Monday, March 12, 2012

My Virtual Office

A couple weeks ago my company sent a sales award for last year’s production. I looked at the big envelope, bemused. I couldn’t decide whether to throw it away or save it. I’ve got a box of these things in the garage somewhere. But the idea of having an office wall to hang such stuff on just seems, well . . . dated.

The reality is, I don’t have an office and an increasing number of professionals don’t, at least not outside of the home. My office is my car or whatever restaurant or coffee shop I choose to work in. My office furniture is a backpack with a laptop in it and a smart phone in my pocket. I work often in the evening on the couch at home, but I rarely, rarely sit at a real desk to work.

A decade ago I built my real estate career as a “mobile agent,” hauling around a fat briefcase on wheels, looking forever like I was headed to the airport. I carried active files and blank documents. Eventually I got so busy, had so many files I had to take an office at Tucker’s location here just to keep everything in one place. But technology has evolved enough in just the past few years that I gave up that office in December, took all those sales awards off the wall, boxed them up and stored them away.

Truth is I spent less and less time in that office in the past couple years.

Now all the files are on my computer and I access the blank documents via the cloud where my files get backed up whenever I’m connected to a wifi network. The sales awards are noted on my web site. Just as the smart phone led me to shed my suddenly redundant wristwatch and alarm clock, increasingly efficient technology has led me to shed my office.

Yes, I know, it’s important to be connected to people. But which people? As nice as my fellow agents are, I never, ever sold a house in my real estate office. Everybody there has a Realtor (themselves). I only sell houses out and about in the community around the people who actually buy them.

Watching TV and drinking a beer with a friend recently, my cell phone

chirped several times around 10:00. It was a client – a buyer eager to decide which house to buy. That a client would share home-buying ideas with me a solid hour past the time my mother always insisted was the latest possible for a polite phone call was just a measure of how the notion of an office – and having office hours for that matter, has collapsed.

And I’m learning to be pretty much fine with that. I didn’t respond to the texts until morning, but at least I knew what my client was thinking. Last Saturday morning, as I sat with friends at the coffee shop, a Realtor sent me a counter offer on that buyer’s home of choice. Using my phone I emailed the document to my client. No fax machine needed. Besides who uses fax machines anymore? Later that afternoon, on my way to the gym to workout, I got a call saying our counter offer was accepted. Before I got on the exercise bike I sent my buyer a text, “Congratulations, you just bought a house!” I ended up texting business details back and forth with him while I peddled.

My company still has a conference room I occasionally use, secretaries direct calls to my cell phone, and they maintain a room of computers, printers and scanners for my use. I pop in once a day, check my mail, make copies. At the corporate office there are techno-nerds tweaking the web site, marketing people promoting my listings, and attorneys on call if something goes wrong. So they’re still, kinda the sun around which I rotate, but I don’t need a physical office with them.

Jeremy is a 30-something salesman for a big printer and a member of my morning coffee shop gang. He recently left his Indianapolis employer where he had an office and took a new job with an out of state company with no local office. “Will you move?” I asked. “Nope,” he replied, “will just work from home.”

What about the synergy of being in the same room with co-workers?

I sold a house to a friend a little over a year ago and seeing how she conducted her work life from that new place helped me realize that my office was a waste of money and space. One Saturday evening last summer I cooked dinner in her kitchen while she worked directing an international team of specialists who were dismantling a company’s mainframe database and reassembling it in the cloud. With white, Apple ear buds in place, the mouthpiece hanging along her cheek, she stared into the laptop screen on a desk in her living room, watching distant activity and talking with an international assortment of distant co-workers. Twice during dinner she scurried back to the computer for a moment to check on progress. She doesn’t have an office at a company headquarters. Besides, that’s a couple thousand miles away in California.

Yes, the world is changing, and it doesn’t seem like something to fear.

I remember a PBS program in the late ‘80s in which a historian explained the operation of a Roman-era water-driven mill and followed the connected step-by-step advancements in technology through the centuries until he’d gotten to the computer. He ended with predictions for the future, one of which was that computers would allow people to work from home and commuting would become less necessary. Back then, pre-Internet and smart phone it seemed hard to imagine. But here it is.

My bosses worry about my choice to be a mobile agent. From the perspective of the past, it’s hard for them to imagine not having the office with the awards on the wall. But even now I look at the big, over-stuffed office chairs, the wood-grained credenzas filled with paper files, the back-up hard drives, the fat, white, big clunky computer monitors and the ancient landline phones and think it all just looks like an unnecessary burden.

Is that the same thing an early 20th Century car repairman felt when he looked at the old blacksmith’s shop? Maybe.

I know it can’t work for every professional, but being mobile seems to fit the nature of my sales career. That’s because I have no guaranteed paycheck. The paychecks are all out there, somewhere. I have to go get them.