I have been working as an independent consultant for almost nine months now. This is my second go-around - the first lasting around seven years. The times have been more good than bad but every once in a while I get the normal anxieties revolving around “Oh no, I finished my project, what if there aren’t any more!!” or “gee, my dogs aren’t really great conversationalists; it sure would be nice if there were people around that I could talk to once in a while” or “man, I’m tired of having to worry about paying vendors and providing 1099s for customers, and dealing with collections…” and “it would be nice to have a regular paycheck, and know what I’m going to make from one month to the next.”
These concerns, along with the 2008 recession, led to my decision to rejoin the regular workforce in 2010. I spent the next four years working in a regular job, in a regular cubicle, for a regular paycheck. Part of the reason I wanted this was so I wouldn’t have to deal with management headaches any more - accounts payable, accounts receivable, HR, etc. But I ended up dealing with them anyway. Additionally, I wanted job security, but I think we all know, there isn’t security in a job - unless you’re a tenured teacher. So what did I really gain?
Along the way, I figured out that toiling in a prairie dog farm isn’t really conducive to the kind of work I do. So much of my work is analysis and writing, and it’s difficult to really get your groove on when your co-workers are chit-chatting around you, or polling everyone to see what’s up with lunch or happy hour, or the boss taps on your desk to ask you to work on something else completely unrelated. Ask any writer, analyst, developer, designer or other creative type how long it takes him/her to get back on task once his/her focus is broken and you’ll get a variety of answers - none less than a half hour. So let’s assume these interruptions happen only twice in a day (which is being generous); that’s a full hour of wasted time, on top of the time actually taken by the interruption itself.
This isn’t really a problem, though, because this is the 21st century. We have myriad tools available that enable us to work remote yet still collaborate and respond in real-time. We don’t need to languish in the whack-a-mole existence of the 20th century office paradigm in order to be at our most efficient. Especially in the new technology fields; I mean, these are the movers and the shakers, the visionaries and provocateurs. The people in charge of these companies know instinctively that to get the best work out of the best people, you need to allow them the flexibility to work in an environment that nourishes their strengths. Some people need and feed off of the chaos of cubie-land. Others (especially those who really need to focus) need isolation. That’s why all modern companies judge their people by their production, not by their face time. Wait. What? You’re telling me that ain’t so?
Early last year I found myself disillusioned with a job that was feeling more and more like a Terry Gilliam film at every passing minute. I was commuting an hour to work each day, most of the work I was assigned was not what I was hired to do, and not what I wanted to do, and when I was able to work in my area (research / analysis, writing) I was being constantly interrupted with impertinent questions and requests about random things. So while I was deciding whether to make the jump to the independent world, I decided to put the feelers out and see what other full-time opportunities might exist that would jibe with my style of work.
And that’s when it occurred to me. While the world has changed dramatically, HR has remained stuck in the mid-20th century. They’ve updated some of their jargon, but it’s like there’s a script and every one of them has to say essentially the same things and ask essentially the same questions. Questions like “where do you want to be in five years?” I was shocked people still ask that. And “tell me about your greatest strengths and weaknesses.” “Well, I have really good night-vision. But chicken wings give me gas.”
Although I’m content with my current situation as an independent consultant, I still don’t dismiss anything, out of hand. I see opportunities from time to time that pique my interest so I follow up on them. I’ve had a handful of interviews in the last year and the process and question / answer portion of every interview has been so similar, I’ve started cutting to the chase early on.
The most important thing to me, even over money, is the flexibility to work when, how, and where I am the most effective. That will lead to much better results for my employer, and much better job satisfaction for myself. And if I’m satisfied, I will work even harder, and provide even better results, providing more satisfaction for myself, and better results for my employer. Which will lead to my working harder - you get the picture.
Since I’m happy doing what I’m doing, and really don’t have anything to lose, I am very honest with the interviewers and tell them “I work better when I have the flexibility that allows me to sequester myself when I need to really focus. Additionally, I have zero desire to spend 2 hours in a car every day to get to a cube farm and sit for 8 hours for the sole purpose of being present. What is your company’s policy toward telecommuting?” Now, I completely understand that sometimes it’s necessary to be present. Staff meetings, client meetings, focus groups, user testing, etc. - all require presence. Sometimes it’s also nice just to have a place to go where there are other people around. Maybe I need to bounce ideas off someone in person. It’s great to have that available. But to be there just to be there, especially when there are things like Skype, email, cellphones, Webex, and so on, is an anachronistic holdover to the days of the Cleaver clan.
The answers I get when I ask this have all been eerily identical - “Well, we have a very collaborative environment and it’s important that everyone be here.” I even said to one “Oh, so the company values face time” and she interrupted with “Oh yes, management really likes to see people in the office!” and then I finished my sentence “...over productivity.” She was speechless. That one, in particular told me that they try to be flexible so that if you have some kind of family obligation they’ll let you work from home one day. But if you could be in the office, they expect you to be in the office. AND, if you can’t make it in, for instance if there’s a weather event, it’s okay to work from home. How generous.
Look, I understand that some people need to be in the office. But the kind of work I do requires a certain amount of isolation sometimes. Sometimes I work better at 10:00 at night. Also, I’m expected to be on call after hours and on weekends - and I’m completely fine with that. I want to do the work when it needs to be done. But that’s a two way street. If I’m going to be on call, and working after hours, then I need to have the flexibility to NOT be in the office every day from 9 to 5, if the only reason I’m there is just so someone gets to gaze upon me. If you expect me to be in the office, every day, for the sole purpose of ticking a “present” box, then you shouldn’t expect me to be on call after hours, or on weekends. And if it snows, forget working. However, if you provide the flexibility for me to be an adult, and get my work done when I do it best, and collaborate as much as necessary, then I’ll work after hours, on weekends, in the snow, and even on vacation. And I think most responsible grownups will behave exactly the same way.