“Tell your coworkers where you’re calling from,” Ed said at the team meeting.
My heart stopped for a New York second, while I re-played what I had just heard. Was he really asking me to reveal the closely guarded secret?
Following my boss’s orders about teleconferences, I was speaking behind a closed door, from the phone in the bedroom. I was terrified that people back at the Connecticut office would hear the dog or any other noise in main part of our open-plan log house.
But you wouldn’t say no to Ed, the charismatic and innovative new head of the division.
“You really mean it?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.” And thus I blew my own cover.
This was a decade ago, in another era, ages before a BBC interview interrupted by the speaker’s toddler went viral online. (As soon as I saw it on Twitter last month, I wrote “Just shows that telecommuting is the new normal.” Several people re-tweeted my comment.)
When I began to work remotely from one of the most remote towns in the lower 48, it was a singular privilege–even at an global communications company where most internal communications were by email.
I had been commuting two hours each way, by subway, commuter train, and beat-up station car, from our home in Brooklyn to division headquarters in Connecticut. My boss and I were a new product team, just him and me in that office, working on a high-tech online project.
One day he asked me into a conference room. I wondered why we couldn’t talk in my cubicle.
Steve told me that he had gained permission to relocate to California, where his children and grandchildren lived. “That’s great!” I replied. “Does that mean I can stop commuting here from Brooklyn?”
“You know, I never thought of that,” he said. It was just him and me, after all, collaborating mostly by teleconference with some coworkers in Massachusetts and London. I had some esoteric skills that weren’t easy to replace in that corner of Connecticut. And thus I got unprecedented permission to work “remotely.”
Remote from head office in the suburbs, that is. Hardly remote in the other sense–from my home in one of the busiest cities on earth. It’s interesting that “remote work” was forbidden, while the office was in the distant suburbs, because real estate and living costs in the nearest city were so high. The employees with the right skills didn’t all live in that bedroom community. So many of us had long commutes.
Back in Brooklyn, I crowded my laptop desk into a corner of the kitchen, and later moved to a larger space in a dark, quiet, dusty corner of the basement which I hung with dried flowers to make it look more cheery.
Here in Dubois, I work in a large loft-like space with a grand view out every window.
How we came to be in Dubois is a story for another time. Suffice it to say that for years I had kept a poster across from my desk that showed a view up the draw into the badlands east of here. I used to gaze at it when things got too intense around the office. I also had an envelope full of old sagebrush in my drawer that I would open and sniff at when I got wistful.
I guess that was the start of the dream that we might live in Wyoming someday, although back when I first hung that poster after a vacation, the possibility didn’t even occur to me. It evolved slowly, from a wistful longing to the beginnings of a plan.
I telecommuted (responsibly and productively) from Brooklyn for several years before we bought a second home in Dubois. Luckily, the division head was willing to consider allowing me to work from Wyoming because I was doing well from Brooklyn. (Why did they care where I was, actually?)
But my boss’s rules were still strict, conveyed by phone from his new home in California: Arrive early for teleconferences. Sit in a quiet room where nobody on the line will hear house noises. And for heaven’s sake keep it a secret! Otherwise everyone will want to work from home. He had really gone out on a limb for me.
At first we lived part time in both locations, and took the four-day commute back and forth twice a year. I used vacation time for travel, but slowly I began to witness in person the mind-bending growth of broadband.
I’ll never forget completing an assignment for my graduate course on digital media management, as we were traveling on the Interstate toward Wyoming. I was reading on my laptop, via wireless Internet, an online reference in my coursework which predicted that soon you’d be able to work online while riding in a car. The future was happening, even as I read about it!
Eventually I was able to continue working all the way across the country, while my husband drove. By that time my situation was common knowledge, so I could tell folks back in Connecticut that I was about to enter a dead zone and that I’d get back to them in about an hour.
Visiting the head office from time to time, I noticed that the place was ever quieter, and ever more of the cubicles were empty. Coworkers were being allowed to work from home for all sorts of reasons, at least part of the time. It seemed that many of them didn’t feel the need to say exactly when they’d be back in the office. To someone who used to work in a newsroom full of typewriters, this was rather eerie. That’s only one of many reasons why I preferred my office at home.
Finally we saw no need to continue to tolerate the crowding and noise of New York City and that extraordinarily long commute. The Internet out here is far more reliable, the cost of living is far lower, and the views are indescribable. I get to go hiking on my lunch break. I can be as productive as I want to be, right out here next to wilderness.
We’ve entered a new era since I became a digital pioneer. These days, social media is packed with content for and by telecommuters: advice about remote work, products to make home-based workers more productive, link after link to articles talking about the “workplace of the future,” which (of course) is already here.
There’s one thing that still puzzles me. Why do so many people still assume that remote workers have to live in cities? (Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?)
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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