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Baby It’s Cold Outside the Firewall

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March 01, 2004
Home Office | Telecommuting
Michael Schubach

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© 2004 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Ah, winter in North Carolina. Not many outside our little section of the United States consider cold, blustery weather to be part of our repertoire. Let me assure you that freez-ing your assets is indeed a part of the charm of the Old South. However, we North Carolinians are somewhat unique – we’re far enough north to take devastating ice and snow storms, and far enough south to convince ourselves that we can do without foul-weather coping mechanisms like sand, salt and snowplows. As blankets of snow and ice enfold our rural setting, it’s not unusual to find that many employees simply cannot brave the elements to make the trip to work… sometimes for days at a time.

When these exceptional seasonal circumstances arise, we again turn our close attention to the problem of how best to accomplish the myriad tasks at hand when employees cannot be present in the workplace. Well-established technology would tell us that when the employee cannot come to the mountain, then the mountain must come to the employee. (Obviously, I’m not speaking of all the employees of a destination resort. Robotic guest service is neither the goal nor intention of my comments… at least not this century.) Telecommuting from one’s home office is not a new idea, but it is one that hasn’t really captured the imagination of the hospitality industry. Why? Any significant change in technology requires a change in attitude, outlook and established habits. Therein lies the monster.

The simple truth is that those of us in highly administrative positions report to our offices each workday so that we can access the two main tools of work product and communication: our computer and our business telephone. The technology to mobilize those tools is readily available, just ask any executive who cannot envision a trip to the bathroom (let alone out of town) without a PDA and a cell phone. Technology futurists refer to this phenomenon as digital instant gratification, the ability to reach any person, place or thing as rapidly as the need formulates itself in one’s mind. A younger generation of talent is entering the workforce, having grown up fully wired since birth. Their baseline expectation is full mobility and full access – anything less is psychological incarceration.

However, many traditional supervisors still cling to the belief that accessing business tools while sitting in an office is work (no matter what we’re doing with or on them), while accessing them from home is some bizarre form of recreational activity. The attitude shift that goes with worker mobility (or, in the case of a North Carolina ice storm, the lack thereof) has taken much longer to sink in. I fear that many of us still suspect in our heart of hearts that workers in their homes, still clad in their jammies, cannot actually be working no matter what they may be doing. There is, however, an interesting variation on this theme. I find that the executives who do not believe that employees can work effectively from home will warmly embrace the concept that those same employees can be highly productive while on vacation. They clearly understand that technology can reach out from the snows of Aspen or the sands of Hawaii, yet cannot conceive of any possible activity an employee might pursue in those areas that would prevent e-mail responses, returned phone calls or the review of a few important faxes.

Despite the limited adoption of home office technology in the lodging industry, our compatriots in air travel are very willing practitioners. Progressive airline companies have abandoned brick and mortar reservation centers in favor of wiring up their agents at their kitchen counters. The sales and service are identical and productivity has measurably improved, especially with those workers who have child care or mobility issues. The home office can be accessed 24/7, and provide the ideal user-friendly environment.

As a hospitality technologist I appreciate the freedom of remote access to information, but I never underestimate the value of face-to-face communication, collaborative interaction and the good, old-fashioned practice of walking the environment. The IT department’s job is not to advocate one work style over another but to facilitate appropriate choices. This involves the carefully considered decision of who has access to what, when and how that access would be obtained. Security is the watchword of contemporary network operation. We can never forget that “black hats” are constantly looking to travel the same information pathways that can be accessed by employees outside the wall. We must also be wary of laptops that move in and out of the network; devices that move outside the wall without adequate protection or control can become carriers for network infections. Both employees and information must be free to travel when circumstances require, moving within reasonable bounds with measured requirements.

There is a certain 21st century majesty to being in touch everywhere in the world at every hour of the day. And there is a very real responsibility with making it happen securely. While the desirability of electronic leashes can always be debated, they represent far more freedom than the electronic jail cell. Even though the virtual hotel isn’t yet an option (or one I think I would ever want), the virtual employee is alive and well and sitting in his living room. Pardon me while I grab another cardboard log, spray it with a little pine scent and liquid crackle, throw it on the gas-jet fire and transmit my musings to a magazine publisher a thousand miles from here. It’s almost like being at work.

Michael Schubach is vice president, resort technology, for the ClubResorts division of ClubCorp. When not at home, he offices at Pinehurst, site of the 2005 U.S. Open golf championship. He can be reached virtually around the clock, if he is logged in, at michael.schubach@clubcorp.com.

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