Tale of a Temporary Telecommuter

Reflections on the pros and cons of working from home

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to work for a company whose workforce is distributed. That is, a company whose employees work from home (or other office space) and use the internet to do their work and communicate with their colleagues.

Most of the time, the company I work for is staffed by on-site workers. But a recent construction project at our main campus forced a large number of us to work from remote locations. Thus, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to experience the life of a telecommuter for two weeks.

There were a lot of things that I loved about telecommuting. There were a few unexpected drawbacks as well. Overall, it’s an experience that I would love to repeat, and get to know better.

The Pros

  1. I saved time and money by not driving round-trip to the mother ship. My commute normally takes about a half an hour, so I saved an hour per day. That adds up to 260 hours per year. That’s the equivalent of 6 1/2 work weeks, or vacation weeks, depending on how you look at it. Also, it meant one less car on the road causing traffic and polluting the air.
  2. Better mental health. I slept an hour later on the days that I telecommuted. This, combined with the fact that I didn’t experience the stress of the morning commute, meant that I was happier and gave my freshest mental energy to my work.
  3. Better physical health. The natural light in my home office was a nice alternative to the fluorescent fixtures that illuminate the cubicle farm. I worked with my windows open, so I breathed a lot of fresh air. I was not tempted by the array of fattening snacks that well-meaning coworkers frequently leave out in common spaces. I did not breathe photocopier fumes, nor was I subjected to my coworkers’ colognes and fast-food smells.
  4. Silence. I loved that there were no distractions caused by people or machines. No beeping sounds, ringtones, email sounds, or text message sounds. No printer or shredder sounds. No incessant mouse clicks or clackity keyboard sounds. No fantasy football discussions or impromptu meetings taking place just outside my cubicle walls. I imagine that telecommuting employees with children, pets, or stay-at-home partners run the risk of being equally distracted by those influences. But I was completely alone, and I loved it. At one point my back yard was visited by a rafter of wild turkeys, but this provided a welcome afternoon break.
  5. The flow of work felt more natural. It seemed that my efforts were more task-based than time-based. The usual flow is: rush to get to work, work two hours, take a break, work two hours, eat lunch, work two hours, take a walk, work two hours, spend half an hour driving home. Repeat five times, then take two days off. Working from home feels more like: check messages, plan the day’s agenda, make some coffee, begin the first task, work until that task is finished, take a stretch break, begin the next task, respond to a request from a colleague, jog around the back yard for a few minutes, pick some chard from the garden, work some more, etc. The tasks seemed to unfold more organically throughout the day.
  6. I was every bit as available from home as I normally am in the office. In addition to my front-end web development responsibilities, there is a customer service aspect to my job, which I love. People have web- or design-related needs that they often don’t realize until the last minute. They call or email me for help. I solve the problem. They are grateful. I feel needed. It’s tremendously satisfying. Thanks to the work of the company’s IT department, there were systems in place that allowed me to do my job seamlessly from my remote location. I forwarded my office phone number to my home phone, and I could access all the internal resources I needed over a secure VPN connection.
  7. I was productive. I won’t claim that I was more productive than usual, but I would go so far as to say that I was equally productive. I attribute this to being happier, healthier, and less distracted, as noted above.
  8. I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed working in my pajamas and slippers.

The Cons

  1. I missed many of my coworkers. Even the ones who cause some of the aforementioned distractions. I am fortunate to work with great people, and for better or worse, we are like a big family. As effective a communication medium as the web is, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face discussion, with all the nuance and body language it provides. But I think that a meet-up once every week or two would suffice.
  2. I missed riding my motorbike. In the winter when it’s snowing, and when school is in session and traffic is dense, the commute is stressful. But in the summer when the weather is nice, I love to ride my motorcycle to work. I choose a mellow route that meanders over backroads through some beautiful, hilly farmland. It’s a nice meditation, and a nice way to bookend the work day.
  3. Network latency. I worked over a fast cable internet connection, but some unknown link in the chain throttled network speeds to a crawl. I’m not sure whether it’s simply the nature of VPN, or an under-provisioned server, or if it’s an issue with Adobe applications. Photoshop CC took 34 seconds to open a 52MB file off of a network drive, versus 7 seconds to open the same file saved to my local machine’s desktop. I quickly figured out that it was more effective to copy files down to my local machine, work on them there, then copy them back to the network drive when I was done.
  4. Telephone service. Out here in the country where I live, Verizon’s wireless signal is pathetic. Just about every phone call I take gets dropped or scrambled. This wasn’t a huge problem for my work, as I conducted most of my business asynchronously via email. But the handful of people who reached out by phone had to repeat themselves a couple of times.
  5. Time seemed to pass more slowly than usual. It felt a bit like jet lag at first. I attribute this to the absence of the habitual “structure” imposed by the normal work week: waking early, exercising, showering, donning the business-casual attire, commuting, etc. I created a new structure during my two weeks of telecommuting, but it felt unfamiliar, and it took almost the whole two weeks for my circadian rhythms to adjust to it.

In Conclusion

Obviously there are certain types of jobs (doctor, nurse, law enforcer, repair person, manufacturer, laborer) that require a physical presence at a particular work site. But for programmers, designers, writers, and other mostly computer-based professionals, telecommuting—even part of the time—seems like a reasonable and environmentally-responsible option. Kudos to the companies that trust their employees, and explore this modern approach to work.

Apple of My Eye

Sometimes bad things happen to good software.

It is an interesting time to be a customer of Apple computers, devices, and software. The hardware is gorgeous and efficient. The iOS 8 and Mac OS X “Yosemite” operating systems are powerful. Many aspects of the new software interfaces are delightful. I like where things are going with cloud-based services and the vision of seamless syncing among devices. But the transition to this new era of Apple software design is not without its growing pains. Continue reading “Apple of My Eye”

Remembering Hillman Curtis

A tribute to Hillman Curtis, one of the world’s great creative minds who died of cancer in 2012

Hillman Curtis had been one of my personal heroes since the early 2000s. I had discovered one of his short films featuring the music of what would become one of my favorite bands, Mogwai. I promptly went out and bought his 2002 book MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, and it became one of the handful of books that shaped my own creative aspirations over the years.

One of the things that made Hillman such a compelling influence for me is that his career trajectory foreshadowed and in some ways mirrored my own. He had been a student, a creative writer, a musician in a rock band, a graphic designer, a web designer, and ultimately a filmmaker.

What’s the Story?

In his book (MTIV stands for Making the Invisible Visible), one of the things Hillman taught is that success in creative projects usually depends on how clearly we understand and present the central theme of whatever story we are telling (whether it be our own or that of our clients). In his eponymous video, he characterizes his own theme as “Reinvention.”

I would add that it wasn’t reinvention merely for the sake of change. That would have been easy enough to justify: we live in a society mesmerized by “all that is shiny and new.” What struck me about Hillman’s serial self-reinvention was that there was a deep level of continuity to it. Every evolution built upon the successes of the previous incarnation.

Studying creative writing led to writing songs; which in turn led to his going on the road with a band. His band needed posters to advertise its shows, so Hillman stepped up and taught himself that craft. And with computer skills under his belt, it made perfect sense to move his creativity online when the whole Web thing happened. Motion graphics on the Web became a big deal (and a lucrative business opportunity), and Hillman evolved to become a master of Adobe’s (née Macromedia) Flash technology. When Flash became the go-to platform for delivering video over the Web, the path became clear once again, and Hillman had an opportunity to circle back to his writing and filmmaking roots.

On this, the anniversary of his passing, I’m taking a few moments to appreciate his gifts and his influence upon my creative life.

A few related links

Celebrating a Decade Online

My website—tracemeek.com—has been online since February 7, 2001.

Big Boy figurine

While reviewing and organizing some old digital files and accounts recently, I was both startled and overjoyed when I stumbled across a reminder that this website—tracemeek.com—had been online for over a decade. Since February 7, 2001, to be exact.

And then a twinge of sadness crept over me. Ten years seemed like an auspicious anniversary to have let slip by with such little fanfare. Where have I been? What have I been doing? How did I get this far? So I thought I would make amends by writing a little about this site’s history, and by recommitting to its future development. This also serves as the inaugural long-form essay in my second decade online, and coincides with the launch of a brand new website.

My formative years on the Web

Back in the late 1990s when I first went online, I was a recent college graduate and artist working in an art-related manufacturing industry. I saw the Web as an opportunity to promote my art work to a wider audience than I had previously known. Being a do-it-yourselfer, I set about learning how to build my own online art portfolio.

I quickly outgrew iTools (Apple’s WYSIWYG webpage creation tool at the time), yet the prospect of hand coding a site using a text editor (SimpleText) was still a little daunting. A coworker with friends in the web design industry told me that she had heard good things about Macromedia (now Adobe) Dreamweaver. So I bought the software and built my first real site by trial and error, reading everything I could about web design along the way, and loving every minute of it.

By today’s standards the code under the hood of my first site was disastrous, but I was online, Baby, and there was no looking back.

Rumblings of change

At some point along the way I began to see another opportunity emerge: a potential new career path. “If I can build a website for myself,” I thought, “I can build websites for other people, and make a better living doing something I enjoy.” The barriers to entry seemed relatively low: I wouldn’t need to go to the equivalent of law school or medical school in order to build a legitimate web design practice. I discovered websites like A List Apart (ALA) that published free (and priceless) articles that helped me to learn the art, the science, and the trade of web design. ALA was founded by Jeffrey Zeldman, a pioneer of publishing on the web and the preeminent champion of Web Standards.

In and of itself, this course of self study probably would have sufficed, but in order to gain more in-depth technical knowledge, build professional credibility, and academically affirm what I was already learning on my own, I entered and completed a Master CIW Designer professional certification program at STCC, worked an internship, scored a couple of freelance gigs, landed my first real design job, then the rest was history.

Consequently, at some point during the early aughts my site entered its adolescence (or was it extended childhood?) with an awkward multiple identity: fine art portfolio, aspiring mural painting business, and web design business, all lumped together under the label of Creative Services. My accountant assured me that it made sense on paper, but I struggled for several years with the breadth of the endeavor. While such diverse Creative Services may be an apt metaphor for my oeuvre—the spirit of my life’s work—it did not make for the most cogent business model, and ultimately proved to be unsustainable. So I contented myself with my role as an in-house web designer, which it turns out is not a bad place to be.

To blog or not to blog? That was the question.

Later I blogged in fits and starts (briefly in 2003, and again from 2007-2009), but ultimately scrapped those projects while I still had some water left in the proverbial well. Both my personal and professional life were in flux, so I choose a handful of priorities to receive the lion’s share of my attention. I needed to put writing on the back burner for a while, but I pledged to resume the practice when it fit more comfortably into my life. I wasn’t finding my public Voice then, and that was OK. It was the right battle, but at the wrong time.

Nor did I fully comprehended the scale of the Web—the fact that I wouldn’t be writing for just myself, friends, family, and business associates, but potentially for a worldwide audience. The responsibility of having such a global voice was intimidating. Would my small town musings seem petty on this big important world stage? How would I forge a connection? How would I keep trolls and stalkers at bay? How would I avoid being perceived as one? Already I’d had mixed success in attempting to befriend my heroes online. I had only experienced real-world rejection up to that point; would I be able to handle a whole new flood of potential rejection on a worldwide scale?

And then there were the technical considerations of blogging. At the time, I had not yet experienced the joys (and the heartaches) of wrangling with content management systems (CMSs), so I wasn’t quite ready to redevelop my site using one of these platforms. Needless to say, manually managing a growing body of content became laborious.

So I poured my energy into other creative pursuits. All the while I’ve been engaged in the Web and its people. But I’ve been listening, reading, commenting, and storing up energy more than I have been speaking up. It is possible that this may eventually change. Exposing our ideas to the judgment of others is a risk that we take living in this world. For all its ills, social media has given us a gift: the permission to express ourselves extemporaneously on the web.

Happy (social) medium?

Oh sure, I use the microblogging and third party sharing platforms—the Twitters, the Flickrs, the Facebooks, and what have you. These are hardly a substitute for one’s own personal/professional website, but with their built-in communities and their occasionally well-designed tools, they do enable one to develop a form of “web presence” without having to build a website from scratch.

On Twitter, I often feel like I’m hollering (or whispering) into the Abyss (à la the movie Garden State) rather than personally connecting. Still, it seems meaningful enough to be worthwhile. Like little mental calisthenics or musical scales, I can develop my voice without the more intense responsibility of gestating ideas into more fully-fledged essays. That’s not to say that there haven’t been golden moments on Twitter. I’ve been moved by certain tweets (1, 2, 3, 4). And there have been more than a few tweets that have helped me to solve a work problem or to better understand an issue relevant to my career, government, or society.

On Facebook it’s more personal. I put a lot more thought into the work that I share there, and the way I interact. On Facebook, people feel more familiar. But I still measure my words.

Long before I tiptoed into sharing via these relatively new sharing services, I contributed photos to the Mirror Project (1999-2005), a photographic community curated by the inimitable Heather Champ. And I lurked around the fringes of Fray—a magazine of true stories and original art edited by Derek Powazek. There, I interloped and read, but did not contribute; I dreamt of a day when I would be so bold as to comfortably and confidently express myself in this brave new medium. Little did I know that self-expression would rarely be comfortable.

But for all the wonders that these online communities have wrought, I have been longing for something more. A property of my own. A place to be. Preferably with a wraparound screened-in porch, crickets, and stars at night. Near a pond to skate on in the winter. Hopefully this will be it. Or an integral part of it.

And then there is mortality

One of the aspects of life that starts to hit home the longer you live is that more and more people you know and love die. Some leave by way of tragic accident, well before their rightful time. Others succumb to disease. Still others simply live to a ripe old age and follow the rules of DNA to their peaceful repose. As profound and sad as the loss of these significant individuals is, it is no more nor any less than an inevitable part of life—the life that we are all a part of and will ultimately manifest in our own way, in our own time.

So part of the impetus here may be to leave a bit of a legacy. If I can share something that teaches or enlightens someone (including myself) or brings a smile or a laugh or a tear, then I will have succeeded, and the building of this site will have been worth the effort. Otherwise, I’ll just have all of these ideas swimming around in my head—not doing anyone any good—until that great day of reckoning.

But to keep things in perspective, this website will be impermanent as well. At some point the delivery formats may change, the servers may crash, I will stop breathing and will consequently stop paying my web hosting bill, and this site will shut down. And that will be OK. Then again, it is possible that at some point there will be a sort of a massive free archiving system (Google?) that will prolong the inevitable erasure for a hundred or a thousand years. More likely, this will all go the way of Yahoo! Geocities and the eight-track tape. Sometimes, in spite of our noblest efforts, things stop working and we just have to let go.

But I am not ready to let go just yet

Bringing this full-circle, my intention with this website re-dedication is simple. Be myself. Welcome you. Hopefully entertain. Get some of these ideas out of my head and onto the digital paper. My inner idealistic 20-something still wants to save the world through his art, but a more seasoned me has begun to accept that more modest goals may illuminate more sustainable paths. And I’ve grown to feel that simplicity and happiness are noble goals in and of themselves. I will end this essay with one of my favorite quotes, which is a nice touchstone for any endeavor, but particularly for the creative efforts that I publish to this website:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.

—Gil Bailie