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  • John Chambers, PhD

There's No Present Like Time

“There's no time like the present,

No present like time.

And life can be over in the space of a rhyme.”

Georgia Byng, Molly Moon's Hypnotic Time Travel Adventure

The weekend is about to stretch into four days for some souls, as Christmas comes on a Tuesday. The offices are quiet. Well, some are. For those of us whose property tax includes payment for the “home office,” we might work on a Friday or a Sunday, or even on an evening when three ghosts ruined Mr. Scrooge’s slumber. For the “remote worker” the decibel level around the “home office” is about the same as always, short of Perry Como’s Home for the Holidays, still a classic LP after three generations. But I must hesitate with a semantic...

Consider the term “work” in this day and age. It certainly is work for the steely coal miner, or the watchful soldier, or the professional who sadly forgot he is critical to the company’s output. But what about others whose toolbox is inside the Dell notebook? If one considers nirvana as 24x7 beach-lounging with margarita in hand, then I guess any gray-celled exercise would equate to toil. But for countless professionals I’ve interviewed, their “work” is life; generally it’s a good life, remote or on-premise. The worst part of it is having to deal with a few surly souls here and there, or some Grinch grimacing in the next cube. We forget that those frowns are probably hiding sad and sorry demons, or trials that we can’t even imagine. We are lucky, most of us. Hopefully, that luck will settle like snow on those who struggle.

Driving to a work site will always be necessary under certain scenarios, but they are fewer by the year. Manual labor like lifting a shovel isn’t something you can do in your kitchen. But maybe someday the shovel-wielding robot will be walking about the construction site while a pajama-clad “worker” guides the droid via his home-based control pad. If that same key-typing guide must meet with a faraway team, he’ll change from pajamas to collared shirt, fill the coffee cup, and then virtually “be there” via notebook screen, or 60-inch hologram. The home office is our inescapable destiny, just as the cyber universe is our back yard, flourishing with every bit of knowledge in the history of civilization. It still startles me to observe that reality. And that reality is a good thing. With time we should be ebbing closer to the Confucianist attribution, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day.” I’m still not sure that was in his ancient Analects but I’ll have to research harder. Nevertheless, discovery is at our fingertips -- every single one that has occurred:

Every idea clicking the keyboard or capturing the stream.

Every class and composition.

Every book and poem, symphony and score – the musical kind and the athletic kind.

We access them without expending travel time. We save countless days, months, years when we can work remotely. If time-saving is not a continuous Christmas gift then I don’t know what is. We are everywhere. And can perform from anywhere.

I argued the point with an executive who insisted the face-to-face engagement was a necessity, especially for “some” jobs. He had said,“We have to look each other squarely in the eye, coach with animated engagement and perceptive body language.”

But nowadays, looking a colleague squarely in the eye doesn’t demand a 90-minute commute on the freeway. With our technologies, we can look at each other in the eye, no matter if we’re in Nevada or at the North Pole. If there is a collaborative luncheon, an animated room of give and take, then the venue visitation might be an expectation; however, I submit that even that shall fade in the decades ahead.

Shall we fear this future because the virtual office is inescapable?

Is our Christmas dinner and family cheer doomed to interruption?

Will we be celebrating the sounds of Christmas bells and peaceful reflection, or will the sound of cyber-Skype’s incoming call beckon us, away from the family gathering?

With each passing Christmas, it will be the former. The Christmas bells will win, not the email ping. Serenity will win, not toil.

I’ve said before I’m fan of Nicolas Carr’s thoughtful observations. He is a formidable and intellectual whistle-blower against the seduction of machines, the loss of our concentration skills, and our omnipresent, hurried and scattered thinking. We are cursed by distraction, device-trained to leap from one topic to another, with little substance in our comprehension.

But typically I have a contrary view. The devices don’t steal our time; they gift us with time. Because of our virtual proximity, we can delve into knowledge discovery without the slowness of a cross-town drive. There are already thousands of self-help pieces on controlling the 21st century oxymoron -- multi-tasking laziness. If you’ve gotten this far in my blog, then you are already combatting that phenomenon. Collaboration and the depth of understanding are found in narrative sharing, not the fleeting, pithy spitting of a 280-character tweet. We were meant for concentrated, thoughtful deliberation, not game-show, trivia regurgitation.

Time is on our side. It’s a gift, wrapped by our connectedness and virtual proximity. Some lucky folks are home for the holidays because they can engage without fighting the commuting blizzard all on the same day; we can shop without inching ahead on bumper-to-bumper streets, stuffed like Christmas stockings, cars as immobile as old fashioned toy soldiers. Because of our back pocket devices, riding over unseen electrons, we can corral tasks into a package to be managed at our convenience. It’s up to us to organize, not the machine that can’t prioritize. I saw a manager vigilantly control ADHD, through intellectual means and discipline as much as anything else. She orchestrated success through will and concentration. Shame on the rest of us if we can’t simply control our habits of hyper-texting.

As long as executives can embrace a mindset of results and trust, understanding that our teams have the maturity to do the right thing, then most can also do the right thing on the 25th -- sip the eggnog and baste the turkey. I knew a skeptical executive who believed that remote work is acceptable for repetitive analytical tasks, or system support, or project management oversight, but not for the rough and tumble strategizing and preparation for board discussions. “Executives need to be in the room together,” he stated bluntly. I asked, why? Isn’t your technology team equipped to create the virtual experience? Why isn’t “the room” riding on the network? Technology is forging -- has already forged(!) -- the way to make that a reality.

In my piece on 5G, I recommended use case analysis and preparation for bandwidth transformation. Well, I’m not recommending anymore. I’m imploring. The use cases include your executive communications. If remote activities are not a planned and qualified use case, then you aren’t understanding your company; you really aren’t structuring your value chain, internal processes nor expectations around a future that is imminent – not simply plausible. Your information technology strategy sees relationships (internal and external, international and domestic, in the sea and in the sky) as accessible and intimately valuable as a working lunch inside a brick and mortar cafeteria. Embrace the cyber-fed collaboration that brings your colleagues and firms into your space, and brings your space into theirs.

Are you the executive who paints the picture of that future? The art in the exercise is envisaging the day-in-the-life. Precisely how will we engage and connect? How will we shake hands if Skype or WebEx is our medium? As information officer you must create the scene, all while explaining the technology, the security concerns, the costs and the virtual handshake. You are the artist who crafts the scene and sells the imagery. And your partner in HR will help you explain that this is the journey to work/life balance – better yet, it is the journey to life’s balance.

Informal chats are no longer technically clumsy; in-app chats are an eye-shift away, or can be disabled. The incessant move to cyber relations is a joy, not a shame. Our teams and our educational institutions must ready tomorrow’s leaders and professionals -- how to engage in virtual embraces and holographic handshakes. Team communications are not dependent on skyscrapers, housing a 2,000 person, 9- 5 workforce. We can be available from Manhattan to the moon, from Tribeca to Tranquility Base. Our teams and professionals must master not just their technical arts, but also their communication discipline over virtual connections. They have the gift of time as long as they have the strength and insight to control it.

The monster footprints of multi-acre headquarter buildings are becoming as obsolete as 1990s suburban malls. That hangar-sized cafeteria shall be a remembrance, as distant as a 1903 horse-drawn sleigh from Meet Me in St. Louis. The hallway, “bubbler conversation” is not inhibited nor lost by our distance; it is enhanced and transformed through our electronics – as long as we know how and when to use them. We have the time.

Echoing Judy Garland, to every fellow traveler and friend, have yourself a merry little Christmas.

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