Working from home isn’t a new concept, just an increasingly necessary one. Computers have pointed us in that direction for almost 50 years. When my mother insisted that I take the first computer programming elective offered at my high school during the 1960s, I thought she was nuts. I was focused on learning Russian and preparing for a catastrophic moment in the Cold War. But Mom informed me in her soft sweet voice that computers were the change shaping the future and she was commanding, not suggesting. And if that weren’t weird enough, she insisted that I take a typing class to ramp up my keyboard speed.
Mom was ahead of the curve, but not alone. In 1969, a scientist at the US patent office wrote about how computers would change life and work. Five years later, the term “telecommuting” made its debut when an oil crisis made the usual commuting habits expensive and exhausting. It took time for the computers I worked on to shrink from an entire building, to an entire floor and then to a nonprofit in an office building. In the 1980s, my small office installed a computer network and, can you believe it, made me the IT guy. Rebooting meant taking apart a hard drive and cleaning it with a number 2 pencil eraser. Muttering to my now deceased mother, I followed the directions by phone, a land line in those days, from a computer expert who actually knew what he was doing.
A personal computer became my lifeline in 1990 and instead of the 2 1/2 hour daily commute back and forth to the office in downtown Chicago, I worked from home. The popular term for that situation was “too sick to work”. I was devastated but soon, I launched some of the most creative projects of my career using that computer. No longer feeling sorry for me, former colleagues and connections felt sorry for themselves that they hadn’t seen it coming.
When I finally went back to “real jobs” I took my computer skills with me and upgraded their use in every office that I inhabited. When illness grabbed me again years later, and I was self-quarantined for months, creativity, innovation, and technology surfaced like an island rising from the sea. Technology gave me the ability to connect locally and globally. I could feel my mother smiling down at me.
I tell this story to give us all hope that our new work-at-home culture during this pandemic should not totally flatten us with despair. Yes, we need to get back to work: manufacturers, stores, supply chains, educators, restaurants and much more. But many will continue to work online solo and with teams. The future of leadership is being born as we sequester. While the economy will struggle until medicines, tests, and vaccines evolve, new technologies, products, and programs hum in minds everywhere.
New ideas aren’t confined to the email blasts on how to use Zoom and communicate long-distance. Or how to show empathy online to get teams through this stressful time. Think bigger! For example, look at climate change. There’s a reason why this administration is negating environmental regulations during this pandemic. They know what’s coming and doing this while we’re looking the other way. But expect a global resurgence of Going Green after our current experience of unpolluted air. The creatives will come together online to innovate us into a new normal. So let’s go where no one has gone before. As expressed by Star Trek’s Spock, and Mom, “Change is the essential process of all existence.” Engage!