The Similarities Between Reshoring Manufacturing And Telecommuting

In the past week, both Yahoo! and Best Buy have been both vilified and congratulated for reversing their policies on home commuting.

The passions run deep. Home-commuting advocates cite growing numbers of ‘homies’ and reports of improved productivity. While opponents of telecommuting point to the loss of corporate control, a lack of accountability, and reduced one-on-one collaboration &, in turn,  innovation.

I am struck by the similarities between this debate and the reshoring of manufacturing to the US from overseas in response to offshoring it in the first place.

Man, life is rich, ain’t it?

Let’s dissect this issue and transpose those elements to reshoring, and you’ll see what I mean.

First, Yahoo! & Best Buy both state that they want to improve their business posture. To do that, both claim that face-to-face is the best way to go. Isn’t this the same argument used to support the reshoring movement – that separating production from design & engineering has severely hampered innovation & development of new products or services?

And what about quality? In manufacturing, the reworking or scrapping of poor quality add significant costs that often aren’t easily attributed to outsourced production. That’s partly what Total Cost of Ownership is all about, and it sounds to me like these two companies have decided to mitigate the risk that quality is being stunted by extended & separated work groups.

Supporters of telecommuting say that never before has technology allowed for the ‘virtual workplace’ like it has today. Intranets, extranets, email, IM, and other internal communications systems and platforms, they argue, make engaging & collaborating with groups, divisions, peers, and employers as or more productive than in the traditional workplace. But didn’t we hear this before – that offshoring would lower prices for goods & services and make this a consumer Utopia? Just because we CAN do something, doesn’t mean we should. After all, what might we lose in the process?

The short answer is: in most cases, a lot.

Like reshoring – with its extended supply chains and inherent, unintended consequences – telecommuting can often lead to lapses in efficiency that are difficult or impossible to measure effectively. If these two issues are alike, and I believe they are, then what Yahoo! and Best Buy are doing amounts to bringing their ‘producers’ together. To overhear unexpected conversations. To learn from & adjust to mistakes. To influence. To be influenced. And to reap the rewards that come from kismet.

I understand that telecommuting is ideal for some positions, companies, divisions, groups, or industries, just as I believe that some offshore production is vital to our economy – for manufacturing in or closest to markets of consumption, for example. And I’m sure that there are examples of telecommuting that have been wildly successful.

But it’s entirely unsurprising to me that these folks have recognized some of the total costs that have resulted from across-the-board telecommuting policies, and that they now feel the need to pivot away from them. And expect to hear from more companies following THIS lead in the near future.

In the end, both arguments are about balance and value to stakeholders. Is it in the overall good of the corporation, the employees, investors, the customer, and the entire country to extend oneself as a matter of convenience, seemingly reduced costs, or altruism? Maybe.

But we’re human beings, for better or worse, and we’re are social. We respond to each other and to the company of others. We aren’t meant – in most cases – to work in isolation. That can work if you’re Picasso or Hemingway or Leonard Cohen. But we ain’t them. Put another way, can you imagine the outfield of the Cincinnati Reds telecommuting to spring training?

And I suspect that ultimately many companies instituted virtual workplaces primarily because they saw others do it – just like how much of the offshoring of our manufacturing base happened 30 years ago. “Hey, that guy must KNOW something. We better do what he’s doing.” And off they went, without the due diligence, the support systems, or the teams to support them.

As for reshoring, the ability to manufacture and innovate are critical to any sovereign country of consequence. Similarly, these abilities are equally critical to most any company that wants to succeed, grow, compete, and survive.

Here’s to hoping that those involved in both of these issues come to the same, sensible conclusion.

AJ Sweatt
  1. As with anything else due diligence and moderation is key – something the USA is not overknown for. Telecommuting, like its brethren Skype etc (for meetings amongst diversely-located participants), email for communication trail and keeping in contact with, again, diversely-located participants…all those things can – and should – be incorporated into conventional work environments which, I agree, can foster great creativity and innovation. It can also be the cause of an enormous waste of time and can create limitations.

    The problem, as I see it AJ, is not the components. It’s the wholesale investment – or the wholesale dismissal – of said components, without thought, due diligence or experimentation. A smart business with incorporate ALL of this into their business model.

    Thanks for a great article!

  2. The offshoring part of your article is in total alignment with the article that I told you about in last month’s Atlantic magazine. The really interesting take here is the association with telecommuting.

    As a former telecommuter, I can say that what I missed and what the company missed out on was 6 years of what I call the value of everyday conversation and the influence that one seemingly inconsequential remark can have once put together with someone else’s experience and knowledge.

    Every new idea is a combination of the experience and knowledge of those that have gone before and our own unique experiences and knowledge. You just don’t get that from telecommuting in my experience.

    And none of that even goes to the missing leadership and influence that some of these people would naturally provide in a normal work environment.

    • Great points, Jim. As usual. And yeah, I saw that Atlantic article on reshoring – I read at least 2 or 3 articles or reports on the subject every day. Not counting the ones I write, of course.

      But your experiences with telecommuting mirror exactly what I was trying to get at: We sometimes let our myopic business selves write checks that our long-term interests (and those of our customers) can’t cash. We lose so much from the lack of proximity – I was just trying to put some perspective around it, especially for all my friends in manufacturing. Thanks for the visit, man.

  3. It’s not complicated. Telecommuting gives companies and employees an option that in most cases isn’t ideal. But in certain situations, including offshoring, it can work for both parties. All the strong positions “surrounding the issue” are more likely a reaction to Marissa Mayer’s suddenly ending the practice that so many had worked their lives around.

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