Are We Farmers, Factory Workers or Ideas People?

The telework discussion has become a surrogate for a broader conversation on the very nature of work. How we manage knowledge workers is (or should be) very different from how we have done so over the past 200-plus years.
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When I started writing this blog last year, a friend asked me what I was going to say. Of course, I told her I was planning to write about telework. "You know, working from home or someplace other than your office," I said. It's becoming a big deal in the government, and lots of private companies are already on-board, I told her. She gave me that smile that friends give when they are happy that you are happy, but they don't really understand why anyone would pay for whatever it is you are buying or selling. "No, really," I said, "this is big."

I'm beginning to think I was right, and even my friend is coming around. Why, you say? On the government side, it's clear that some recent legislation, the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, had a huge impact on the visibility of telework, but I don't believe that is the only reason. On the private side, the financial crisis and global economy made finding cost savings (e.g., reducing real estate) a major corporate goal, but I don't think that was the only driver. Both government and corporate organizations are interested in sustainability, retention and recruitment and business continuity, but even so, why have we reached a tipping point on this issue?

My theory is that the telework discussion has become a surrogate for a broader conversation on the very nature of work. How we manage knowledge workers is (or should be) very different from how we have done so over the past 200-plus years. When this nation was founded, we were mostly farmers, and family farmers at that. Almost everyone "worked from home," but it meant something different than it does today. Your boss was your dad, and a conversation about your performance went something like, "Is the far field plowed yet, Son?"

As we moved from farming to factory work, we changed where we work and also how we managed that work. We developed the separate concepts of management and labor and their respective roles (on the family farm everyone is labor). Management supervises and leads the workforce to produce better, cheaper and more of whatever it is that we make. Everyone came to the factory to work, and it was easy to measure productivity (quantity of goods - defective goods / time).

But today, we don't make "stuff" much anymore in the U.S.; we make ideas. Our standard of living has grown past the point where anyone other than us would pay the cost of our goods, and even we don't want to pay that much for most things. This is not necessarily a bad thing (I will leave that discussion to other bloggers), but the simple point is that we are now service workers and knowledge workers. Service workers are a little easier to figure out. If the customer likes the service and the worker is generally efficient, he or she is doing a good job (number of customers - unhappy customers / time).

So this is where the wheels come off the bus. How do you measure the effectiveness of knowledge workers? You can build metrics around outcomes, but that requires us to have very good communication between workers and managers. Workers need to understand the goal of the effort and how they fit into that goal. They have to trust their coworkers and managers and get recognized for their contribution to the whole project, even if it's the idea that started the ball rolling. The good news is that these are things we ought to be talking about and doing no matter where your employees sit. When work is thought of as counting widgets as opposed to creating ideas and finding solutions, we are back in the factory or maybe even the farm.

Because telework forces us to break the mold on normal workplace behaviors and norms, it's a great surrogate for having the broader discussion on the nature of work. We have lost the battle on manufacturing to China and others. We can keep trying to win a game we lost, or start playing the game we know how to win. I am hoping for the latter and believe that discussing the nature of work is a good way to get in the right mindset for success.

I am very interested in your feedback on this theory (hint, hint, I want you to comment). Email me at, or check out my blog at

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