I first became aware of and an advocate for “telecommuting” or “flexplace” as New Ways to Work’s newest way to work in 1986. NWW’s visionary founders–and my mentors–Barney Olmsted and Suzanne Smith had already spent a decade promoting flexible or redesigned work in the form of professional part-time, job sharing, flextime and compressed schedules, among others.

It had been an uphill climb as companies and managers frequently appeared to be mathematically challenged as they argued against these changes. Fractional work–dividing full-time work into part-time or shared portions–or spreading a full schedule over four longer days was approached as if one were tackling insoluble quadratic equations.

Flash forward three decades and of these four options, only flextime–the one truly full-time schedule–has become widely practiced. The practice of converting regular full-time positions with benefits and promotional paths into professional part-time roles remains modest. The usage of compressed schedules continues a long downhill slide. And job sharing is largely mentioned far more often that it is offered. (See the 2015 “Trends in Workplace Flexibility” report by FlexJobs & WorldatWork.)

Telecommuting’s upward trajectory

In the 1980s and 1990s, advocating for telecommuting was a refreshing change. Skeptical employers faced no math dilemmas or challenging schedules. After all, telecommuters worked full-time-plus. The recurring and dominant barrier was the simple, but endlessly repeated question: “How will I know they’re working if I can’t see them?” I remember animated discussions with corporate champions, early telecommuters, and consultants whose reaction to this query was: “REALLY?”

Yes, face time writ large really was the big challenge. Fortunately it didn’t prove fatal over time. I’m sure that the readers of this blog have had conversations picking apart the folly of face time as a metric for productivity, results, etc. We all have our favorites, but my preferred back-and-forth opened with the question: “How will I know they’re working if I can’t see them?” and was met with the reply “How do you know they’re working now?”

Over many years and in thousands of settings, compelling arguments, productivity proofs, real estate savings, and employee demand drove what is now commonly referred to as “telework” from rarity to ubiquity. Whether telework is formal or informal, fully home-based or occasional, it has become widely accepted and is growing dramatically.

Where is the value and where is the danger in the triumph of telework?

Over the last several years a new equation has emerged in the flex arena: flexibility = telework. In corporate programs, the media and conferences and among consultants and writers “telework” has become almost synonymous with flexible work. There is the occasional whisper about part-time, rare mention of compressed, and near silence about phased retirement and job sharing. Increasingly, any organization is deemed flexible if it offers some form of telecommuting. Millennials are said to only want telework. And sophisticated telework toolkits abound.

The danger of triumphal telework is that it will overshadow all other options, and shrink the actual flexibility of flexibility. It may also inadvertently reinforce the long hours, full-time work ethos that the original alternative work schedules were designed to challenge. Finally it has the potential to discourage employers–and employees–from taking on the more challenging options that could achieve significant business and personal objectives.

The value of transcendent telework is that it has created a deep challenge to the historic linkage of work and place. From enhanced mobility within and around the office to being fully functional offsite occasionally or full-time, the fluid process of work being done is being matched by the fluid locations in which it is done.

If the fluidity of work place can be complemented by the fluidity of work time, telework will have played a groundbreaking function.

Flexwork including telework

Change does not arise spontaneously. Millions of people at every stage brought about the new way of working we call telework. And those same people and their colleagues can help right the balance to support other forms of flexibility. For example, as part of the ongoing process of expanding telework, let’s seek promotion, usage, and tracking of:

  • Part-time (50-95%) with assured promotional paths and pro-rated benefits
  • Job Sharing strengthened by advertising options, job boards and pairing support
  • Compressed Weeks broadened with 4/10s, 9/80s,4.5 days, “summer hours,” and more
  • Partial Retirement (+/-80%) as multi-year option with knowledge transfer
  • Phased Retirement (90>80>70>60%) multi-year, work redesign, knowledge transfer

The dynamism of telework–the rapid innovations in work place–can animate the serious re-working of work time. Expanding the forms and users of flexibility can strengthen the flexible workplace. How much it does will depend on the perspective and advocacy of all of us.

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