The X Factor: Home Base
April 13, 2020 Timothy Prickett Morgan
As you might imagine, New York City is on my mind a lot these days. And I have some advice for you as you are transitioning to tighter quarters and working from home – something I have been doing for 25 years now.
Way back in the dawn of time, back in the wake of the launch of the AS/400 when I graduated from college and moved to New York City because it was the biggest, scariest thing that I could do, my brain sort of melted from the enormity of it all. At that time, a recession was underway and getting a job as a writer was not going to be easy, and then I got the job as editor of The Four Hundred and my boss and mentor, Hesh Wiener, was such an insufferable prick that every day for at least three years I thought I was going to be fired because I was, as he often put it, completely useless – well, mostly.
He wasn’t wrong. At the time, given what I knew and how long it was going to take me to be useful and then how long it was going to be before I got pretty damned good at my job, Hesh had to give up some of his life – time, brains, money, energy – to devote the time to turn this diamond in the rough into a journalist/analyst. Many years later, when we were talking about how rough he was, and how many people didn’t survive his journalist boot camp even a week or a month or a year, he just shook his head and said, “Someone had to toughen you up and make you grow up.”
I used to say that Technology News, Hesh’s company, wasn’t a job, it was a way of life. The borders between work and life were porous, and to learn as much as I needed to – and still need to – meant living a kind of hybrid, tightly coupled work/home life. Maybe I am designed to do things this way, maybe I have always been this way, but since Hesh’s business went up on the rocks on Thanksgiving Day in 1996 and he sold me The Four Hundred for $1, cutting me loose so I could find my way as best I could based on the foundation of seven years of my hard work, I have always had two jobs and I have always worked from home, threading my two jobs together along with different aspects of my life. It is hard to keep that job scheduler in balance, and having a huge garden and chickens down here in North Carolina, plus a new baby as well as three teenagers, has not made that balancing act any easier. It is a full life, and I don’t know how to do it any other way.
The quarantine that I live under now in North Carolina is easier than what it would have been had I stayed in New York; I have more room to work outside, weather permitting. But I know what it is like to live in cramped quarters day after day. The fact is, we are all living in our own space stations these days, and it is a bit weird. I am not convinced that we will snap all the way back to where we were, either. We will be physically distanced for quite a while, but that doesn’t mean we have to be emotionally unavailable or intellectually disconnected.
The thousands of relationships I have as part of my work at The Four Hundred and The Next Platform, the two publications that earn me my bread by the sweat of my brow, have been maintained over the years on the phone and, in recent years, over Skype, WebEx, GoToMeeting, and Zoom. I have worked with people in Europe for decades without meeting them, and we spend a fair amount of time on the phone together. These relationships are just the kind of thing a “misplaced man of letters,” as my wife Nicole calls me, would naturally maintain. This is the source of my energy, which I then plow back into the field of the publications.
All of this takes time, and time is a precious freaking commodity, let me tell you. But I spend the time, and I think it keeps me sane – or whatever this condition is. I am not talking about gabbing away for hours on end about nothing, although there is a place and time for that. I am talking about answering the phone every time it rings and really listening to what the person on the other line is saying. As a journalist, I get a lot of story pitches, and everyone in the PR field knows that I am the only journalist that always answers his phone. Do you know why? Because these are good people trying to do a hard job – getting my attention on behalf of their employers. And because for years I cold called IT managers at AS/400 shops to try to get three of them in the same industry to tell me their stories or Hesh was going to fire me for not writing a good case study about the AS/400 in casinos or in dog food manufacturing or at Campbell’s Soup (Outstanding In Their Field is still my best subhead in a story) or winery management or whatever. If they answered the phone – which people used to do – and if they gave me 25 seconds, I had a better than even chance of getting a story. If I could get them to talk, I could learn something important, almost no matter what the situation was. And, gratefully, most of the time, I got my story, and it wasn’t because of me, it was because of them. These AS/400 IT managers bestowed a kindness upon me because that, my friends, is how this AS/400 market rolls.
I can assure you, the rest of the IT world, which you might not be acquainted with if you are extremely lucky, is most assuredly not.
Knowing all of this, my first piece of advice as you adjust to working at home is to reach out to people. It is even more important to keep in touch than before, and we just have to know that we have moved from a monolithic architecture to a distributed one and that the communication overhead is going to be higher and the system throughput is going to be lower. But we can scale out instead of scaling up.
On top of this, the coronavirus pandemic, an Angel of Death that I fervently hope passes over your door, eats up a lot of our mental and emotional energy even if no one you know personally is affected. So throughput is naturally going to go down even further. This seems like exactly the wrong thing to have happen at a moment like this. But it is going to happen because we are human beings. And I like that about us.
I spend a fair amount of time with CNN on the TV and Bloomberg and CNBC on the PC during my work day. I try to keep it down to an hour or two during work hours – before the morning opening bell on Wall Street and after the kids are in bed – but you need to know what is going on. And then you also need to block it out to get some work done.
This is the main trick to working at home. There are always infinite distractions and things you can do, and you build some of them in to your workday and workweek to give your life variety. And then you always have to be a hardass on yourself to actually get the work that needs to get done actually done. I have always said that fear of poverty, which I have known, is a strong motivator. So imagine your life depends on actually getting things done. Because it does. But that doesn’t mean you can’t build in variety as well as structure into your day so you can extract the most stuff out of the hours we do have.
It takes some adjusting to the situation, and you will get better at managing your workload and playload. And frankly, after this pandemic is over, many of you will not want to go “back to work.” Mark my words.
I had a chance to work for a hedge fund owned by a billionaire I deeply respect, with a corner office on Park Avenue and a salary many times larger than the most money I have ever raked in during a year – and I couldn’t do it. I had been my own master for too long, and when he asked for a Hesh-level commitment, day and night, from me to get that job I told him he could rent me for some hours of the day proportional to the money he was spending, but he wasn’t going to own me or tell me what I could do with my own time. For instance, I wanted to keep writing The Four Hundred, and didn’t see what harm that would cause to my “day job.” I turned him down, not the other way around.
For some of my career since I started my own business, I have worked alone in a quiet and cramped apartment or in a cramped office in a larger apartment but with kids running around (both mine and those of my neighbors). I much preferred it with the kids all over the place, even if it was more difficult to concentrate, and the same is holding now with a new baby – well, she is almost 2 – in the house again. But I wouldn’t trade all of that distraction for anything. My kids have all grown up watching their dad work, and often doing their own schoolwork and projects in my office, and I love that. It is another kind of social, as long as the children can respect some of the quiet time that daddy needs to think for a minute. If you ask them, and explain why, they will give it to you. Ditto wives and husbands, or parents, or whoever you have living with you at the moment.
The other thing is that you don’t have to simulate a perfectly quiet office environment like in an office tower for the sake of your colleagues and customers. Our cover is all blown, and there are kids and dogs and cats and spouses in the rooms. They were always with us spiritually and emotionally, and now they are often there physically. (As I write this, my youngest, Mia, had just burst into my office after waking up, demanding Cheese Balls and that I read a book to her. My office closet is where the junk food lives, because it is a controlled substance, and more than a year ago I joked with Chloe, her older sister, that the size of the plastic tubs was large enough to let you ride out Armageddon. When the COVID-19 started to hit the fan in late February, I bought two barrels and we all had a good laugh. And we are eating them, despite ourselves.)
One last thing, and I want to emphasize this again: If you think it is hard to make this transition, it is going to be even harder to go back. And I am not just talking about the regimen of testing that will be required before we are cleared to be social beings again. Many, if not most of you, won’t want to go back to the office even if you want to get back to work.
I saw a Gartner survey of chief financial officers last week that said after the pandemic is done, that 74 percent of respondents expect that at least 5 percent of their workforce will stay remote, an nearly a quarter said that at least 20 percent will remain remote. I think everyone who can remain remote is going to stay that way, and that has huge implications for the housing market – I bought bigger places because I needed at least one and now at least two home offices – for car sales, for pollution, for telecommunication networks, and so on. This could be a big improvement in life when it is all done, if we do it right. And now, we get some of the time back that we can use as we see fit instead of commuting.
My final advice on working from home come from my early years. You can get up and check email in your pajamas, but you need to get up and get dressed. Brush your teeth. No napping – that is a slippery freaking slope you have to stay off of. Take a walk each day, and when the pandemic is over, reach out to people you normally would not call and talk about the weather or corrugated cardboard or why the Mets suck or whatever. Take some mental downtime. Eat lunch even if you skip breakfast, and it is alright to eat it at your desk. Stop work and eat dinner with your family, and take some downtime before you go back in if there are things you need to do. It’s fine to work a very long day if you break it all up. It won’t seem all that bad, once you get used to it. And then, you will never give it up for any amount of money. Trust me on that one.