Telecommuting: The New Wave of Workplace Technology Will Create a Flood of Change in Social Institutions
Raines, J. Patrick, Leathers, Charles G., Journal of Economic Issues
This paper addresses through a "Veblenian lens" the evolutionary impact of telecommuting on social institutions. According to a survey by the International Telework Association and Council, 19.6 million US-based workers telecommuted in 1999 (Kahifia and Davidson 2000); 40 percent of employees could telecommute some of the time, and 56 percent of companies with more than 5,000 employees offer telecommuting opportunities. Telecommuters perceive the consequences of the alternative workplace to be an improved quality of home, work, and social life resulting from more flexible work schedules and reduced travel costs and time. However, some respondents worry that telecommuting may exert a negative impact on employee career development.
Telecommuting will have profound and permanent effects on many of the social relations which exist in the US economy. It has the potential to change the arrangement of child care and educational institutions, revolutionize family relationships, radically alter the wage bargain, shift the distribution of income to the technologically literate, affect marital relations, and foster a social consciousness that is centered in individual independence and freedom.
Veblen thought the mental habits of technical workers were heavily influenced by industrial technology, where all the machines had to run smoothly. This paper investigates these hypotheses by analyzing the impact this new technology of the workplace will have on the evolution of relations of production and social institutions.
At least three areas of the impact of this new technology on social institutions can be identified. First, the conflict between employees and management should be considered. Telecommuting may alter the wage bargain as workers increase their productivity by working at home. Productivity has increased 30 percent in some telecommuting industries. This has forced project managers to re-evaluate standard performance measures for employees. As Veblen noted, as the division of interest grows between the business community who do business for the absentee owners and the underlying population who work for a living, a high degree of mutual distrust is engendered (Veblen 1921, 106--107). Second, we will examine the benefits and costs of telecommuting. Proponents argue that telecommuting increases productivity, lowers real estate costs, lowers pollution and congestion from commuting, and reduces absenteeism. Critics contend there will be alienation from office dynamics and loneliness leading to stress in families and eventual failure of many telecommuting programs. A cynical Veblenian interpretation of these effects is that they represent a "conscientious withdrawal of efficiency" (10). Finally, recent public policies toward telecommuting as well as alternative policy options need to be evaluated to improve the organization of society. Recently, the National Telecommuting and Air Quality Act promoted telecommuting by allowing companies clean-air pollution credits for allowing employees to work at home. However, attempts by OSHA to regulate the home work environment have diminished corporate interest in extending telecommuting. Thus, the US government has a confused policy toward telecommuting. The Veblenian question becomes: Are the moves by the nations' lawgivers and administrators to regulate the use of technology designed to increase the nation's output and security or to benefit those interests that control the nations resources by obstructing the use of available technology? By considering the effects telecommuting will have on mental habits this paper will contribute to the basic research which is essential for developing effective policies toward telecommuting.
The Veblenian Effects of Computer Technology
In this section, we offer a Veblenian perspective on the behavioral effects of the type of technology that is driving the New Economy and creating a workplace that is peopled by telecommuters. …