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A Gathering of None

A Gathering of None: Teleworking in a Time of Crisis discusses the AH1N1 virus and its effects on teleworking.
Written May 05, 2009, read 875 times since then.


Teleworking has long been one of the holy grails of modern business. There were predictions 50 years ago that the new age worker would never leave his home. He would telecommute using telephone and document telegraphy.

Today, many companies have indeed outsourced some of their functions to third party vendors both domestic and offshore. This type of third-party outsourcing is more a cost saving measure than a new business model. True teleworking, the substitution of information technologies for normal work-related travel, moving the work to the workers instead of moving the workers to work, has still not really been accepted. Most business is still personal. A contract is between two persons and usually you want to be able to "look the other person in the eye" when you make a deal.

There are times, however, when it becomes more important to maintain a critical distance. As I write this, we are in the early days of the H1N1 pandemic. Yesterday the World Health Organization raised its threat level to Five, asking member countries to activate their pandemic contingency plans.

Schools are closing. Conventions are being canceled. Travel is becoming worrisome if not dangerous. It is too early to know if this pandemic will be as serious as some people think. Regardless, it is the perception that we have to worry about right now.

If people will not travel, if people are avoiding crowds, if meetings are difficult to arrange, then Teleworking becomes an important part of the solution. Business must continue. If people are becoming hesitant about face-to-face meetings, then business will adapt to working from afar. 

It is not only in times of disease that Teleworking is important. Economic and political upheaval also restricts travel either because it becomes too expensive to travel or too dangerous to travel. In such times business must be flexible, must be able to work from afar, and must succeed in designing a new business model. This has been the normal state of business in many countries around the world for many years now.

The question for us is how far you can take this idea of Teleworking and apply it to aspects of your business. Certain facets like call centers and design services are more easily adaptable to outsourcing and telecommuting. But how do you handle a sales and marketing team when you cannot beat the pavement in the traditional manner?

Just look at your daily mail. Marketing in a time of economic crisis has long been thought to be one of the keys to survival. We are inundated with advertising. The growth of websites as a means of putting your information out to the public has been incredible in the last 10 years.

What about more traditional business operations? For instance is it possible to conduct a medical practice without having the patient in an examination room? These days it is. There are many programs worldwide where images taken in areas with no power, including images from cell phones, are transmitted to distant health centers for diagnosis. Even robotic surgery is becoming a reality. Surveillance and combat operations in far-flung areas of the world are being conducted remotely from personnel stationed here at home.

So is it possible for a business like my own, a business consulting company, to operate remotely? Throughout the years it was believed in my sector that effective business marketing required a call center, a sales force, analysts, and finally in-house consultants. That was the traditional model. Now, with economic and medical concerns in mind, we are working toward a new paradigm.

Our assumption is that most of our consulting work can be done remotely because business consulting no longer requires an on-site presence. We can teleconference, work in our own office, and implement deliverables from afar.

As part of this, we are working hard to make sales become a function of telecommunications and Internet activity. In our sector, which requires financial records to be reviewed, basic information is easily moved over the Internet for initial analysis in our offices. Training and suggestions for restructuring are communicated through video conferencing and other long-distance methods.

While a physical presence in client offices is still required in some instances, we are designing a new business model that takes the consultant out of the client's office for much of the time. This saves us travel, the client money, and all of us peace of mind.

Originally we thought this to be purely a cost-saving measure. In the last week we have found that our model also fits into the new medical necessity.

Teleworking in a true sense has been slow in acceptance. Low fuel prices, easy travel, and the personal nature of business have made it slow to be implemented. Economic and medical turmoil are moving Teleworking from a long-term goal to a short-term necessity for many businesses. Pathfinders is leading the way.

Learn more about the author, George Whitfield.

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