In 1989, I gave a speech to a business class at Florida International University in Miami. During a question-and-answer session afterwards, one student, wise beyond her years, asked me if I thought that someday the traditional office would give way to employees in remote locations being connected via computers to their companies.Of all the people she could have asked, she asked the one who, 17 years before, had assured his friends and family that one of the dumbest ideas of all time was to pattern a TV series after the hit movie M*A*S*H.
True to form, I kept my record as the world's worst futurist intact with what, at the time, seemed a pretty valid argument. I told her that most people enjoy the structure of going to work. If nothing else, people are creatures of habit, and commuters usually have a set routine - coffee, newspaper and either catching the 7:14 into the city or driving to their offices. In addition, they usually enjoy the interaction with fellow co-workers, something they would not get working at home or in a remote one-person shop.
As an example, I offered up my then-bureau chief in Houston, who worked out of her home. The trouble was that when her husband returned from his job at the end of the day, he wanted nothing more than to recline in his favorite easy chair and let the cable TV wash over him. She, on the other hand, wanted desperately to get out of the house, since she'd just spent the previous nine hours within its confines. They've long since divorced, and to this day I remain convinced that their disparate working arrangements in no small part contributed to that.
But that occurred during technology's Jurassic period, when dial-up on an IBM 286 was considered cutting edge. Today you can't attend an accounting-related conference - or any industry gathering, for that matter - without several of its sessions being dedicated to employee retention and in-house strategies designed to keep your company's voluntary turnover percentage from mirroring that of a fast-food restaurant. And what seemed like a far-flung concept to me 15 years ago - the virtual office - today is just one part of achieving that popular catch-phrase, work-life balance.
When I entered the workforce, my employer's ideas of work-life balance were just slightly more progressive than those of C. Montgomery Burns, the autocratic power plant owner and employer of Homer Simpson. My boss' idea of a three-day weekend was to give you three Sundays a month off. Fortunately, things have changed a bit since then.
Recently, the American Institute of CPAs unveiled a low-cost program titled FlexWise, described as an online toolkit "covering policy and procedure guidelines, orientation training, and best practices in telecommuting, job sharing and compressed schedules."
A step in the right direction, to be sure, but many in the accounting profession have long since implemented myriad work-life balance strategies. More to the point, many are the result not of surveys and paid consultants, but of common sense and good communication.
And while I'm certainly an advocate of tiptoeing across that delicate balance beam of career and family, I remain intractable on the virtual office thing. I'm just a sucker for a regular commuter routine.
Otherwise I'd probably be sipping coffee in my pajamas, watching Regis & Kelly.
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