Once a Pioneering ‘Telecommuter’, I Have Now Worked from Home for Two Decades
We had a party this week to celebrate my daughter and her boyfriend’s career move to Seattle. It was a great time with many reminiscences of our life here in Iowa City over the past decade. Then it struck me: almost to a day I had now been working from a home office for 20 years!
Wow. I had not really been paying attention. That realization in turn brought back its own memories, and caused me to reflect back on my two decades of working from home.
Why and the Enabler
I left my position as director of energy research at the American Public Power Association in early June 1989. We were just a month away from my son’s birth and had decided we did not want to raise our children in Washington, DC. The District at that time was totally dysfunctional and had earned the moniker of “Murder Capital of America.” While we loved our home in Barnaby Woods (Chevy Chase) DC and our neighbors, we wanted a smaller and safer community with more connectedness.
My wife, at that time a post doc at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, also was committed to her profession and career. The Washington area was unlikely to be an immediate prospect for her to find a permanent position. Indeed, our generation was just coming to grips with the new challenges of two professional families: There needs to be career choices and flexibility between the partners. Some professions, like lawyering or doctoring or sales or computer programming, have much locational flexibility. Others, such as bench scientists in biology, as for my wife, less so. In academia, position openings occur at their own place and time.
I had also been climbing my way in a corporate and office environment for more than a dozen years and was ready for my own career change. As a professional, I had never been my own boss and wanted to see how I could fare in the consulting and entrepreneurial worlds. By doing so, I could also bring flexibility to my wife’s locational options for her career.
At that time, without a doubt, the enabling technology for my new career shift was the fax machine. The ability to interact with clients with documents in more-or-less real time was pivotal. My first fax machine was a Sanyo thermal model (can’t recall the model now; it is long gone and they have since gotten out of that business). I recall buying cartoons of thermal fax rolls frequently and the copies that faded in the file cabinet drawers.
Of course, the phone and plane were also pivotal. In the early years my monthly phone bills were astronomical and I flew around 100,000 miles per year. But, it was the fax that really enabled me to cut the locational knot. But how strange: from thousands upon thousands of faxed pages in the early years to only a few per year today! The Web, of course, has really proven to be the true enabler over the past decade.
Prior to shifting to a home office it took me about 45 min to commute or bike to APPA. If taking public transportation, I had to walk to the local bus stop, transfer at the Metro subway station, and then walk the remaining distance. While this gave me time to read most of the the morning Washington Post, I knew that by eliminating this commute I could save 90 min a day for new productivity.
What first surprised me, though, was the fact that I also no longer needed to keep my office computer and home computer synchronized. Since, like most ambitious professionals, I also worked some in the evenings, I had overlooked the time it took to keep files and documents synchronized. I was saving about another 30 min per day in digital transfers between home and office. With this new choice to work from home, I was saving 2 hrs per day!
I only had a home office in DC for a short period before we moved to Montana. Since Montana, I have had only two further offices (homes).
My early experience in DC suggested I wanted a more dedicated office space, so we did so for the home we designed in Montana. I was also able to design reserved office space again for here in Iowa City. (The DC home office and the interim one in South Dakota prior to Iowa were converted bedrooms, definitely not recommended!)
Planning office space in advance means you can tailor the space to your work habits. For me, I want lots of natural light, a view from the windows, and lots of desk and whiteboard space. I also needed room for office equipment (copiers in the early years, fax, printers and the like) and file cabinets. When in Montana, I designed up and had built my own office furniture suite that makes me feel I’m commanding the bridge of the Starship Enterprise (see pictures of my current office).
Teaching myself and the kids that office time and office space were fairly sacrosanct was important, too. Sure, it was helpful to be around for the kids for boo-boos and emergencies and dedicated kid’s time, and to be able to be there for home repairs and the like, but for the most part I tried to treat my office as a separate space and to have the kids do so, too. Frankly, since my family has grown up with no other experience than Dad working from home, it has always felt natural and been a matter of course.
A real key is to be able to shut the office door and return to normal home life in the rest of the house. And, of course, the need for the opposite is also true. It is probably the case that I spend more time in my home office than most regular professionals do in their organization’s office, but my career has always been my passion anyway and not what I consider to be a job.
In the early years I was fairly unusual, I think, for working from home. I certainly gave many local talks and was frequently invited by service organizations to speak over lunch on the experience of “telecommuting”. Today, working from home is no longer unusual and the Internet technology and support to do so makes it a breeze.
I have been able to run both consulting and software development companies from my home office over the years. I have seen the gamut of meetings ranging from with developers before massive whiteboards in my home basement to running and coordinating 20-person companies in their own office space with investors and Boards.
With a willingness to travel, it seems like all organizational possibilities are now open to the home worker. For quality of life and other reasons, the fact that today many larger knowledge organizations offer remote office centers and commuting flexibility speaks volumes to how far “telecommuting” has really come.
How much difference two decades can make!
I personally could never return to a standard office setting. For me, the home office with its flexibility and productivity and ability to find contemplative time simply can not be beat.
I really welcome what is happening in online meeting software and other Web apps that are reducing the need for travel and face-to-face meetings. For while the technology and culture has improved markedly to support working from home over the past two decades, the pain and hassle of travel has only worsened.
I have transitioned from a million-miler frequent flyer to a rooted house plant. I try to chose my travel venues carefully and when I do travel I try to do so for longer periods to absorb the shocks. It is perhaps a too frequent refrain, but it is just a damn shame how getting a meal, being treated with pleasure and courtesy, having some legroom, and getting a drink are air travel amenities of a now bygone era.
There are now many, many more of us (you) who work from home and it really is no longer a topic of conversation. A quick search tells me perhaps 5 million or more US workers predominantly work from home, with some 15% of all workers doing so on occasion. In the predominant professional and business services, financial activities, and education and health services, this percentage can reach as high as 30% of workers now doing paid work from home to one degree or another.
Of course, personality, job requirements, and physical space may not make working from home a good choice for you. But if you have not tried it and it sounds interesting, by all means: Try it!
For twenty years, it has been a great choice for me and for my family. This is indeed a nice 20th anniversary to celebrate!