Editor’s note: Dr. Berry Beith is president of HumanCentric Technologies in Cary and is a regular contributor to LTW.An article in the “Work & Money” section of The News and Observer on May 25, 2003 reported that Sun Microsystems in the Silicon Valley was instituting a new system wherein workers could work at home or go to a “first come, first seated” iWork center where they could be seated at any of several communal computers and work.

The unique notion was that these individuals would not have a permanent place to hang their hat within the corporation but rather would only come in when necessary and otherwise work from home or one of these communal centers.

As much as some business owners would like to ignore the human side of technology from an employer-employee perspective, this example of what some refer to as the future look of business is pretty frightening.

For so many years now, we have watched as manufacturers, then software developers, then service providers have sent their work and money overseas. NAFTA has all but destroyed some industries, and today when you call a customer service rep, you may well be talking to someone in India.

A bright idea?

Now, Scott McNealy has proposed a way to turn even high tech workers into migrants while pointing out that this affords companies to reduce overhead in the form of facilities and support. Just think, one day a CEO will have the luxury of laying off thousands of workers with a keystroke and doing so in the comfort of their own homes.

No office to clean out and no need to waste a conference room for a bon voyage party. Clean — very clean.

In the meantime, workers can come and go as they please, when they please, if they please. Not that we wouldn’t want to take the lead example from a company whose stock, like so many in the Silicon Valley has rockets from almost $65 per share to a whopping $4 per share. They must be doing something right decision-wise, I guess, but it’s hard to figure out what.

The iWork plan shatters the last vestige of loyalty as an important characteristic of the employer-employee relationship. Not surprisingly, this occurs in the hallowed bellwether locale of the Silicon Valley that culturally has about as much to do with the rest of the world, particularly the Triangle, as their home prices have to do with it.

Money and commuting

If one tallies up the pros and cons of such a plan, it boils down to two things: money and lousy commutes.

What gets lost in the balance is identity, loyalty, pride of ownership, camaraderie, identification, and the synergism that comes from unplanned exchanges sparked by proximity with other smart folks on a common quest.

And, no, such exchanges cannot be replaced by instant messages, cell phones, and e-mail exchanges, no matter how big the pipe is, or how fast the baud rate.

Now don’t get me wrong. If the idea is to give people flexibility in their lives and make the system responsive to diverse and changing employee needs then I am all for that. But somehow I doubt that this is the strongest motivation.

I have learned a lesson in perspective as we all have over the last few years that many, if not most, corporations do not have a particularly warm heart. Whatever executives decide to do it is somehow attached is not motivated by the bottom line. An example such as Sun’s of a plan to put people out there at the end of a line and running a corporation as if it were a chat room, may work in selected cases and even be a great way to work for a few, but the dangers lurking in any belief that this is panacea for the future are doomed. The danger is, however, that the false panacea will not be revealed until after a ton of damage is done to employees, employers, and heretofore otherwise venerable institutions.

Office as a haven

For anyone like myself, who is a movie devotee, buff, aficionado, or freak (pick your term), this suggestion of the future of work is about as appealing as “The Matrix” and, in some regards, frighteningly similar. I, for one, want the office. I want to put pictures of my dogs, my wife, my kids, my life on the walls. I want it to be a haven away from home, as much as I need my home as a haven from work.

Yes, I waste time on occasion in a hallway conversation, and other employees do also, but I find, strengthen ties with, and enjoy my work associates that way and there is value in such activities that cannot be measures directly to the bottom line. Like God and the sun rising tomorrow, I take on faith the thought that such relationships improve life, work, and the bottom line.

One lesson learned (I hope) from Vietnam was that combat units needed to be deployed together and return together. It was found that creating units in the field with constant turnover and replacements led to teams that not only couldn’t work together, but didn’t know each other well enough to fight much less die for.

Does this approach to business provide potentially the same lesson for business? What kind of a company will you be a part of if this form of business becomes a siren’s call to company owners and corporate executives? Not any company I would want to be a part of.

How about you?

HumanCentric Technologies: www.humancentrictech.com