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About David Fleming

May - June 1998

Commentary by Gil Gordon                    

It Changed Our Lives!

David Fleming's kind invitation to write this commentary was based on these two questions, which sound like something from one of those parodies of a college entrance examination:

1.  "Highlight the most personally exciting, fulfilling moments you have experienced as a pioneer, creator, instigator, promoter, teacher and student of the telework/commute universe."

2.  "What has telework meant to each of your family members, by name, and how has it influenced their lives? Include yourself and your pets."


Since our tropical fish never learned touch-typing and our little aquatic frog hid under a rock when I invited him to comment, it looks like you're stuck with my own responses.


In The Beginning ...

It was July 1, 1982 when I officially opened for business, after almost ten years of corporate experience with Johnson & Johnson.   In a way, going downstairs that morning to the spare bedroom that had become my office may have been one of the most exciting moments in these last sixteen years.  It certainly was one of the most frightening: our son was just over three years old, my wife was pregnant with our second child, I had given up a great career and steady paycheck with a first-rate company, and I was sitting on a folding chair at a bridge table wondering just what in the hell I had done.  If that doesn't define "excitement," then nothing does.


I knew then, and still know today, that it was the right move.  I can't pretend to be quite the pioneer or visionary people claim I am, and readily cede that title to my friend Jack Nilles who was truly the inspiration for all of us.  I'll take some credit for helping to popularize the concept of teleworcommuting* and - against some strong odds - persisting to get the word out to the business community.  I believed deep in my soul then and still do today that it is fundamentally outdated, silly, and wrong to bring all the workers to the workplace every morning.  We did it at the farm and the factory but don't need to do it at the office.


*(This is my half-hearted attempt to bridge the gap between the lexicographical debate between "telecommuting" and "telework" - as I say on my Web site, I don't care what you call it as long as you do it ...)


Pop The Cork

There sits on my desk now an aging cork from a champagne bottle, with the handwritten inscription:




That cork came out of the bottle when I had my first paying customer - it was Mead Data Central in Dayton, Ohio, at that time the parent company of what is now known as Lexis-Nexis, the huge legal and news database provider.  That was the first time anyone actually committed to pay me to consult about telecommuting.  Until then, I was spending half to two-thirds of my time talking about telecommuting to anyone who'd listen - and then listening to them give me lots of reasons why it was a crazy idea. Fortunately, I was still doing a lot of general human resource consulting in the meantime, and that's what kept the roof over our heads - sometimes barely - and kept our (now) two growing children clothed and fed.


"It Changed My Life"

Those were the words that marked one of the other more memorable moments in my sixteen years in this field, and they came out of the mouth of a near-tearful telecommuter who worked for the State of California. (This is not a paid political advertisement for David Fleming, who at the time was my client for the project to implement a large telecommuting pilot for the State of California's employees.  Under Jack Nilles' direction, Joanne Pratt and I spent more time in Sacramento than any of us imagined we'd ever spend, and managed to help David achieve his well-deserved status as champion of the first major state project.)


We were doing a focus group of some of the early-round telecommuters in 1989 or 1990, and one woman was describing how she had been able to regain some sanity in her life by having a couple of days a week in which she could exchange the hectic commute-driven schedule for something more reasonable.  As she told the story - and I truly do not remember her name, her job, or any of the details - she began to light up and finally spoke those words that quite dramatically captured exactly what telecommuting meant to her.


Much more recently, David mentioned something to me in passing in an e-mail note; his comment made its way into my keynote talk at the 1997 TELECOMMUTE conference.  "We may not be making a fortune," he observed, "but we are making a difference."  That sums up much of telecommuting for me: this isn't only about improved staffing, lower expenses, better work performance, cleaner air, and all the rest.  It's also about enabling some very stressed-out, stretched-out workers to better balance their work and their lives, and to enjoy both much more.  It is incredibly gratifying to think that I've had even a small role in making that happen.


Life in the Gordon Household

Let me bridge from how telecommuting changed that California worker's life to how it has affected, and changed, the lives of the four of us in this house.  (I won't speak for the pets - we'll save that for the next installment.)


As is so often the case, the pros and cons of working from home are intertwined with the pros and cons of being self-employed.  I have tried to constantly remind myself and others that these are two very different though related issues, and continue to feel that the distinction is crucial.


It's hard to say whether I enjoy working for myself more than I enjoy having my office at home.  This is really a "chicken-and-egg" question.  A reporter recently asked me why I set up my office at home, and the answer was easy: it was cheap, it gave me a chance to practice what I was beginning to preach, and it would give me more opportunity to be with my family.  In retrospect I'd reverse the order of those three reasons, because the luxury (which I do believe it is) of having more time with the kids as they were growing up was the most important.


I often joke about the permeable boundaries between my work and home lives - to the point of ending my written biography with the line, "He has worked at home since 1982, where (among other things) he is generally responsible for doing the laundry and other household chores."  It's good for a laugh but there's more to it - for better or worse (actually, for better AND worse), my work has become part of my home life and vice versa.  I can tell you more about laundry sorting and stain removal than you need to know.


Our son, Adam,  is now a college sophomore, and our daughter, Lisa, is a high school sophomore.  They are far beyond the point when I was the class parent in nursery school, the T-ball, baseball, and soccer coach, the designated after-school driver, and all the rest.  But I would like to think that my presence paid off for them.  My wife Ellen and I are blessed with two fantastic kids, and this is in part because we were fortunate enough to have been able to spend time with them and be with them.


Ellen took several years off from her teaching career when the kids were very young, but has been back to work for a long time.  It was exceptionally rare that there was not at least one parent home when the kids got home from school each day when they were younger.  I realize that other parents can make that claim, and many more would like to.  One the reasons I was home a lot was because there were many periods when my consulting business was slower than slow, and I was home because nobody was paying me to be elsewhere or even paying me to do something from home.  The saving grace in those dark periods (which, thankfully, are behind me for the most part) was knowing that I had the chance to watch those kids grow up and be a part of it.


And What About Me?

Come to think of it, I'm a member of this household too.  My life has been enriched by both the work location, the nature of self-employment, and the opportunity to help many other people come closer to achieving what they want from their lives - and helping their employers get what they want also.


Every now and then - though much less often in the last few years - I ask myself, "Do I really want to keep doing this, or is it time to go back to a 'real' job?"  The answer was always the same: a definite "no."  There's just no way I could go back, no matter what it would mean financially. I've become spoiled by the flexibility, I feel like I'm aging less quickly than many of my corporate peers, and my tolerance for corporate BS has reached an all-time low.


If all this describes what has happened in the last sixteen years, I'm forced to wonder about what I'll do in the next sixteen years or beyond. To tell the truth, I'm not sure.  The telecommuting/telework field has grown, shifted, been turned on its side, and otherwise mutated from anything I thought it would be.  That change has for the most part been positive, and I haven't quite figured out what part of it I'll continue to pursue.


In the meantime, I'll keep on keeping on - doing my newsletter, consulting, Web site, conference, speaking - and laundry.


Gil Gordon
Gil Gordon & Associates

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