Chief Tele- Commuter


August 13, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston - Those of us who live outside of Our Nation's Capital have long regarded Washington as a sort of surreal place where all the buildings talk. The most garrulous of these structures, by far, being the White House.

Reporters are constantly leading their stories with the straight-faced remark that ''The White House said today. . . .'' Even Marlin Fitzwater is routinely described as a White House spokesman. Poor thing, is he the medium for the mansion?

This reaches heights of absurdity when the Bushes go north. The dateline now is Kennebunkport, Maine. But the lead is still ''The White House said today.'' Why not at least, ''the rambling, shingled summer house by the ocean said today''?

There is, however, a nugget of truth in this linguistic silliness. Wherever the president goes, so goes his office, whether it's Oval or recreational. Like the 300-pound gorilla who sleeps wherever he wants to, the president can work wherever he wants to.

In this, I like to think that Bush is indeed the leader of the free world. The free work world.

He is the most visible model for the concept called ''flexi-place,'' the recognition that work isn't limited to one site and neither should workers be. As Paul Rupert, associate director of New Ways to Work, says succinctly, ''More and more of what we do can be done anywhere.''

Fewer Americans make widgets or grow corn. Our work is more dependent on information that can be picked up and sent off from virtually anywhere. Even home.

The best available figures count about 5 million Americans in addition to the First Man now telecommuting from home one or more days a week. If ''telecommuting'' elicits images of a computer, that's not the only tool. The essential link is actually the phone and its youngest offspring, the FAX machine and voice mail.

Not all workers carry little doomsday boxes in their briefcases when they move from one site to another. But it's estimated that as many as 20 million Americans could work at home at least part of the time. The advantages are obvious. You save time: commuting time, dressing time, meeting time, wasted time. You save money: gas, work clothes, lunch.

But the biggest plus, says the San-Francisco-based-but-roaming Mr. Rupert, ''is the remarkable amount of uninterrupted thinking time. Getting work done in the office is pretty much like trying to get well in a hospital.'' The real healing happens when you're released.

No one is pleading to close down the office and turn it into a friendly phone bank. The most fervent fan of flexi-place acknowledges that if people aren't in the office with some regularity, they lose the connection, the face-to-face contact that produces a sense of joint enterprise. They can become invisible. People also go to work for what was called by an erudite researcher, ''the schmooze factor,'' being with and talking with people they like.

But the resistance to working at home usually comes on other grounds. It comes from managers who worry about the body count. If they can't see an employee, they ask, how do they know he or she is working? When Mr. Rupert hears this, he replies carefully, ''If the only way you know they are working is if they are there, your systems of managing aren't, uh, very precise.''

Which brings us back to George and Barbara and the talking summer house. The president is both Chief Executive Officer and in democratic theory, the Chief Employee. As CEO, when he embarks to Kennebunkport, those around him -- from staff to reporters -- pick up their flexi-offices and go where he goes.

As CE, however, the public sometimes behaves like wary managers. Last summer during the Iraqi crisis, Mr. Bush felt compelled to leave Maine and return to Washington on at least three occasions. This August, he proves that he's on the job and constantly ''in touch'' by giving interviews from the golf cart. Talk about flexible work: Wearing one glove, he looks like a cross between Michael Jackson and Arnold Palmer.

But for those of us still toiling away in offices instead of on the green, there is a delicious precedent in the presidency. Now all we need is a new dateline. Kennebunkport, Maine: The Flexi-Office said today. . . .

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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