• United States

Telework by any other name is . . .

Oct 14, 20023 mins
Network SwitchesRemote Work

Let’s turn over the floor to some industry colleagues who’ve been invaluable in helping me understand the sticky topic of telework. One issue that never stops nagging me has to do with the terminology. Every time I use “telework”- or choose “telecommute,” “remote work” or “virtual work” over it – I’m just a bit uneasy. In one sense, they’re all right. In another, not one is quite right. What do we need a special word for anyway when it’s all just work? Then again, many overlapping terms create confusion and make it tough to get out the message of “alternative officing.” Here’s what some others think:

Jack Nilles, telework consultant: “This discussion has been going on for 29 years. When I first came up with the terms ‘telecommuting’ and ‘teleworking,’ to shorten the term ‘telecommunications-transportation tradeoff,’ my colleagues and I spent hours debating which to use. Finally, telecommuting won because in the 1970s commuting was being replaced by infotech, and most urban workers could relate to the stresses of the daily commute. Since then teleworking has been the more popular term among employers because it emphasizes work. All these terms, and their variants, will eventually disappear. Then it’ll just be back to work.”

Dr. Wendell Joice, research psychologist for the Office of Governmentwide Policy, U.S. General Services Administration: “There have been great pronouncements that thou shalt use ‘telework’. . . but still folks argue. Some Feds use the term ‘flexiplace,’ the media and Congress often use ‘telecommuting,’ and lay people often settle for ‘work-at-home.’ Some of my erstwhile and optimistic colleagues believe that the establishment of a standard term will cause great, wondrous and magical things to happen. Unfortunately, I do not share such comfort with the alleged power of a semantic solution!”

Gil Gordon, telework consultant and author of “Turn It Off”: “I’m starting to think that the sooner we start allowing telework as a separate term and concept to fade into the sunset, the better off we’ll all be. So long as we identify telework as something special, unique and different, the longer that novel terminology will breed skepticism. Why is it that nobody asks the same questions of field salesforces or other long-standing nonoffice-workers? I suspect it is the change from ‘work’ to ‘telework’ rather than telework itself that causes all the aggravation. Maybe if we drop the term we’ll lose the aggravation.”

Susan Tierney, the marketing coordinator at Valley Metro in Phoenix: “By placing labels on remote work it somehow separates it from work at the office and connotes that telework is less than work.”

Imogen Bertin of the U.K.’s Telework Association: “There is nothing wrong with the term ‘teleworking’ and I am highly suspicious of attempts to replace it with yet more jargon (such as e-working, which the European Commission favors).

“In the U.K. there was the famous name change of the nuclear plant Windscale, where there had been a number of accidents. Now it’s known as Sellafield but that doesn’t fool anyone. The experience made a lot of people suspicious of anything that has to change its name.”

Charlie Grantham, with the Institute for the Study of Distributed Work: “I prefer distributed work because it takes the emphasis off of technology. This is really about a new way of working in which teams are dispersed in time and space. Perhaps it’s a bit academic and somewhat lacking in sex appeal; but it’s what’s really happening.”