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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Teleports, sweatshops, and cocoons : an analysis of telecommuting Yardley, James Gregory


Telecommuting is a practice in which a person works at home with a computer terminal and communicates with their place of employment by telephone line or data link. Telecommuting is a relatively recent phenomenon, originating during the mid-1970's as a means for lowering energy consumption by reducing the need to commute between home and the workplace. Other factors promoting the adoption of telecommuting include rapid advances in computer and telecommunications technologies, and the shift in the economic structures of Western nations from being based primarily on extractive and manufacturing activities, to the provision of services, and knowledge-based activities in particular. There is considerable uncertainty about how many people telecommute. This is largely because of conflicting definitions of telecommuting, the lack of reliable or systematically collected data on the subject, and methodological difficulties in identifying telecommuters. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence and empirical studies have identified two principal types of telecommuters: (1) managerial, technical, or professional employees who generally work at home on an intermittent or part-time basis, and (2) clerical employees who perform routine or clearly defined tasks, usually on a full-time basis. The effects of telecommuting tend to be unevely distributed, with professional or managerial workers generally receiving more benefits and being less vulnerable to exploitation than clerical workers. Benefits to employees may include lower commuting costs, more flexibility in lifestyle and work scheduling, and improvements in working conditions. Potential disadvantages to employees include isolation, career impairment, conflict between work and non-work roles, and exploitation by employers. Advantages for employers include increased productivity, less employee turnover, and lower costs. The primary disadvantage employers face is limitations in managerial style; this may be the primary impediment facing the increased adoption of telecommuting. Suggested benefits to society include lower commuting costs, less traffic congestion, less energy consumption, and less air pollution. Potential societal disadvantages include increased urban sprawl and distortions to land markets. Factors external to telecommuting that are influencing its adoption include cultural attitudes to the home as a workplace, the development of office automation technologies, reactions by organized labour, and the processes of innovational diffusion. The spatial impact of telecommuting is uncertain. Research on the impact of telecommunications on urbanization suggests an inherent tendency towards spatial decentralization, and there is considerable speculation in the literature that telecommuting may lead to increased residential dispersion. There is, however, little, if any, empirical evidence supporting the latter notion. Telecommuting may be useful as a public policy device to promote certain identified societal goals such as reductions in energy consumption and pollution. This would require a reassessment of current zoning practices which often restrict home-based employment for reasons of doubtful legitimacy. Any policy-based encouragement of telecommuting should be accompanied, however, by the development of employment statutes and enforcement mechanisms that protect telecommuters against potential abuses.

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