Life, work, family become one in home office

For those who keep their work at home, not having to commute frees up hours. Just limit the chores to taking out the garbage.

“Stop fuming. Go Green” is Trans­ Link’s catch phrase to encourage more commuters to take the bus. Since February of this year. I have done even better. I have been staying home. Instead of commuting to work every day and clogging up traffic, I now work from my home office. My wife jokingly told me my employer is preparing me for early retirement by sending me to work at home. It is quite a change for us to be seeing so much of each other after my years in municipal politics and active business and community life. It took a while for the two of us to get used to the idea that I am at home – but not really at home. For example, taking the garbage out in the morning is still fine but helping to clean the barbecue will have to wait till the weekend.

The elimination of the one-hour-plus daily commuting time affords me an extra hour to live my life in each working day. I have to be careful, of course, not to expand the work to fill the extra time available, or to spend it working rather than enjoying life. The temptation to use those extra hours to work is real. The work is there and the office is so close by.

The other thing I have to be careful about is not to spend too much time enjoying the nice sunshine in the backyard. For a home-office worker, striking that balance is important. Working at home takes a lot of discipline, not to mention the ability to manage one’s time and information flow. Almost by definition, a home office is an office that is without a secretary. Typing and file management skills become es­sential assets. For those who consider the loss of a personal secretary a loss in social status, working out of home may not be a viable option.

One of the biggest downfalls of working at home is the lack of face time with your co­workers. The water cooler chat is out. The morning group trek to the coffee shop is out. The unscheduled “let’s-grab-a-­sandwich-and-talk’ is out.

In its place are internal e­mails, external e-mails, regular phones, cell phones and faxes. So, despite the occasional feeling of isolation, I am actually more accessible now then ever. The use of the new communication technology demands a new set of skills, including what Bill Gates calls “asynchronous communication” in his book The Road Ahead.

Again, there are people out there who refuse to adapt to this new message-oriented mode of communication. They insist on leaving their message with a real-life secretary. My advice? Change with the times or be left behind. Someone I work with likes to leave cryptic voice mail messages such as: “Hi, Tung, this Charlie, please call me.” This might have been a perfectly good message for a switchboard operator but it is not an asynchronous communication.

People have to start treating their voice messages as letters. No one would write a letter to someone just to ask the receiving party to write back. A voice message should contain a detailed outline of the reason for the call and expected response.

The concept of working in a location away from home was introduced in the industrial society. The service society basically continued the model of the industrial society by forcing workers to travel to a central location. In the information society, people can work at home again, and the cycle is complete. What this means is a person’s work and home life can be seamlessly blended into one. Parents can look after a child while working in his home office.

The millions of dollars the current government is thinking of spending on child care may no longer be necessary if more people can work out of home, The demand for transportation infrastructure will also be greatly reduced, along with pollution, as fewer people commute.

In the rezoning of Downtown South in 1992, Gordon Campbell’s council removed millions of square metres of office space and turned them into residential space. The objective was to let people live close enough to the downtown business core to allow them to walk to work.

Society now has the technology to let people not only work close to home but actually work at home. Government and policy makers should encourage companies to help their employees to work from their home offices. Meanwhile, I hope with a wider acceptance of the asynchronous mode of communication, one day I won’t have to wait till the weekend to help my wife clean the barbecue.

© (This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun on Friday, August 27, 1999)

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