise that networking technology and residential broadband was finally ubiquitous enough that Federal workers could securely and effectively work from home, in December 2010, with worries of another snowstorm pending, the Obama administration signed the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. This Act gave specific guidelines on how to manage teleworking in the Federal government, especially in cases of emergency, natural or otherwise.
Two years later, and as we once again approach winter, I’m compelled to reflect on teleworking and how it has impacted the way we work. What was new legislation then is commonplace now. Note of caution - I don’t work in the Federal government and never have, but I have many friends who do, and Federal government technology issues is a bit of a hobby of mine. Also, like most of us, I telecommute often. But as we now take this capability for granted, what is its true value?
I think teleworking is a way to keep the machine going when every other option is prohibitive, whether in time, money or resources. When the roads are blocked, or you have a sick child to care for, or must have meetings with parties spread out geographically, these teleworking platforms – video conferencing, conference calls, shared servers, web chat and all the rest that help us keep in touch, are a godsend. Back in the old days (70’s? 80’s?) if it couldn’t get done, that was it. Today, you can use your tablet while in the airport to access the office server, find a document, edit it, and send it to a colleague, all while enjoying a Cinnabon.
Now while this is all well and good – actually awesome – I’d like to posit that something is lost when collaborating in cyberspace. Ever been in a meeting, and a co-worker gets that look that they just had an inspiration, and then that inspiration riffs around the table into an idea, and then that idea snowballs into a plan, and so on and so on? That collaborative energy, the energy that makes our work exponentially more effective (and exciting), only really truly happens in person. Innovation strikes when people are face-to-face, writing and erasing on a smartboard, arguing, agreeing, and building upon each other.
Increasingly I see folks using all of the great technology that we have to telework when its not necessary. Telework is not a substitution for in-person collaboration. It allows us to work and collaborate effectively in certain circumstances, and I am a huge fan of it, but lets remember, it doesn’t replace the real thing.
Now, don’t forget the anti-freeze this winter.
By Al Black