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Telecommuting: A Worker's Paradise?


Have you ever fantasized about becoming a telecommuter? Ever ask yourself why you spend hours driving to work when everything you need can be e-mailed, faxed, or downloaded right to your home computer? Wouldn't it be great to work in your robe, at the hours you choose, and never again have to pretend that you aren't reading about Michael Jordan's hangnail on your favorite sports Web site? And best of all, no more meetings!

Alright, maybe you haven't (liar), but I certainly have. And for the past several months I have been living the dream. My office is only 10 steps away from both my kitchen and my living room. My new professional wardrobe is heavy on tee-shirts, jeans, and sandals. My nearest co-worker is probably about 2000 miles away, unless by some miraculous coincidence my next door neighbor is also a freelance science writer. I love it.

And I'm definitely not alone in choosing this particular alternative career path. Corporate downsizing, outsourcing, and the rise of the Internet has spawned a new breed of worker bee with its own distinctive buzz. If you have ever been to Kinko's at 11 in the morning, you know that there are millions of telecommuters out there, each well-armed with a laptop, a cell phone, and a year's supply of FedEx envelopes. There are even entire comic strips devoted to the peculiar telecommuter culture that has sprung up around office supply stores, coffee shops, and Friday matinee movies.

But contrary to what you may have read in the paper, telecommuting isn't about technology. Telecommuting is about professional relationships and how they change when they are mediated by technology.

When I left the traditional office behind, I also left behind a lot of friends. Sure, I can live without having to listen to my officemate argue with her son and ex-husband over the phone, but I miss our discussions of the many flaws of secondary school science education. And hearing about the endless trials of our cranky, sleep-deprived administrative assistant was tiring, but her caffeine-fueled post-customer-service-call commentaries on our clients were inspired comic riffs.

Now, I share my days with Maggie, the golden retriever who takes up most of the legroom beneath my desk, and Sacha and Tam Lin, two geriatric cats collectively known as "the periscopes" because of the way they hold their tails. Outside my window is a complete menagerie: Mr. and Mrs. Jay, the blue jays, Squirrely the squirrel, Cutie the baby opossum, and several lizards. I don't name the lizards because they are always changing color and confusing me. Also, they have a disturbing tendency to get "downsized" by the periscopes.

With only animals to keep me company, I rarely miss an opportunity for human contact. I am fast becoming friends with the FedEx guy, and I always get a smile of recognition from the drive-through bank teller. These little things mean so much to me that I felt betrayed and rejected the day the teller asked me if I knew that I could deposit checks in the automated teller machine. And I rarely let a phone interview end without asking about the weather, which can be very confusing if the interviewee thinks that this information will be going into my story.

But despite the occasional bouts of loneliness, I enjoy the weirdness of telecommuting. How many people do you know who have been called away from cleaning the toilet to discuss economic theory with the latest Nobel-prize winner on the eve of the Stockholm awards ceremony? While he was complaining about having to buy a tuxedo and explaining his plans to renovate his castle with the prize money, I was trying to ask intelligent questions, take notes, and figure out how to get the rubber gloves off my hands without putting my fingers in my mouth.

The Spy is a scientist living and job-searching somewhere in the Western half of the United States.

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