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In business (e.g. IT industry) remote work (aka "telecommuting") can be relatively common (see e.g. a recent StackOverflow blog post). It is exceedingly rare (or even nonexistent) in academia, even though most part of academic work consists basically of thinking and writing, which can be done in any environment. Are you aware of any successful implementations of "remote work" in academia?

Of course, there are many factors making it less feasible - an academic employee usually has other duties (e.g. teaching) which can't be done remotely, there is also the social aspect of research, meetings etc. (although this is not that much different from similar aspects in a programming job, unless we argue that doing science is "more creative" than mere programming and thus requires more physical presence). Also, currently available tools still make e.g. making a web seminar or math meeting difficult (no blackboard), although this too is changing (see e.g. G+ Hangout seminars: TCS+). However, given the scarcity of jobs, "N-body problems" etc., it seems to me that the potential for remote work (even part-time) is, as of now, underutilized in academia.

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"t is exceedingly rare (or even nonexistent) in academia, even though most part of academic work consists basically of thinking and writing, which can be done in any environment. Are you aware of any successful implementations of "remote work" in academia?" - Citation Needed. I work remotely, and have worked with others who were working remotely more often than not. –  Fomite Feb 2 '13 at 1:33
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Most of my papers were written with coauthors thousands of miles away, including a few that I have never met in person. Does that count? –  JeffE Feb 2 '13 at 5:02
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See also: academia.stackexchange.com/q/1887/1033 –  gerrit Feb 2 '13 at 11:27
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I am in CS, and most people I know are working remotely at least part time. –  Sylvain Peyronnet Feb 2 '13 at 17:18
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@Paxinum: really? I find it is at least as easy if not easier to be distracted by the wonders of internet office-mates find... –  cbeleites Feb 2 '13 at 18:48
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Doing it part-time is rather common at least in places i have worked. At moment me and most of my colleagues work from home two days of the week (usually Mondays and Fridays for most and Thursdays and Fridays for some) on the days that no teaching is involved. If there is an important meeting we will show up otherwise we skype. I think i generally work on average 6.5 days in a 22 day work month from home.

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Yes, at the very least this "fractional telecommuting" saves the travel-time those days. Similarly, for library access, "in the old days" I would go to campus Sat and Sun, as well. But, now, I can use MathSciNet from home, and save two more days' travel time and car-maintenance. –  paul garrett Feb 3 '13 at 15:08
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While there are advantages to remote working for individuals, my feeling is that it is used too much and leads to a bad work environment. Unlike industry, academics are not evaluated as frequently or in as meaningful of a way. When some people work remotely and others don't this can lead to resentment and a feeling that they are not pulling their weight. Academic departments are often on the verge of dysfunctional and generally have cliques each representing their own interests. Extensive remote working exacerbates these problems. Problems can often be solved much more efficiently over a coffee/beer than the telephone.

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"Verge of dysfunction" captures it nicely! Yes, the non-scientific component of "work" is hard to do remotely... but when it does pervade every one of our work-days, this itself is destructive of the scientific work. –  paul garrett Feb 3 '13 at 15:08
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In my subject area (computational physics) telecommuting is certainly possible, and in fact I am very lucky to be able to spend a significant fraction of time working off campus. As a post doc I generally find that when it comes to research (in terms of developing and running code and writing papers) I am much more productive working in an isolated environment without distractions. However, it is also very important to maintain links with other researchers and students in the group and department. This can partly be done with tools such as Skype, but the importance one-to-one interaction should not be underestimated, as well as just 'being around'. Many problems are solved over coffee, and this interaction is a critical part of collaborative research.

Overall though I think that telecommuting, at least for researchers for some of the time is a good thing, particularly in conjunction with flexitime for those with families.

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Are you aware of any successful implementations of "remote work" in academia?

Yes: quite a few people I know are (or claim to be) more productive working from home than going to campus; they only go there for teaching, when they need a lab or when they need to talk to someone.

But of course, it depends on the area where you are working; engineers will eventually need labs, test equipment etc...

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Good science starts from good definitions. You have not given your definition of remote, and I personally can think of at least three different scenarios:

  1. Work in office some days, from home some other days, but the office is withing commuting distance. It is true that academia does not care which computer you write your papers on, especially if you work is only on a computer (pure math, theoretical sociology, may be some computer science). Many companies allow their staff to work like that, especially if their roles are well defined and can be performed off-site.
  2. Collaborate remotely: you write a paper together with somebody in another university, in another country, etc. At the extreme, you meet the person with whom you published that paper only a couple years later at a conference where you are presenting it. I think nearly every paper with more than one author is written that way... although in some disciplines, a team of 10 authors means the personnel of a single lab.
  3. Work from home full time, with the nearest office being a few hours away. (My worst commute was get up at 4am, drive 2hrs to the airport, take a flight with a connection, total 4 hrs, spend 3 hours in meetings, take an 8pm flight, drive back, back home 1 am next day. Don't want to do this very often, thank you.)

All the responses so far addressed options (1) and (2). To me, "remote" means (3): I am sitting at least a time zone away from the rest of the company (I work in a private sector). There is absolutely no freaking way this could work in academia even if your work only involves a computer. (Obviously, if you are a biologist with a lab to attend every day to look at your mice, your question simply does not make sense.) If you raise a question like that in a job interview, you can bid it farewell, pack and go: there are dozens Ph.D.s waiting in line, and nearly each of them will take a job on any condition. (Yes, there's overproduction of Ph.D.s, which they probably did not tell you when you applied for that highly coveted degree. If there were no over-production, there would be no point to have this website, as university managers will be hunting Ph.D.s, not Ph.D.s hunting jobs.)

While you what you seem to see from your Ph.D. student perspective about academic work seems to be research (which is of course doable across continents if needed), you will HAVE to teach, and you will HAVE to do some service (department committees, qualifying exams, colloquia, campus involvement, etc.), and then later on take graduate students that you are supposed to pamper and educate. If you are thinking about post-doc options, then again the expectation is that you learn from your mentor, their lab and their department by being present there and working with them. You can't do this remotely.

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"While you what you seem to see"? –  Faheem Mitha Mar 23 '13 at 0:10
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