231-922-9460 | Google +

Monday, May 17, 2010

Shelving the Home Office

The Detroit News

A friend who writes a newspaper column asked a timely question to his online network of his fellow sufferers, including me.

He wanted to know whether, in this age of e-mails, the Internet, call forwarding and Skype videoconferencing, we preferred to work at home or in our downtown offices. I was relieved to discover that two-thirds agreed with me: The office is better.

I was relieved because I don't want to fall behind the times. Of course, we were a pretty old-school group. I think almost all of us could remember typewriters.

And we were journalists, who work in a special kind of workplace. When we think of "the office" we think of newsrooms. Regardless of the city or town it serves, the newsroom traditionally offers a special menagerie of co-workers with quirks, talents, special skills and human failings far more interesting than anything that ever gets into print or on the air.

Generations of columnists have roamed the aisles between those desks, cheerfully cajoling their workmates and trolling for column ideas as gratefully as homeless drifters working their way along the cars at a stoplight with Starbucks cups.

But times are changing in workplaces of all sorts. The "virtual office" is in vogue. The industrial-age view that "presence equals productivity" is beginning to fade as employers, as well as workers, see advantages to home offices and other flexible work policies, Ellen Galinsky, president and a founder of the 21-year-old nonprofit Families and Work Institute, writes in her blog. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 threat and the recession have persuaded employers to see business advantages in home offices and other flexible work policies, including more "fully engaged employees."

Galinsky joined other advocates at a White House conference on flexible work recently where President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama spoke glowingly of working at home and other "virtual offices" to reduce business overhead costs, raise productivity, save jobs and improve family life. When you have the opportunity that this new age affords you to escape traditional brick-and-mortar spaces, say the Obamas, use it.

Good points all. Still, despite modern technical advantages, breaking out of the traditional office routine can require personal emotional adjustments. Working from home makes me, for example, feel oddly distanced from my co-workers, like a prisoner tapping codes on a wall to communicate with fellow inmates.

Editorial staffers at Inc. magazine report similar experiences in their current issue after spending the month of February working outside their plush New York City offices as an experiment in the future of work. In the first week, at least, the future didn't look so good.

"(M)any of us were very nearly losing our minds," senior writer Max Chafkin writes. "Some forgot to eat lunch; others ate way too much. Our feet were cold; our backs ached; and, in a few dire cases, our relationships suffered."

Fortunately, the adjustment problem brought new opportunities, like mobility. After a few days of "feeling starved for human contact," Chafkin writes, he began to spend more time in coffee shops and "another ridiculously underrated place to get work done: the public library."

Indeed, the media guru Marshall McLuhan would smile at that. He used to say that every new technology eventually "reverses back" onto itself. How appropriate, then, that the new computer age leads us back to public libraries.

Investors take note: As independent bookstores, CD stores and -- irony of ironies -- computer stores disappear like mastodons from our cityscapes, the value of library-like alternatives to home and the traditional workplace may well increase, especially if they serve food, drinks and wireless internet connections.

"Consider your culture," Chafkin advised companies considering going virtual. Like the newsroom culture I appreciate, his editorial colleagues missed the "culture of collaboration" on which magazines and other trend-spotting media thrive.

"My job really became just about my job," said a photo director. "I missed the distractions and surprises that my co-workers bring to the day."

I understand. Some of the best things about newspaper and editorial offices don't sound very efficient, but somehow they work.

I'd like to ask my own colleagues what they think about that, but I'm working at home today.