Last week, I laid out seven tactical ideas about how to make the "new normal" of telecommuting better (given that I've been doing it for nearly two decades). And in our recent "From/To", we cited work moving from the cubicle to the couch, the tools of work moving from being centralized to decentralized, hierarchies-to-wirearchies, and 40 other ideas about the future of work.
So maybe it's "too soon" in the midst of World War V ("V" for virus) on COVID-19, but pull up a chair with me and I'll tell you a story... A story of how I initially came to making my home office my ONLY office.
Because in my case, working from home was somewhat hard-fought, initially.
* * *
The second job I had out of college was for a small, boutique IT services consultancy in Mountain View in the mid-90s. The vast majority of us were in our early 20s, but our CEO was a distinguished-looking and -sounding British gent in his sixties. But Gen X, he was not.
In those pre-Twitter, pre-Salesforce, pre-Everything days, the center of gravity of Silicon Valley was still down in the valley. It was a time when HP was the “hot” Silicon Valley company, people were running out of Gil Amelio’s Apple with their hair on fire, and – unbeknownst to us Mountain View kids – Google was literally being unvented under our noses next door.
And San Francisco? The dot-com boom was just beginning to get sonic, but absolutely unlike anything of today’s (or was it yesterday's?) Tech 2.0 boom. In the mid-nineties, most of SF’s Financial District skyscrapers were humming in banking, (re)insurance, medical services, etc. But SF was an absolutely killer place to live, as it is today… And if you hunted around a bit, you could still live there pretty cheaply (positively the opposite of today... or was it yesterday?).
Because of that, most of the twenty-something analysts in our little company chose to live in “The City”. Certainly not in “The Valley”, which was for the older, wiser, beardy-er types.
SF was where the action was.
Even if it meant having to make the 2+ hour roundtrip commute by car to Mountain View… Every…Single… Day. And the expectation of our eminence grise CEO was that your rump was to be in your desk at 8:00 AM, wearing a tie. To pick up your voicemails, that were literally pieces of paper, marked “Voicemail: From/To”, and impaled in-the-order-in which-they-were-received on a little chrome spike on our desks.
The only internet connection was at one, solitary “magic” desk (this, a company of 50 people, mind), located in a windowless closet under a mishmash of wires comprising our plywood mounted T-1 line (look that up, Gen Z’ers). We called it "The Cave".
If you were slightly late to work (“Shoot, I got stuck in traffic”), the response was somewhere between “Is there a problem we should know about?” and Henry Hill in Goodfellas: “Stuck in traffic? Pay me…”
We all knew there HAD to be a better way. I had telecommuted a bit in my prior gig at HP – it was cool, no big deal. HP gave me a tidy little mid-90s era laptop to use. Surely at our little startup, we could enlighten our CEO that telecommuting would be an OK option for us? Once in a while, yes? From The City?
We’ll make the case!
A taskforce was formed. We’re all in agreement – he’ll have to agree! The man had reputedly “been at Woodstock”. The Man knew the merits of a bottle of Chateau Margaux. The Man had a groovy poodle. Surely The Man must be persuadable about the merits of telecommuting, right?
The best arguments were planned and gamed-out, well in advance of the sit down to close the deal.
The Man's response?: “Telecommuting? Telecommuting?! Are you crazy? Answering a customer inquiry – or, heaven forbid – a customer’s CALL, in your jammies? Telecommuting?!! I call it… tele-shirking!”
And that was that.
The moment was so Gen X. Sort of like Campbell Scott and Tom Skerritt’s “Supertrain” scene in that most-Gen-X of movies, Singles (great soundtrack, BTW…).
Like Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer would famously do two decades later, our CEO flippantly dismissed a perfectly reasonable alternative to maintain work-life balance. Morale plummeted. Weekly deliveries of free Togo’s sandwiches (on Wednesdays!), or free Modelos at Fiesta del Mar on Fridays couldn’t buck up our spirits.
Eventually though… he did come around, largely because I think our thirty-something COO (and co-owner of the firm) quietly made the case… and then the both of them promptly sold the company to Gartner for a tidy sum (more clams for Margaux).
* * *
I never worked in Mountain View again, trading my digs on Shoreline Blvd and my wife and I trading our cheap apartment in San Francisco in 1999 for London. And a sweet, super modern Gartner office in Surrey, UK (without which, I doubt I’d be a member of the Center for the Future of Work today, but that’s another story).
And the last time I pulled out of our Mountain View parking lot, I probably passed Sergei Brin or Larry Page in front of Fiesta del Mar, snooping around for locations for the Google-plex.
As I said last week: Be well. May your family be well. Work hard. Let your couch be your cubicle (for a little while, at least). And grab this opportunity to show “The Man” (or the Marissas of the world) that one thing telecommuting is NOT is… teleshirking.