“I came here full-time in 1991 in my early thirties as a technology enabled telecommuter and even went so far as to write a big utopian story for Forbes on how tech was going to transform the hinterland into a paradise of ISDN-enabled day traders, software programmers, and affluent bohemian “knowledge workers” who would phone it in via telepresence technology. Ha. As one old timer told me early on at the village post office, “You can’t be a fireman unless you live near the fire.” The story of my career has been: “Raise the family on the Cape, earn the living elsewhere.”
So I did. Here is the story of me and telecommuting and ultimately how we’re all telecommuters:
Among my many journalistic mistakes was a story I wrote for Forbes Magazine in the early 90s that painted a utopian picture of a wired rural society where ISDN-enabled “knowledge workers” would revitalize quaintly inexpensive farm towns and resorts with their Manhattan-sized pay checks direct deposited into their accounts at the Bailey Building and Loan Association. Goodbye to the tyranny of two-hour commutes and endless NPR fund drives, freed from the tedium of office cubicles and petty office politics and hello to Jetsonian H.246 teleconferencing, parents who could actually raise their kids (and home school them!) and a return to local life for the first time since the Industrial Revolution ripped our great-great-grandparents from the farm and chained them to a machine in a mill.
Ha. Having evenly divided my career between newsrooms/offices and home offices in bedrooms and various outbuildings, I am here to pass on what one old retiree told me in 1991after I decamped from Boston with my family to Cape Cod in search of pre-schools less competitive than Harvard, an actual backyard, and a quieter pace: “How can you be a fireman if you don’t live near the fire?”
Consider that twenty years ago – when I was writing that silly article — fax machines were marvelous things, most companies didn’t have email (if you needed email then you had MCI Mail or CompuServe). There was no Internet. The fastest PC was a 486, John Scully mismanaged Apple, and the height of wireless technology was a Motorola cell phone that resembled a Humvee. Videoteleconferencing cost a gazillion dollars. Digital cameras, let alone web cams were years away. Basically, life was lived at 9,600 baud on a Hayes modem, dialed into pre-Internet services like The W.E.L.L. and various BBSs.
I ordered an ISDN line from Verizon. They sent men in white coats and hard hats to come look at my house. I wrote an entire story about the ordeal. I was a pioneer. I was wired. CallerID was coming. I couldn’t wait.
The tools I needed to work from home came down to a PC that could dial into Forbes’ ATEX production system using a floppy-based program called “Send/Fetch,” the aforementioned fax machine to receive story proofs, and a touchtone phone with a headset for conducting interviews. That was it. Life was lived on the phone since no one had email other than a few geeky sources. I woke up, got the kids on the school bus, cleared the decks for the day, made a pre-emptive call to my editor to punch the virtual clock and then worked until three or four in the afternoon until the kids got off the bus. After dinner was when Forbes went to work – editors or fact checkers would call and keep me busy until nine. It was good. I started flowers from seed and learned how to fly fish.
This life was revolutionary at the time. None of my colleagues – present or former – did anything remotely similar. Everyone I knew worked in an office.
I grew my hair long. I wore atrocious slob clothing, attempted a moustache, and gained weight from seeking inspiration in the refrigerator. I joined the local library board. I was 32 years old and growing senile on what the optimists were calling “The Silicon Sandbar.” In all my time telecommuting from Cape Cod I never met a fellow “knowledge worker,” just carpenters, landscapers, fishermen and retirees. Where were the hedge fund managers? The coders? The novelists?
Given that Forbes only published 26 issues a year, it wasn’t surprising that I became one of the most prolific writers on the magazine’s masthead. I wrote out of boredom, looked forward to my monthly visit to Forbes’ elegant headquarters on lower Fifth Avenue, and was constantly bugging my editor for permission to travel to Silicon Valley or Seattle in search of cool technologies to write about. In other words, I was bored.
Within three years of arriving on Cape Cod I needed some cultural and social stimulus and a decent Indian restaurant. Those wishes were fulfilled in 1995 when I started Forbes.com and suddenly had a business to run and a staff to manage. What followed were five years of weekly plane rides on a Beechcraft 1900 from Hyannis to LaGuardia, living out of a suitcase, and trying to ride the Web 1.0 wave in Silicon Alley while maintaining a family 250 miles behind me on Cape Cod. All the video teleconferencing in the world wouldn’t have permitted me to manage Forbes.com, so, like a good fireman, I went to the fire. Any time I tried to get things done from the Cape all hell broke loose in some bizarre variant of Murphy’s Law. When my staff at Forbes.com broke the Shattered Glass expose I was in Paris trying to enjoy my 40th birthday with a Toshiba laptop, a useless cell phone, and a stack of useless phone and voltage adapters. So much for being there. My head wasn’t in France and my ass wasn’t in the newsroom in the midst of its biggest scoop ever.
The cultural swing between the work week in the city that never sleeps and the deserted winter beaches of Cape Cod was a bit too intense. The best advice on going home I received at the time from a fellow Cape to NYC commuter was: “No one missed you while you were gone, so when you get home, find a chair, sit in it, and eventually someone will come sit in your lap.”
Generally that someone was the family dog.
When I left Forbes and journalism to join McKinsey another wise soul said, “The virtual office virtually works.” Right. I found myself commuting 80 miles a day by car from the Cape to the lifeless Route 128 suburb of Waltham to sit in a cubicle and produce endless Powerpoints. Thankfully that operation had its plug pulled by McKinsey and I was transferred back to New York City, and once again was living the Cape Cod to Manhattan lifestyle I thought I had escaped in 2000. The only time telecommuting at McKinsey was actually a blessing was in the terrible days following 9/11 when flying was out of the question and very few people wanted to be in the city, including those who lived there.
The worst telecommute was Zurich to Cape Cod. Once big time zones get introduced then telecommuting becomes a misery. Swiss managers – to hopelessly generalize – like their staff to be under their noses. Trying to manage my staff from the Cape or the company’s Wall Street offices was impossible. After Zurich I worked for a Chinese company with offices in Raleigh, North Carolina and there I discovered commuting to work meant flying from Boston to the Research Triangle only to sit in an office staring at pine trees and spending most of the day on massive global conference calls while making fun of whoever was talking through instant messenger with my colleagues. The only difference between taking those phone calls from Cape Cod was latitude and better barbeque. Woe to the call participant who forgot their mute button. We learned to know the barks of each other’s dogs, the screams of unhappy children ….. The amount of travel – Bangalore, Beijing, Istanbul – meant I was basically telecommuting again, but instead of doing it from Cape Cod and a former whaling captain’s house on an IDSN line I was doing it from one hotel room or business lounge after another on $20 a day Wifi.
Today? Three days a week I work out of a nice townhouse near the Museum of Modern Art on 54th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues – pretty much right in the middle of the action. With one child remaining at home with only a year left before college, my wife and I are 13 months away from moving back to a city and letting Cape Cod revert back to being a weekend/vacation spot.
We’re all telecommuters now and it’s not paradise in the mountains or on the islands. We still live in the angry suburbs, commute bumper to bumper and cheek to cheek, but this time we’re also expected to be 100% available and well informed all the time, be it in the car, on the runway, or in a beach chair.
Enjoy your beach chair this August. The office will be waiting for you when you come back.