With this past year’s interest in working from home — telecommuting — and the many discussions about what will happen when it’s not required, my mind frequently returns to 1995, when I first worked from home. My memory being imperfect, some of these details may be out of order, but the main facts are correct.
In 1995, I was working as a computer specialist in the Boston office of Price Waterhouse, one of the world’s major accounting and consulting firms. Technology had progressed enough that working from home appeared possible and to me, desirable. I asked if I could work from home two or three days a week to test the possibility and was granted consent.
Back then, Zoom was far in the future; the technology we could rely on included heavy telephone usage, remotely sharing files that lived on computers in the office, and conference calls, sort of Zoom without the visuals. Moving, sharing, and modifying files was an important part of the work being done.
Software that made this possible was Lotus Notes, a product that we were experimenting with and using heavily worldwide. Notes was a groundbreaking software design that made it easier to communicate and share data in ways not previously possible. I was deeply involved in its use and, in 1994, was asked to be the technical advisor for the first book on its usage, Creating Lotus Notes Applications. Today, the Internet and cloud storage serve similar needs.
Back to working from home: After I worked from home for a few months, I was asked to be the firm’s national telecommuting manager. This meant that I was to create guidelines for those working from home, establish technical requirements, and approve applications from those wanting to telecommute. When someone suggested that it would be important to have carbon monoxide detectors, I bought one for my own home. This work involved establishing guidelines for those working from home, to create boundaries between their work lives and their home lives. My company was never opposed to anyone working overtime; however, there was clear recognition that it was not healthy for anyone to be working constantly without breaks.
As one example, we recognized that someone with children would need to have established childcare, as they would not be available to attend to their children while working. We offered simple suggestions for how to create needed barriers, such as placing red or green signs on their office doors to indicate whether they could be interrupted.
A strong memory from those first telecommuting days was that my husband and I got a puppy, Saffron, who we adored. It seemed reasonable that I could attend to him as needed, taking a break and taking him outside. Much of my work was scheduled calls, with looser time in between, during which I had some flexibility.
One day, when Saffron was doing well in his training to signal when he needed to go outside, he signaled when I was on a critical phone call. I no longer remember the focus of the call, but I remember that I needed to continue with it and was unable to stop for a puppy-break. So, I watched as Saffron, trying to do what was right, could no longer hold it and peed on my office floor. If it were today, I could simply carry my phone outside, with Saffron on a leash.
During my time as telecommuting manager, I came to recognize some of the characteristics of those who were successful telecommuters and those who were not. People who were not well organized experienced many more challenges working from home. People who believed their jobs would be easier at home were often disappointed, because the jobs weren’t easier, in fact, were often more difficult. On the other hand, people who wanted to eliminate a long commute, expecting stronger work focus, were often successful.
Now, as Covid fears lessen and more people are vaccinated, who will want to return to the office? In my experience, successful telecommuters were proficient at connecting with others, even from home. Those who felt isolated were less successful, often choosing to return to the office, if given the opportunity. This past year has allowed many to telecommute who might not have chosen it otherwise. If given a choice, will they go back to the office or stay at home? And the companies, if they have the chance to reduce the cost of office space, will they even give their employees the chance to come back? My guess it that, mostly, it will work out and, inevitably, some people will not be happy with their options.
As my mind wandered through these memories, I recalled the first telecommuting expert that I knew, all those decades ago. Maybe the reason that I remembered him is because magnets that he provided so long ago are still on my metal file cabinet in my office. One of them has the heading, “What I really need is telecommuting!” and Gil’s contact information. Over the years, I have discarded most of the trinkets I had collected, but for some reason, I kept this.
Maya Angelou said, “People may not remember what you said, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.” Well, I remembered Gil’s kindness. I googled the website from long ago and it was still there, though the most recent entry was 2007.
Despite this, I sent an email to his at-least 25-year-old address, reminding him of our long-ago connection and inviting him to a Zoom call. He responded. Even more amazing, he agreed to a Zoom call, apologizing that he didn’t remember me. I assured him that, had I not kept his magnet, I would not have remembered him either.
The call was scheduled for later the following week, the first time we had the same time slot available. I anticipated the call with excitement and wasn’t completely sure why. We’d not had a personal relationship, just a relatively brief business connection. Nevertheless, I was excited to learn about his life, expecting that, like me, he would have retired several years ago. I wondered whether his work had continued with telecommuting consulting or if he had changed direction.
Our call time arrived and, there he was, onscreen, looking good! I hadn’t remembered what he looked like, so had no expectations. We talked easily and comfortably. He, like me, had transitioned to retirement about four years ago, after working part time for several years. He shared his joy in his four grandchildren and his sense of having had a good life. I heard in everything he said his appreciation for his family and a lifetime with a fulfilling career.
We talked about the changes in telecommuting over past decades, each of us recalling and relishing our chance to be at its beginning. Of course, we discussed the challenges that people experienced last year, being thrown out of their offices and classrooms, with no personal choice involved, no time for preparation, and relatively little support.
Then, we each shared a bit of our personal lives, which in important ways were quite similar. I told him about my volunteer work for social justice and climate activism. He described his work in making menstrual products available in his community, without charge to those in need, work that I also support locally. He is president of his synagogue, an extremely challenging task right now, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such a controversial issue.
We talked for about an hour, never running out of topics for conversation. When I mentioned my writing classes and my new-found desire to write, he disclosed his recent writing endeavors and generously allowed me to read it. He described how his desire for clarity informs his writing. That he successfully maintained and grew his telecommuting business over decades was strong proof that he was clear in his communications, yet he was conscious of this new writing and a different need for clarity.
Based on my reading and the many comments added to his site, his family and friends felt considerable appreciation for the details he included. He is not writing on a blog, but on Caring Bridge; he has pancreatic cancer.
Who knows what his future holds — or the future for any of us? What I do know is that Gil has invested in his life, his colleagues, his family, and in his community in the best possible way. Our conversation was a gift he gave to me, and I hardly know him. Thank you, Gil. Enjoy all of the days of your life.
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