A few years before I left corporate employment I stopped going to work. These things were not unrelated.
Those last few years were the most productive and rewarding times in that entire 31-year corporate career. In those few years I learned more, achieved more, read and wrote more and had a great influence on the organisation. But, by not going to work, by working predominantly from home, I also learned to appreciate the diversity of the world outside of the confines of that corporate culture.
Now, 25 years on, working from home is the default option for a great many people. It was rare, back in the late 80’s, to have the connectivity and the kit to make remote working practicable. It was, in fact, my early skirmishes with email and the emergent Internet that contributed to the disabling distance that grew between myself and the corporation – a growing gulf between reality and their entrenched policy view that the ‘Internet was a playground for pirates’.
Twenty-five years on, that dispiriting view still prevails in some corporate corners. There is a residual notion of an unsupervised playground with exposure to all manner of distracting and corporately non-compliant influences – exposing some uncertain threat to the corporate belief system and demanding a level of trust in human resourcefulness that seems to be beyond the management systems and processes of the HR department.
For those of us who have been liberated from ties and corporate cuff-links the common-sense logic of ‘home working’ and telecommuting is blindingly obvious. It’s a productivity bargain for both employer and employee and delivers environmental and societal gains. But this is perhaps not so obvious to the new graduate setting out on the road to employment – despite the patently obvious fact that college education will have taught them much about studying in sleeping quarters (1).
One hugely important lesson from my own early days was that home-working is often a misnomer – there is a need for just a little physical separation. The off-stage barking dog, the sharp-clawed cat, the kids raiding the fridge can be a distraction during business Skype calls. It was a mistake to remove the spare bedroom door to make room for a filing cabinet for it meant that the ‘office’ was never closed. Nowadays I spend my editorial days in a log cabin at the far end of the garden. Galley duty is a great reason for going home.
Systems designers working for modern businesses have now adopted a far more agile view of corporate needs. Many employees may be on the road or of no fixed (office) abode. The system flexibilities they need to coordinate project work lend themselves perfectly to telecommuting even in the most privacy-conscious organization. Virtual Private Networks, neat integration of VoiceIP, inbuilt messaging systems, open diaries and a degree of discipline now mean that groups of people can work better comfortably apart than when corralled in some expensive and inconveniently-located office space.
But the new graduate will not know this. He or she will not know what to expect or what to demand. They will not know how much they will be trusted to get on with stuff unsupervised. After years of studying, the prospect of going to work (and getting paid for it) is something to strive for. So many of these young people will only gradually layer onto their deep-seated expectations a degree of flexibility that matches their maturity.
In these days of economic recession where job-seeking is a major challenge it may seem strange to be too picky but were I starting over again I would consider prospective employment only in those places where the opportunities to make great changes were matched by an open willingness to adopt flexible work-styles.
1. For a comprehensive review of telecommuting from a graduate viewpoint see ‘Missing the Water Cooler: A Recent Grad’s Guide to Navigating Telecommuting’ by Mitchell Fielder