Thursday, July 2, 2015

A personal history of telecommuting

A long time ago, 
in a galaxy far, far away....

Fall Semester


The year is 1980-something. The screens are green. Few computers are connected.

Classmates, armed with 300 baud dial-up modems, attempt to remotely collaborate on a group project. These students have been given access to a world-class supercomputer that provides innovate tools to communicate with each other and instructors outside of class. Electronic mail delivers messages in seconds. Information can be saved by one student and viewed by all their classmates. There's even an online group "chat" program in which typed text instantly appears on the screens of other computer users. 

These tools enable a new way of working. These tools enable near-instant sharing of written information with people in other locations. 

Some embrace the new technology and discover new ways to work with others across campus or across town. They don't have to wait until the next class or arrange an outside-of-class meeting with classmates to collaborate on group programming projects. This is important as there are rumors that the days of solo programmers writing programs in their bedrooms and cubicles are soon coming to an end. 

Others are reluctant to adopt this new way of working and stick with the familiar: face-to-face and telephone communication. Rather than collaborate online, many choose the struggle of coordinating schedules over the phone to arrange frequent meetings in dorm and living rooms across town. It isn't so much that they prefer this struggle; but that this is what they know. Feedback loops are large and slow.

As assignment deadlines loom, groups of students gather in university computer labs and struggle to integrate their subroutines while consuming large quantities of pizza and cheap beer. It is common for the first successful compile to occur within an hour of a deadline.

The students who embrace the new TELEWORK are at an advantage over those who continue to willfully submit to the constraints of aligning time and space. These who collaborate online not only submit programs that compiles; they submit programs that work well enough to earn a passing grade.

In high school, I had a summer job that consisted primarily of typing documents. I typed letters to clients. I typed internal memos. I typed public announcements. Anything at that organization that wasn't communicated face-to-face or over the phone went through my typewriter.  Long distance phone calls were costly. Written communication traveled slowly. (A one-day feedback loop on documents shared with people at other locations was considered fast.) Working with people at different locations was expensive or slow; often both.

My introduction to digital telework came a couple years after that summer job. It came in the form of online collaboration with fellow university students via a 300 bit per second dial-up modem connection to a Cyber supercomputer. Sharing a common computer with rudimentary collaboration tools enabled timely sharing of detailed information that previously required working together at the same time in the same place. (Some things are hard to communicate over the phone.)

A paperless office....

When I started my first full-time "permanent" tech job, there was talk of becoming a paperless office. Desktop computers (previously provided only to people with specific needs) were being rolled out to every desk. Electronic mail was quickly replacing photocopied memos for internal communication. Yet, we were still very much a paper-based office. Printers were everywhere. There was even an in-house print shop that created, duplicated, and distributed all the paper documents our computers helped us create. Communication of specifications and plans and reports mostly happened on paper.

I remember the thrill of discovering that I could print a document to a printer in an office on the other side of the country rather than delivering the document via FedEx.

Some colleagues even printed all their email each morning rather than read it on their computer screen.

I remember somewhat-seriously measuring the size of testing projects in linear feet -- the total width of three-ring test documentation binders when placed in a bookcase. One memorable project's documentation consumed about nine linear feet of shelf space.

Rather than create a paperless office, computers made it possible to produce more paper than ever before.

In the years that followed, digital systems continued to replace communication via hard copy documentation; and people became more accustomed to working with less paper. Client-server applications enabled common storage and sharing of information. File servers began to replace sharing of data on paper and floppy disks. However, access to systems away from the office was rare and typically limited to email.

Most work -- especially that which required collaboration with others -- had to be done at the office.

Then came the commercialization of the Internet and the advent of the World Wide Web. As the Internet grew in popularity, remote access via Internet-connected virtual private networks began to replace direct dial-up modem access into office systems. My ability to work remotely improved in that I could usually connect to office systems via a local ISP from anywhere in the country; but access was slow and often limited to email and file sharing. Plus, when on business travel, hotels often charged a small fortune for even local calls. Given a laptop computer, individual work could be done remotely, but collaborative work most often required expensive long distance phone calls or being with colleagues in the same physical space at the same time.

For me, telecommuting was primarily something lampooned in Dilbert cartoons. I didn't view it as an option that might apply to me on any regular basis. People like Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, got to work from home, but that seemed an unlikely option for me.

Fast forward, Y2K and beyond....

My introduction to the personal possibilities of telecommuting came shortly after I started my decade of long distance commuting -- in the midst of a bursting dot com bubble and the Y2K apocalypse.

Dedicated high-speed connections between offices and the Internet enabled unprecedented digital collaboration options for employees at different offices. VOIP (voice over IP) technology and falling long  distance telephone costs made voice communication cheaper than ever.

Technology even enabled outsourcing work to people on the other side of the globe. Remote work was becoming common -- although most of it was still performed in an office rather than home.

As the availability of high-speed home Internet service grew, it became possible for many to use office computer systems from home with nearly the same ease and speed as those people connected from remote offices. Initially this ability to work from home was presented as an option to improve production support, to enable working extra hours to meet a deadline, and for working when weather made it difficult to get into the office. The ability to telecommute killed the snow day.

For the most part, this remote access seemed to be viewed as a tool to enable office-based workers to also work when not in the office -- to enable more work. I don't remember much talk at the time about remote work from home being a good replacement for working from an office. Working from home was mostly about extra work or enabling people to work in cases that they previously would have been required to take time off due to an inability to get themselves to the office.

However, as the experiments with outsourcing and irregular remote work by office-based workers demonstrated benefits to both employers and employees, regular remote work started to become a reality for many people.

During these early days of telecommuting, I did some side jobs from home and irregularly worked from home for my day job. Working from home was primarily reserved for cases for which the alternative would have been not working at all. I enjoyed having the option to avoid driving to work in a snowstorm; but sometimes missed being able to enjoy doing something other than work on a snow day.

One day a week....

Regular telecommuting for my day job became a reality with the creation of a formal telecommuting policy that permitted managers to give high-performing employees the privilege of working from home one day a week. This required periodic submission of a written request detailing why and how one should and could be given the opportunity to telecommute.

Sample Proposal to Telecommute

Given my long distance commute, I jumped at the opportunity to work from home one day a week with management's official blessing. Telecommuting was still an exception to the norm. I envied some business partners at other (more enlightened) companies who were then working from home full time.

Working from home often had little impact on how I worked. Whether I was in the office or at home, many of the colleagues with whom I worked closest were located elsewhere. Phone, email, instant messaging, and remote screen sharing were tools I used daily even when I was in the office.

The biggest challenges I encountered during this period of working from home one day a week were:
  • Some colleagues who were not accustomed to working with remote people considered me unavailable when I was not in the office. They had no problem instant messaging me or stopping by my office when I was in the office; but when I worked from home, they'd wait until I was back in the office to reach out to me.  To combat this thinking, I often had to proactively reach out to these people in order to make myself more visible to them. As people are more accustomed to working with remote people, I now find this to be less of a problem.
  • I often found it difficult to stop working. Rather than having trouble focusing on work from home, I'd often get wrapped up in my work and not stop at the end of the work day. I had to learn to place explicit boundaries around work so that work didn't overrun my home life.

Location doesn't matter.... much....

In the years since that one-day-a-week telecommuting experience, the concept of remote work has become common for many office jobs.  It has become common for office-based employees to occasionally work from home.  I've been in teams with full-time remote employees.  I've been an office-based employee and had the freedom to work remotely whenever I wanted.  I'm now a full-time remote employee.    (BTW, once there are full-time remote people on a team, I've found it easier to make the case for office-based workers to occasionally work remotely.)

Perceptions of telecommuting have changed drastically since the days of comics with Dilbert spending his morning tossing his pen in the air. I've experienced a transition from managers being fearful that I'll not be productive to being told (by clients, managers, and executives) that they don't care about where I work: they care that I work. I've worked from home, from coffee shops, from hotels, from the homes of relatives -- from anywhere I have sufficient Internet service to stay connected to the office.

The History of Telecommuting.
An infographic by the team at LiquidPlanner

Going extreme....

About 8 years ago, I read an article about a man, Anthony Page, who practiced extreme telecommuting -- traveling the world while working remotely. I was intrigued by this idea. Now that my children are grown and I work remotely full time, I've realized that the "home" in "work from home" is not as much of a constraint as it used to be.  Over the next couple months, I plan to take my work on the road. My wife, Sophia, and I will be taking a road trip. I will be taking some time off at the start of the trip -- it is a long holiday weekend, but the plan is for me to work by day and spend off-work-hours exploring the country.

First, we head for Louisiana.

We'll be sharing this out of office adventure at

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