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May 1997

Guest Commentary by Al Jacobus             

A Day in the Life of a Teleworker

Al JacobusMy alarm goes off at 5 o'clock each morning. Most of the time I'm one of those people who can't wait to start a new day. This was a most-of-the-time day. I pulled the bed covers aside, slid out onto the floor and turned off the clock radio -- I was up.


I grabbed a pair of exercise shorts and went into the living room. Stretching, warm-up, low impact aerobics, and cool down all helped the morning coalesce into a great day. This was not an egg morning, so I had some cereal, discussed the news with my wife, sent our daughter off to school, and began to plan my business day.


Oh, by the way, I work for the State of California. I'm a Telecommunications Engineer with the Telecommunications Division of the Department of General Services. We do the communications for most of the state agencies. It's a big job. My client agency is Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation. The state has a telecommuting program, and I'm a part of it. I get to work at my home, and I love it.


On this particular day, I had to check on a job in Ukiah and make sure the technicians had all the parts they needed. The schedule for the big job in District Eight needed to be finished. I wanted to open my e-mail, check my voice mail, and give the boss a call at the main office to get the late-breaking news on office politics.


I took a shower and put on a pair of slacks and a wool sweater. If I were going to the main office today, I might have worn a tie, but not at home. Just enough dressing-up to convince myself that this was a work day. Then I took the ten-second commute to my home office -- a converted bedroom of our three-bedroom home. This engineer was going to work in style today!

If I were going to the main office today, I might have worn a tie, but not at home. Just enough dressing-up to convince myself that this was a work day. Then I took the ten-second commute to my home office ... This engineer was going to work in style today!   

I clicked on the computer and the hard drive began its whine as it reached for 3600 rpm, ready to belch data at the stroke of a key. The screen lit up and presented me with a menu. I pressed the key for "COMMUNICATIONS" and then the one that said, "CONNECT TO THE MAIN OFFICE." I like to call it the MO. The main office has a local area network. I like to call it the "MO Grid," or "the MOG," or sometimes simply, "The Grid." It gives me the illusion of something other-worldly; like a phrase from a science fiction story.


The modem connected to my computer dialed the MOG, the MOG called me back, and I was on The Grid. I got a feeling of power. I could now access the local area network at the MO. My day was getting better with each keystroke. I checked my e-mail. Someone was reminding me about a change in health benefits. It didn't apply to me, so I deleted it. Never let those maybe-I-will-need-it-some-day files accumulate. They're like rust that builds up in water pipes. One day it interrupts the flow and the water stops.


Another piece of e-mail announced a meeting at which a vendor was giving a presentation on a new antenna I wanted to learn about. I'll have to see if Marty is going. He always takes good notes and can get a copy of the literature. I sent him an e-mail note to that effect and asked him to call me after the meeting. That was all the mail for today, so I originated a note to the computer section guru asking about an upgrade to my spreadsheet program and exited the e-mail system.


I called my boss on the telephone, and he inquired about the status of a job at Telegraph Hill. I turned to my computer, which was still on the grid, and attached a copy of the project management file for that site to an e-mail message.

"OK, Dick, check your e-mail for the TELEHILL.T#0 file. It will give you the info you need," I said.


 "Thanks, Al. Let me see how you're progressing on the schedule for the District Eight job. I'd like to see the partial schedule by tomorrow morning." Dick likes to know about my progress. He should: It's his job to know what his people are doing.


"No problem. Check your E-Mail after eight tomorrow."


"We need to talk to Motorola today about the new controller for Santiago."


"I'll set up a conference call for one-thirty this afternoon, if that's a good time for you."


"Sounds OK to me. I'll be sitting on the phone."


"Maybe you should just sit next to the phone."


"OK. OK, I'll sit next to the phone."

"There goes my call-waiting tone, Dick. Hang on just a sec."


I put my boss on hold and answered the other call. It was Ukiah. They needed some more wire. I agreed to send it today.  "OK, I'm back," I said, "Ukiah wants some more wire."  "Better get to it. Talk to you later." Dick hung up.  I signed off, "Later."

I went to the computer, checked stock on the wire, made out an electronic parts request, and marked it for delivery to Ukiah. I indicated that it was urgent and should be shipped today. That was easy. Since I was already at the computer, I pulled-up Time Line and started to work on the District Eight schedule. Project management schedules take time to set up, but they sure can help you stay on track.


After a couple of hours working with project management schedules, I decided to take a walk around the yard to stretch my legs and clear my head. I grabbed the cordless phone, switched it to the Centrex line, clipped it to my belt, and went outside. Oh, yeah, I have a State Centrex line at my home office. That's how I can stay on line with the computer and use the other line to talk to my boss. No magic. Just technology.


As I walked around, I thought about how great it is to be able to work in an environment that is of my own making. It's quiet, I can set the temperature where I want, there are fewer interruptions, fewer phone calls, and I can be alone for a few minutes to relieve stress and renew myself when necessary.


I was thinking about when I started telecommuting. I started out two days a week. At first the problems were making sure I had all the materials I needed at the home office to do the job. I had to duplicate some materials, order additional vendor catalogs, and rediscover all of those things that I took for granted at the MO that were not at my home office. I never realized how much I used the copy machine until one was not available.

Telecommuting helps you become more organized and gets you thinking a few more days out into the future. If you don't get organized, you can't do the work. Bottom line.   

Telecommuting helps you become more organized and gets you thinking a few more days out into the future. If you don't get organized, you can't do the work. Bottom line.


Then there was the culture shock when I started telecommuting four days a week. Two days a week was nothing. The biggest problem telecommuting two days a week was all that stuff I had to carry back and forth. But, at four days a week, I lost contact with the society of the main work place.


Now, I've always been a self-starter. Nobody has had to come around and tell me what to do next. So, to some extent, I guess I was used to doing things on my own. However, that really didn't prepare me for the isolation that results when you telecommute eighty-percent of the time.


People are reluctant to call me when I'm working at home. Somehow it must seem to them that my privacy is being invaded. Of course, nobody comes around to my desk to chit-chat, and I don't hear, or overhear, all of that incessant chatter that goes on around the main office. I'd dropped out of the grapevine.


I gave up my desk, my computer, everything but a part-time cubicle for telecommuters at the MO. There was a personal sense of loss. I knew some readjustment was necessary. I bought some new furniture for my home office, moved things around, made everything as efficient as possible. It felt good. It was mine. My sanctuary. It was easier to work, and nobody was reminding me about how awful things were in the bureaucracy. Balance at last.


I began to find out more about myself; more about the people I worked with. My communication with them narrowed its bandwidth and its duration. The conversations became more efficient, shorter. Only occasionally did I get to talk about all of that juicy rumor stuff that goes on at the MO. I get it all at once, not in linear-time sequence. It feels good to plug into the grapevine now and then. But it's not like being there.


I sensed when people must have felt resentment about me working at home. Their voice shifted. I would hear things like, "Oh, you're working at home," and, "Gee, it must be nice." I didn't respond except to gently correct any mistaken thought that this was play and not work. I'm becoming more understanding.


I have become more aware of my work habits, such as how I react when I come to a stumbling block. When I was at the MO five days a week, it was easy to discuss a problem with a co-worker. Perhaps it was too easy. I tended not to figure it out for myself. While at the home office, I could have picked up the telephone and called someone, but I tended not to do that.


Now I use some of those creativity techniques I learned in the classes I had attended over the years. I put the problem away and work on another project for a while. Usually, the answer comes in a while. Maybe it's because of the quiet. I really prefer quiet to work. Whatever the reason, working through problems is easier. And there's always the telephone if I really get stuck.


Then I found I had to work with guilt. At first, I felt a little guilty because I was telecommuting and others who wanted to could not. I resolved that one. It was out of my control and I couldn't do much about it. All I could do was try my best to give telecommuting a good name, support the concept, and plant seeds of success where I could.


There was another problem. It dealt with those times when, for no apparent reason, I just didn't feel like doing anything. You know those times. You find an excuse to go talk to someone, or take an extended lunch, or find something to do that's equally nonproductive. You get through it.


But, when you're "working at home," it's another story. Then the quandary comes. You can't even make believe you're being productive. And no one is watching you. No one is checking up on you. You're on your own with your conscience. Let me pass a little secret on to you. If you start anything, chances are you will get back on task. I love computers, so I tend to start one of those programming jobs classified under "I'll get to it when I have a few free hours." Usually that does it. Once the creative juices get flowing, I can ease myself back to the day's real work. There are those times, however, when nothing seems to work. It helps knowing I'm not alone experiencing this but, most importantly, I don't let guilt build.


Sometimes I don't feel as though I have done all I could have done that day. At the MO, if I didn't perform up to my expectations -- or my boss's -- I might not feel successful that day, but I wouldn't let it get to me.   

At home there's only me and my expectations; and they are more demanding than my boss's or mine at the MO. ... The result is I have become more efficient, and the state is getting more for its buck.

At home there's only me and my expectations; and they are more demanding than my boss's or mine at the MO. The result is I have become more efficient, and the state is getting more for its buck. My only problem now is, How to explain all of this subjective stuff to my boss and others who are watching the telecommuting program?


Here I am in a position where it's really difficult to measure productivity. We don't make widgets that can be counted; our project time lines tend to be in months or years; all manner of things can happen in the field that destroy the best laid plans; and our client agency's priorities keep changing. At least when the frustrations start to accumulate, I can look out the window and be thankful I'm at home and nobody can hear the screams.


The cordless phone on my belt started to ring and brought me back to earth and my backyard.

"Telecommunications, Al Jacobus," I said into the mouthpiece.


"Hi, Al, this is Dick. Caltrans just called and they have a legitimate emergency in Stockton. I need you to get another base station installed down there by the end of the week. Can you handle it?" Dick asked.


Did you think I would say no, I can't handle it because I'm working at home? No way!

"Sure, I can handle it," I replied, "But I'll need a little help."


"You name it."


"Please have John fax the drawings I'll need to Franchise Tax Board. I'll run over there and pick them up. You remember that arrangement we made with them? Here's where it pays off," I said.


"Just let John know what you need," Dick said.


"Thanks," I said, "I'll get on it right away. Send me the job authorization on e-mail and any notes you have."


"Good as done. Thanks!" That was Dick. He was pleased. So was I.

Al Jacobus 
Sacramento, CA

Copyright 1997 Al Jacobus

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