THE FIFTH COLUMN
I’m on holiday. Sort of.
I tried to set up an out-of-office reply on my email — I use a web-based service called Thunderbird — but Google said it can’t be done (because it’s web-based), so I left it at that.
The internet reception here on the farm is intermittent, which is the way I described it in a pre-emptive email to clients. I also promised them I’d check email “at least once a day”. A promise I’ve kept so far — driving up the hill, switching on my phone and waiting for emails to download.
Yesterday I received notice of a medical breakthrough in the fight against an illness I’ve never heard of. The whole expedition took about 10 minutes. I’ve essentially shortened my work week to 50 minutes.
Is that even possible, you ask? What if someone calls? How will you handle that? Voicemail? What about meetings? Skype? Updates?
Well, it’s been 48 hours and I’m still okay. I’m still self-employed and smiling. (As to the mental and emotional state of my clients, I can’t say. Unless I receive an alarming email, I have to assume I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay.)
What I’m describing is, of course, working remotely — an employment relationship built on trusting that the work will be done even if the worker is not on site visibly doing the work every minute of every day.
It’s not a concept that’s taken off in South Africa. Most companies, whether on job boards or, in my experience, in the cauldron of an interview, cringe when they hear the dreaded phrase: “No, well, I freelance.”
I’ve dropped the hard “F” a few times and then watched as the interviewer dropped their pen, sat back and returned the favour: “Sorry, it’s full-time.”
It baffles me.
In all the offices I’ve worked, I sat in the so-called bullpen — a shared working space modelled on war-time sweat shops. I toiled away there in constant fear of whatever is above a bull that might catch me Facebooking or sneaking a bite of my sandwich. We bulls and cows (it was a 5 /50 split) simply got on with it, typing away in our pen, fetching water from the drinking hole in the corner.
The bullpen is the main reason I started working remotely. There are a lot of us out here now. We use Google Docs and write very short emails. We have meetings, but only one hour at a time. We’re a relaxed bunch; serene even. We raise families. We exercise. We meet deadlines.
I’d love South African companies to lean towards the remote way of doing things. Trust employees, contractors and freelancers to do the work when no one is watching. If you bump into them in the mall at 10am, so what? As long as they get the job done, on time.
For my work day today, I have to send off this column and check email. The plan is to drive to Napier. Get off the farm for a bit. But I might drive up the hill instead. In fact, it’s so nice out, I’ll probably just walk.