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November 1997

Commentary by Cynthia Froggatt

The Bare Naked Truth ABout Telework

Cynthia C.FroggattOn August 20, 1997, Sue Shellenbarger's "Work & Family" column in the Wall Street Journal took on the advertisers: "Madison Avenue May Need to Alter Image of '90s Telecommuter." The ads depicting telecommuters as bunny slipper-clad, pajama-wearing women who decline to shower on work-at-home days are inaccurate and unfair, according to Ms. Shellenbarger. Yes, as she pointed out, the majority of telecommuters are male, and as her small sample indicated, most shower and dress for work (even though no one may see them). I felt the issue was a much larger one and wrote the following response:

I would broaden the notion to say that U.S. organizations, and possibly society in general, must alter their image of the worker and work. (I m not sure we can blame Madison Avenue for this one.) Only then, will remote work or telework truly flourish. Let me explain.


Regardless of what you are wearing (pajamas, bunny slippers, or nothing), are you working if no one can see you? We've never fully made the transition from manual labor to knowledge-based working. It is very easy to see when a farmer or factory-worker, construction worker, etc. is working because they are expending physical energy on visible tasks. In fact, it could be argued that the harder one is working, the more they sweat (so there is a visible hierarchy of effort).

 

 This doesn't translate well to white-collar work. So we have created a complex system of visual cues to signify that (or give the impression that) someone is working. "The office" is a stage where people "perform their work" for others to see. Wearing a business suit, sitting behind a desk, talking on the phone, being in a meeting, operating a computer, bumping into the CEO in the parking lot at 9 pm, among other activities, send a message that the performer is hard at work. Technology has bumped it up a notch - sending e-mail, faxes, voice-mails (especially at odd hours) gives the impression of productivity. And frankly, all these activities might result in very high quality work. But then again, the movement toward casual dress codes is proof that our brains operate just as well when we are wearing jeans as when we are wearing a Tahari suit.

 

Pajama-wearing need not convey a negative image. Scott Adams, as a ten-year-old, identified his desire for a life-long career that would allow him to work in his pajamas. As he explained in a recent presentation at the alt.office conference, cartoonist seemed to be the only achievable option, having rejected the three other choices he felt permitted pajama-work: pope, supreme court justice, and Hugh Hefner's job as head of the Playboy empire. We all know that after a detour into corporate life, he successfully realized his goal. Imagine a world devoid of Dilbert had that ten-year-old set the lofty goal "to wear a suit and tie and sit in a big office" for his working years.

 

I understand your concern about the TV ads depicting an inaccurate image of telecommuters, but on the positive side, the ads do at least challenge the myth that you can only be productive in the "appropriate business trappings." In all the ads I've seen, the teleworker is shown to be a high performer. It seems that we struggle with measuring performance quality so we often rely on the look of work rather than the results.

 

Knowledge work is not something to be observed with the eye. I confess, I was one of those annoying students in college and grad school who didn't appear to colleagues to be working very hard. I sat in the back of the class, rarely went to professors' office hours, did not put in much face-time at the library, read the assignments the night before the exam, sat down to type a major paper six hours before it was due, and was rewarded with A's and B's. Fortunately, I was graded on the basis of quality of result, not some outdated notion of how hard work should look.

 

The fact is, I was "working" when people thought I was playing or at least not paying attention. I could hear as much from the back of the class as those in the front. I was thinking about the term paper when I was walking, cycling, showering, etc. But others couldn't see me thinking. They could see someone typing, reading, talking to a professor after class, or sitting in the library, but these activities don't necessarily translate into a quality product reflecting innovative thinking.

 

We grapple with similar issues in the workplace. Remote work of any kind challenges the paradigm of visual monitoring of work, and this raises anxiety levels among management and non-management alike. It is comforting to think that getting up, showering, dressing, going to the office, and chatting with colleagues over coffee will be interpreted as "strong commitment to work" before you've even turned the computer on. Re-defining, or abandoning, the old "face-time" measurement of performance is difficult, but successful teleworkers are leading the way.

 

I congratulate MCI and the other advertisers for getting more people talking about telecommuting, and for depicting a productive, flexible, fun and growing way to work.

 

As for my personal telecommuting style, I dispense with the pajamas and bunny slippers, opting instead to be naked for about the first hour of phone-calling and e-mailing, then I shower. Do I miss nylon stockings and the rush-rush of the office? No. Do I feel better about my performance? Absolutely! Do I think having the freedom to work where, when, and how I choose might work for others? Definitely. Change is always an opportunity for learning.

 

Sue Shellenbarger printed excerpts of my letter in a September 24, 1997, letters column entitled, "These Telecommuters Just Barely Maintain Their Office Decorum." On the morning it appeared in the Wall Street Journal, I sent an e-mail message to everyone in my address book. The subject line read, "work naked." The message encouraged recipients to look for my "insightful and revealing commentary on telework" in that day's paper. The response has been overwhelming!

 

The majority of respondents applauded my honesty. They agreed that liberating ourselves from the trappings (and politics) of most corporate environments leads to greater creativity. And they shared their own quirky workstyle secrets.

 

Some, though, were a little less enthusiastic: "Aren't you afraid your clients will wonder whether you are clothed or not when they phone you?" CF response: I m not curious about what they are wearing. Why should they care about me? Besides, I am judged on the results I achieve for my clients, not appearance. "I m concerned that you might catch a cold."

 

CF response: Indeed, medical research has confirmed that you do not catch a cold from being cold!

"Working naked wouldn't work for me because ..." (There were several of these.) CF response: Hey, you know, whatever works for you! Saying everyone should work naked would be as crazy as, for instance, saying everyone should work in a business suit (oooops, we've done that, haven t we?) ...

 

The dialogue generated by the article became the catalyst for a more thorough investigation. Now, I am working with Marilyn Zelinsky - author of New Workplaces for New Workstyles (to be published in January) - on a book entitled, Work Naked: Uncovering Productivity Secrets of the Virtual Office. Our goal is to profile individuals and teams who have fully exploited the freedom to work how, when, and where they are most creative and productive.

 

We are looking for candidates who have pushed the envelope in building "a context (or contexts) for creativity" from an entrepreneurial or corporate teleworker perspective. I invite you to be part of the "Work Naked" dialogue by contacting me at c.froggatt@worldnet.att.net - tell me your story! I m listening ... [By the way, please interpret "Work Naked" in the figurative (freed from the bondage of corporate trappings) as well as the literal sense.]


Cynthia C. Froggatt, principal of Froggatt Consulting, has spent the last 13 years advising clients on aligning their real estate/facilities strategies with their business plans. New work directions, such as telework, virtual office, and non-territorial offices, are an important part of the strategic facilities plan. She studied environmental psychology, has a master's degree from Cornell University in Facilities Planning and Management, and is a frequent presenter on new work directions and strategic facilities planning.


Froggatt Consulting's approach to projects emphasizes employee involvement and non-traditional solutions to leverage human and technological resources and optimize capital investments. Use of the Job Activities Analysis (to analyze how, when, and where work is accomplished) is an integral aspect of the change management process.

 

Cynthia works from her virtual office in Manhattan and is not a fan of video-conferencing!!!

Cynthia C. Froggatt
c.froggatt@worldnet.att.net

Copyright © 1997 - Cynthia C. Froggatt

Photograph Copyright © 1997 - Jean Pierre Bonin 

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