The revolution in telecomputing - which combines computers, software and telecommunications - is changing everything about the way we live, work, play, learn and move around. With innovations like electronic city halls and electronic town meetings, it is even changing the way we govern.
One of the major impacts of the telecomputing revolution is in the workplace where - in the words of a new report by the Center for the New West, Cornell University's International Workplace Studies Program and the Claremont Graduate School - "the old model of everyone coming to a single workplace, usually at about the same time, is breaking down."Alternatives to the traditional office - distributed work, telework, team offices - are now being tried for a variety of reasons.
First, from professionals to craft workers and the self-employed, people are experimenting with new and more flexible approaches to how they work. With each passing day, more people are working at home. Indeed, more than 41 million people now work at home sometime during the week - including more than 12 million who work at home full time.
Others work at telework business centers and other "remote" locations that are closer to home and linked to the central office by modems, faxes, e-mail and teleconferencing facilities.
These alternative workplace sites are often cheaper and almost always more convenient than traditional arrangements - though there can be significant downsides for the employee, especially if the enterprise has failed to develop a fully integratred workplace strategy that makes it easy for those working at remote sites to stay "in the loop."
Second, the organizations that employ people are experimenting with more flexible approaches to workplace management. The original attraction was to reduce costs. But cost savings, it turns out, are often illusory and enterprises end up spending more for computers, mobile phones and other technology. Result: Savings from rent are often absorbed in new costs for technology.
That's why more organizations are attracted to telecomputing technologies to increase productivity. For example, employers are experimenting with flextime, job-sharing, home-working and other approaches to work force management that increase productivity by improving morale, decreasing absenteeism or decreasing employee turnover.
At a time in our culture when more two-wage-earner families are seeking new ways to combine work and family responsibilities, having policies and mechanisms for more flexible working arrangements that permit different lifestyles is a way to attract and retain the highest quality staff and thereby win in an increasingly competitive labor market.
New telecomputing technologies also improve productivity by using "distributed work" to improve the quality and speed of service - as shown by the FedEx dispatcher, armed with a "tracker" (a wireless communications device) that registers pick-up, way-points and delivery times and locations without any paperwork in a central office.
Third, transportation capacity limits - in plain English, gridlock - make commuting increasingly difficult, more time-consuming and more stressful for employees. Result: More people are experimenting with alternatives to morning commutes made necessary by their decision to seek affordable housing more readily available in far-flung suburbs.
Fourth, air pollution and the need to comply with government regulations is requiring enterprises in areas that violate state or federal air quality standards to find ways to reduce employee travel.
So many new workplace models are emerging to replace the traditional commute to the traditional office. Some will work. Some won't. But each represents how technology and values interact to create whole new ways of living and working in a free society.