of a Telecommuter
years ago, I became a commuter, one of the 3,000 federal employees
everyday before the sun to catch a train to Washington, DC,
where most of us work. My office, in the International Trade
Building, is almost exactly 70 miles southeast of the century
old station where we congregate every morning around 6:55.
In the winter, we wait in the dark, listening for the whistle
of the eastbound train and waiting for daylight to break over
the Blue Ridge mountains. In the fall, geese race over the
river that runs parallel to the tracks, with their wild screams
and parade formations, and in the spring, when the light finally
begins to arrive before we do, travelers who havent
spoken to one another through the dark months press against
the railing separating track from river and speculate about
the effect that melting ice and spring rain might have on
the rising water level.
at that! If it keeps up and the rain doesnt stop, itll
flood for sure!
nod our heads, especially if the speaker is an "old-timer,"
someone who had ridden the tracks when the old "Bud cars"
-- tin cars with narrow metal seats -- would lurch from station
to station, beset by small electrical fires that filled the
cars with smoke. You dont have to ride for long before
you understand that flooding means the train doesn't go any
further than the next station, where the tracks and the commuter
parking lot are so close to the river that even a negligible
imbalance between rain and shine can push the water over the
rails and into your car or truck.
is not the Metro, the sleek new underground system that circles
the city and whisks well-dressed professionals into town in
comfortable, climate-controlled silence. This is The Train,
descendent of the Iron Horse, a make-no-promises railriding
machine that might deliver you to Washingtons great
Union Station at 8:15 in the morning or set you down in the
middle of natures fury, where you wait while the conductor
goes out in the rain and works the waterlogged "switches"
manually -- or until "the guys with the equipment"
arrive and pull a downed tree off the tracks.
riders pack for the trip -- blanket, sweater, book, cd player,
the ubiquitous "travelers pillow." Some women
bring needlepoint or knitting. One guy never gets on in the
evening without a six-pack and a deck of cards.
best thing about commuting is the sense that it is possible
to inhabit two distinct worlds, one regulated by the hairspring
protocols of the urban professional, the other filled with
the surprise and delight of accommodating to events outside
of ones control. In the country, who you are is clearly
more important than what you do -- the only ladders youre
expected to climb are the kind that lean up against the gutters,
which always need cleaning, and the roof, which always needs
a small town, people take your measure quickly, which means
youre more likely to be known as "the lady who
takes in all those homeless cats," or "the fellow
who shovels the driveway down at the retirement home every
time it snows," than as the deputy secretary of anything
or the chief of staff to somebody. No matter how gilded ones
position may appear within the palace walls, in the country
youre just another one of those crazy fellows "who
works down in the city."
get me down there, no siree.
is a sense, halfway through the train ride toward the capital,
that you have entered a wormhole, a time tunnel that pulls
you forward at greater and greater speeds -- not just toward
a different place, but into another universe. On the return
trip at night, the reverse is true. It happens about 50 minutes
into the ride, after you cross the bridge over the first river.
foliage changes, the forest lining the tracks grows taller
and denser, the traffic noises fade into animal sounds and
the rhythms of water and wind. By the time we pass through
the tunnel Irish railroad workers blew though a mountain at
a place called Point of Rocks, the change is palpable. Men
loosen their ties, or take them off altogether, and when the
cars roar across the steel bridge spanning the Potomac and
the sky opens up across the water, there is a moment that
always feels like rediscovery, an exhilaration that beyond
this point, the mannerisms and constraints of urban life will
worst part of commuting? Building a life around a train schedule.
The seventy-mile commute by train, and the 15 minute trip
on the metroliner from Union Station to my office became a
ritual that dominated every other part of my life, a four-hour
journey coming and going that determined the shape of all
the hours and activities in between.
responsibility, every meeting I had to attend, every project
I had to complete, any opportunity to schedule an hour here
or there with my family depended on my ability to make a train
on time. Miss it and the consequences for my professional
and personal life were serious. Miss it routinely, or even
two days running and the results could be dire.
folks who inhabited my "day world," were baffled
by my move "to the hinterlands." Some seemed to
view it as a lack of commitment to my job. Commuter train
service was growing less reliable, a consequence of aging
equipment and increases in freight traffic. At work, my colleagues
were uninterested and incredulous when I attributed unexpected
delays or departures to forces that seldom touched their lives.
had three feet of snow up there?! It didnt even stick
to the ground here in DC!
is an old adage that says ninety-five percent of success is
just showing up. For much of the federal government, its
Rule Number One, and for some employees, an ideology theyre
happy to live with. But for others, for employees whose craft
cannot be measured in simple wage hours, the eight-hour confine
of a nine-to-five workday is more burden than blessing. Nevertheless,
for most federal supervisors, getting employees into their
carrels at a preappointed time and keeping them there, in
front of their computers, for the requisite eight hours per
day is what good management is really all about. Its
a hierarchical system, a cosmology so tightly ordered that
even the slightest change at one level jeopardizes the equilibrium
of the whole.
perspective belongs to the industrial age, when factory managers
relied on workers to operate the machinery purchased to feed
a new consumer class. The paradigm that bound together the
industrialist, the factory manager, floor supervisors and
workers was an unforgiving one, a social model that emphasized
control and an unquestioning submission to authority. The
ethos of widget-making.
that kind of thinking to a professional workforce, an environment
where productivity is synonymous with creativity, initiative
and sound, independent thinking, and you have a dilemma --
one whose resolution is too often low employee moral, erratic
performance and mediocre "outcome."
of commuter hours into my career, I got lucky. I happened
to cross paths with a federal organization that, remarkably,
had arrived at a similar conclusion -- The National Partnership
for Reinventing Government, task force operating under the
auspices of the Office of the Vice-President. The folks at
NPR seemed to think it didnt make much sense for a writer
to commute four hours a day, seven days a week, to work on
a computer in Washington, DC, when she had the same machine
available in her own house and the capability to forward the
finished product to a supervisor in a matter of seconds.
should be able to do a lot of this work from any worksite,"
they told me. "We encourage you to telecommute. Its
the way we want you to work."
But what about the hierarchy? Who would my manager manage?
Wouldnt his job be altered as well?
wasnt just working to change the way I did my job --
their mission was to help agencies "reinvent" the
federal bureaucracy, especially those agencies that serve
the most people. To change it in ways that would make it work
better, cost less and deliver results people care about.
a reinvented government, employees are trusted to do their
jobs and empowered to make decisions. And so in the new scheme
of things, managers have a new role, and its not command
and control. They involve all employees in shaping a clear
vision and a shared sense of mission. Technology -- computers,
telecommunications, the Web connects everything and
everyone. The organization gets flatter, information flows
faster -- much faster -- no matter where we do our work.
people might call it Quality Management. Other people might
call it innovative thinking. I thought it was common sense
-- for me, less travel equaled more time to write. Less physical
fatigue meant better use of energy needed to work. A quieter
environment translated into better concentration, more attention
to detail, more coherent work schedules and increased productivity.
people in my agency werent as convinced, not because
they didnt think my job was a natural "fit,"
but because, like any bureaucracy, they suspected long-term
one do it, and everybody will be storming the gate . . .
the end, however, my request was approved and there were a
lot of reasons for this. My agency had embraced the notion
of reinvention early on and had already received a number
of Hammer Awards for streamlining and improving processes
and customer service. My job -- as a speechwriter -- was tailormade
for telecommuting. My supervisor had confidence in the quality
of my work and the head of the agency understood technology
and the differences it was making.
was a deal. Three days at the General Services Administration
Telecenter .09 miles down the street where I lived - 2 days
back in Washington, DC for meetings and facetime with folks
who needed to know I was physically as well as virtually still
part of the "team."
benefits were immediate. Almost fifty hours of commuting eliminated
every month. One hundred dollars or more per month in hard
cash savings. Two and a half hours of extra sleep every night.
I had a chance to see what my house looked like in the daytime,
a pleasure Id been denied six months out of the year
when I left for the train station before dawn and got home
after dark. I became a real member of my community, someone
people began to wave to and call by name. I started to bank,
shop and participate in the life of the town, and to schedule
my work day in ways that enhanced my productivity -- telephone
calls, email and research in the morning, actual writing through
the late afternoon and often into the evening -- impossible
when 4:45 meant a race to the train station.
the Telecenter, the day belonged to me. I could shape it and
stretch it to accommodate the fits and starts of the creative
process. If a phrase Id been looking for or a segue
I needed presented itself at an unlikely time, or in an unlikely
place -- at home, in the shower, in the middle of the night
-- I could get to my computer in minutes to make the changes
I used to jot down and lose in the blackhole that is my briefcase.
at "The Office"
the days I reported to the office "downtown," life
was different as well. As fragmented as my days continued
to be at Headquarters, the telephone calls, interruptions,
scheduled, rescheduled and cancelled meetings no longer seemed
as threatening to my work or my productivity as they once
did. I knew there were three days out of every week to do
what I was being paid to do. I accepted the fact that the
days spent at Headquarters were for other business, and without
the anxiety that juggling writing and administrative tasks
had once produced, I got better at tasks -- the meetings,
the interoffice activities -- that Id once resented.
had different ideas of what it meant to be a telecommuter.
"Hello, STRANGER," theyd shout at me in the
hall. "Glad to see you were able to make it in!"
To many of them, telecommuting was synonymous with goldbricking.
If the bureaucracy had made prisoners of us all, logic dictated
that any employee who managed to escape the scrutiny of his
or her supervisors would scale the wall at the earliest opportunity.
I got a lot of winks and knowing smiles - "Getting a
lot done out there, are you?"
get me wrong. There were colleagues who understood the initiative
and who loved technology almost as much as they loved the
idea of shaking up the government -- bringing it into the
21st century. They wanted to know it all -- how did I get
the agency to approve my participating in the initiative --
how long would I be allowed to telecommute - what was the
telecenter like -- the equipment, the support, the people
-- and how could they take advantage of this same opportunity?
have all the answers to all the questions -- except for the
the popularity of the telecommuting initiative, its workability
and its implications for the future of work -- even government
work -- in America, some federal agencies are moving very
slowly and resistance to the initiative is common. My telecenter
in the mountains is housed in an 18th century building once
filled with mill workers, foot soldiers in the industrial
revolution. No traces of them or the production equipment
that once held them captive remains -- only the weathered
facade of the building reminds visitors that something other
than the sleek modern facility housed inside today even existed.
think of those factory employees sometimes, as I sit at my
computer and watch electricity transform itself into language
and thought in front of me. I think of how some newly hired
mill worker must have marveled at the sophistication of the
machinery that filled the room where I now sit, -- how modern
and final it must have all seemed -- the end of progress.
telecenter where I continue to spend much of my workweek is
struggling to stay open. There are more employees using its
facilities, but an increasing number are from the private
rather than the public sector.
matter. We do know one thing for sure out here in the hinterlands.
We understand forces beyond our control, rising water and
flames on the tracks ahead, the inevitability of change, the
delight of accommodating to it, how mills turn into high-tech
worksites, and the rule that says there is no end of progress.
Millar is a speechwriter at the National Partnership for Reinventing
Government (NPR), representing the U.S. Customs Service, Department
of the Treasury. During her ten year federal career, she has
written speeches for cabinet secretaries, heads of agencies
and members of Congress. Ms. Millars work has appeared
in a number of publications, including The Washington Post
and Vital Speeches of the Day, and she teaches
a graduate course in speechwriting and rhetoric at The Catholic
University of America, Washington, DC. Before coming to work
for the government, Ms. Millar worked as a writer and reporter
for a major newspaper and several well-known periodicals.
Ms. Millars interests include political rhetoric and
she is currently researching the rhetorical challenges facing
women who choose to run for national office.
may contact her in town, (202) 694-0105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may also reach her at the telecenter near her home at
(304) 728-3051, ext. 255 or email@example.com.
A Fact Sheet