John Klossner

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In defense of teleworking

At the risk of blog nepotism, I have to tell you that my wife was on the phone for seven hours recently trying to get a flight. That might sound like another airline horror story and, unfortunately, in a way it is. But those seven hours, starting just before dinner, going through our children's bedtimes and ending after I had fallen asleep, weren't spent in search of a great deal on some vacation hot spot. She was trying to find space for 11 people and 4,000 pounds of supplies to get to Haiti.

For the past three years she has been assisting in media relations, fundraising and delivering supplies with a small 501(c)3 organization that has been building a school outside of Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti. The school and its community were not physically affected by the recent earthquake, but the woman who heads this operation, Lucia Anglade, is a Haitian-American who lives outside New York City and whose brother and sister live in Port-au-Prince. Besides the harrowing days of waiting to hear from them — she is one of the fortunate ones: they both survived — Lucia spent the time gathering supplies from individual donors and looking for a way to get them to Haiti. Her sister is a nun who runs a nursing home, Asile de St. Vincent de Paul in Leogane, west of Port-au-Prince and actually closer to the quake's epicenter. Her compound houses homeless, sick, orphaned and elderly residents. The compound of buildings was destroyed, and 10 residents and one nun died in the quake and its aftermath. Lucia turned her attention to providing whatever supplies her sister could use — tents, sheets and linens, utensils, medical supplies, clothing, etc.

Asile de St. Vincent de Paul nursing home in Leogane before the earthquake

In the days following the quake, Lucia's Web site was contacted by individuals wanting to contribute to her organization and offering either money, supplies or services. The typical donor to Lucia's organization is attracted by the small, presence-on-the-ground-already-established nature of the operation; donations make their way to the injured with a minimum of bureaucratic hurdles. One of the potential donors was another small organization that had access and clearance for a plane from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Cap-Haitien. This organization offered Lucia and her supplies space on its flight with one catch: They had to be in Fort Lauderdale by Wednesday morning. It was now 5 p.m. Monday. At that point my wife started her phone marathon trying to find a sympathetic air carrier for a small band of Haitians and two tons of bandages, medicines, sheets and clothing.

Asile de St. Vincent de Paul nursing home in Leogane after the earthquake

After running through her personal network looking for anyone with connections, my wife found a reservations agent (no connection, just cold calling) at JetBlue who said they thought they could offer unlimited cargo space to passengers carrying relief supplies. The problem was, between gathering the traveling party's personal data, such as passports and other documentation, and sitting on hold with JetBlue personnel, my wife ended up dealing with multiple personnel and having to start the story all over again with each new person. This was further complicated by a) flight prices going up every 15 minutes and it taking 30 minutes to explain/plead the extra weight situation, as well as enter the name and personal data of each passenger, and b) the fact that she could never get a complete guarantee from an agent that they could take the additional cargo. Also, the organization had a limited budget and the rising flight fees forced her to reconfigure the plans as each person was booked. She was transferred from agent to agent, and each successive agent had to be re-informed of the particulars of this trip, AND each new person was less sure that they could guarantee allowing the extra baggage. The flight for 11 was not the problem; it was getting 4,000 pounds when each passenger is only allowed 100.

After booking everyone on two separate flights to maximize the chance that the airline would be able to handle the cargo, she realized that there was no guarantee that the airline would do so. To cover this (and provide a carrot for those helping out), she took the following steps:

  • She left an 11 p.m. desperation message for JetBlue's public-relations people. (They got back to her at 8 a.m. the next day, letting her know they were aware of her and the group and that they had contacted the appropriate people at corporate headquarters).
  • She was finally able to reach someone in the airline's corporate responsibility office who took the lead and ensured that all the proper notifications were made.
  • She contacted the local press in New York City and Fort Lauderdale with a story idea (did I mention she is a former newspaper reporter who now works in press relations for a federal agency?) — "A planeload of Haitian-Americans and supplies will be en route to Port-au-Prince" — which they were more than eager to cover.

The people and supplies made it to Fort Lauderdale without a problem. As you might imagine, there is a lot of story left to tell, with many transportation and communication contortions. Among the highlights:

  • In order to get the supplies from the JetBlue flight to the private plane in Fort Lauderdale, my wife started calling organizations in southern Florida to see if anyone could help. She finally found someone at the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Broward County, Fla. The executive director, as it turned out, had experience in disaster relief. (It also turned out that the organization's clientele includes a large Haitian population.) They took the lead in contacting local media and the airport. Our band of travelers arrived in Florida to be greeted by a group of Big Brother/Big Sister volunteers and local media who assisted them in transferring their cargo and getting them food and a place to stay while waiting for the flight to Haiti (which ended up being delayed).
  • After arriving in Cap-Haitien, the supplies had to get overland to Leogane. Lucia, having grown up outside Cap-Haitien in Milot, got access to the local hospital's helicopter, which flew her to Port-au-Prince, where she borrowed a vehicle and drove the 12-hour roundtrip to Cap-Haitien and back with the supplies. (For those of you who have never had the pleasure of driving from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haitien, it isn't a pleasure trip.)

Why am I telling you this? For starters, in case you missed it, Haiti has been in the news lately. But also, more importantly, because my wife is a telecommuter — I guess the term is now "teleworker" — for a federal agency. She works part time, two days in a Boston office and one day at home.

I am sharing this because one of the reported obstacles to telework becoming more widely implemented is management's worry about how these employees will spend their work hours away from the office. Describing how my wife spent hours on a non-work-related project might not be the smartest way to defend telework (and she has made a point to tell me every time I ask her about the sequence of events that none of this took place during her work hours), but I would like to point out that as someone who has been a teleworker since before the term was coined (although it is probably more accurate to describe my workstyle as "contractor," so I guess I telework for myself), the people I know who work away from their central offices are all highly motivated people who can't afford to waste time. These are people who are aware of, and use, the hour(s) they save each day by not commuting. These are people who, based on my experience, don't take long lunches, if they take a lunch at all.

In an earlier posting, I remember making the point that having physical proximity to your co-workers was a plus: It is easier to make contact, you don't have to wait for them to return a message, etc. Although I still hold this to be true, I don't think it should be used as an argument against the trustworthiness of teleworkers. As one commenter pointed out, if a manager is concerned about an employee's behavior away from the office, then they probably have concerns or negative experiences with their behavior in the office. In other words, they have suspicions based on the personnel, not the location.

One last point, remembered while reading that the D.C. area has been socked by a winter storm while I look out at green patches of lawn in Maine: I imagine there have recently been snow days for many people working in the greater Washington region. Teleworkers don't get snow days. Although it's true that there are probably fewer office-related chores to tend to when the office is officially closed, teleworkers are still expected to work.

So let's look at this again. Teleworkers don't have snow days, they typically don't go out for lunch., and they don't have a commute to have time by themselves. (I know, I know: The commute often isn't an attractive part of the job, but that's for another blog entry.)

So, am I selling teleworking or arguing against it?

By the way, my wife is now looking for another plane, medical personnel and engineers to help rebuild a compound in Leogane, if you have any laying around. She's willing to put in long phone hours.

FCW Feb 8 Klossner blog

Posted by John Klossner on Feb 08, 2010 at 12:19 PM


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