Story of a Telecommuter
by Kathy Millar
Ten years ago, I became a commuter, one of the 3,000 federal employees who rises everyday before the sun to catch a train to Washington, DC, where most of us work. My office, in the International Trade Building, is almost exactly 70 miles southeast of the century old station where we congregate every morning around 6:55. In the winter, we wait in the dark, listening for the whistle of the eastbound train and waiting for daylight to break over the Blue Ridge mountains. In the fall, geese race over the river that runs parallel to the tracks, with their wild screams and parade formations, and in the spring, when the light finally begins to arrive before we do, travelers who havent spoken to one another through the dark months press against the railing separating track from river and speculate about the effect that melting ice and spring rain might have on the rising water level.
Look at that! If it keeps up and the rain doesnt stop, itll flood for sure!
We nod our heads, especially if the speaker is an "old-timer," someone who had ridden the tracks when the old "Bud cars" -- tin cars with narrow metal seats -- would lurch from station to station, beset by small electrical fires that filled the cars with smoke. You dont have to ride for long before you understand that flooding means the train doesn't go any further than the next station, where the tracks and the commuter parking lot are so close to the river that even a negligible imbalance between rain and shine can push the water over the rails and into your car or truck.
This is not the Metro, the sleek new underground system that circles the city and whisks well-dressed professionals into town in comfortable, climate-controlled silence. This is The Train, descendent of the Iron Horse, a make-no-promises railriding machine that might deliver you to Washingtons great Union Station at 8:15 in the morning or set you down in the middle of natures fury, where you wait while the conductor goes out in the rain and works the waterlogged "switches" manually -- or until "the guys with the equipment" arrive and pull a downed tree off the tracks.
Knowledgeable riders pack for the trip -- blanket, sweater, book, cd player, the ubiquitous "travelers pillow." Some women bring needlepoint or knitting. One guy never gets on in the evening without a six-pack and a deck of cards.
The best thing about commuting is the sense that it is possible to inhabit two distinct worlds, one regulated by the hairspring protocols of the urban professional, the other filled with the surprise and delight of accommodating to events outside of ones control. In the country, who you are is clearly more important than what you do -- the only ladders youre expected to climb are the kind that lean up against the gutters, which always need cleaning, and the roof, which always needs fixing.
In a small town, people take your measure quickly, which means youre more likely to be known as "the lady who takes in all those homeless cats," or "the fellow who shovels the driveway down at the retirement home every time it snows," than as the deputy secretary of anything or the chief of staff to somebody. No matter how gilded ones position may appear within the palace walls, in the country youre just another one of those crazy fellows "who works down in the city."
Couldnt get me down there, no siree.
There is a sense, halfway through the train ride toward the capital, that you have entered a wormhole, a time tunnel that pulls you forward at greater and greater speeds -- not just toward a different place, but into another universe. On the return trip at night, the reverse is true. It happens about 50 minutes into the ride, after you cross the bridge over the first river.
The foliage changes, the forest lining the tracks grows taller and denser, the traffic noises fade into animal sounds and the rhythms of water and wind. By the time we pass through the tunnel Irish railroad workers blew though a mountain at a place called Point of Rocks, the change is palpable. Men loosen their ties, or take them off altogether, and when the cars roar across the steel bridge spanning the Potomac and the sky opens up across the water, there is a moment that always feels like rediscovery, an exhilaration that beyond this point, the mannerisms and constraints of urban life will not travel.
The worst part of commuting? Building a life around a train schedule. The seventy-mile commute by train, and the 15 minute trip on the metroliner from Union Station to my office became a ritual that dominated every other part of my life, a four-hour journey coming and going that determined the shape of all the hours and activities in between.
Every responsibility, every meeting I had to attend, every project I had to complete, any opportunity to schedule an hour here or there with my family depended on my ability to make a train on time. Miss it and the consequences for my professional and personal life were serious. Miss it routinely, or even two days running and the results could be dire.
The folks who inhabited my "day world," were baffled by my move "to the hinterlands." Some seemed to view it as a lack of commitment to my job. Commuter train service was growing less reliable, a consequence of aging equipment and increases in freight traffic. At work, my colleagues were uninterested and incredulous when I attributed unexpected delays or departures to forces that seldom touched their lives.
You had three feet of snow up there?! It didnt even stick to the ground here in DC!
Rule Number One
There is an old adage that says ninety-five percent of success is just showing up. For much of the federal government, its Rule Number One, and for some employees, an ideology theyre happy to live with. But for others, for employees whose craft cannot be measured in simple wage hours, the eight-hour confine of a nine-to-five workday is more burden than blessing. Nevertheless, for most federal supervisors, getting employees into their carrels at a preappointed time and keeping them there, in front of their computers, for the requisite eight hours per day is what good management is really all about. Its a hierarchical system, a cosmology so tightly ordered that even the slightest change at one level jeopardizes the equilibrium of the whole.
The perspective belongs to the industrial age, when factory managers relied on workers to operate the machinery purchased to feed a new consumer class. The paradigm that bound together the industrialist, the factory manager, floor supervisors and workers was an unforgiving one, a social model that emphasized control and an unquestioning submission to authority. The ethos of widget-making.
Transplant that kind of thinking to a professional workforce, an environment where productivity is synonymous with creativity, initiative and sound, independent thinking, and you have a dilemma -- one whose resolution is too often low employee moral, erratic performance and mediocre "outcome."
Reinvention and Me
Thousands of commuter hours into my career, I got lucky. I happened to cross paths with a federal organization that, remarkably, had arrived at a similar conclusion -- The National Partnership for Reinventing Government, task force operating under the auspices of the Office of the Vice-President. The folks at NPR seemed to think it didnt make much sense for a writer to commute four hours a day, seven days a week, to work on a computer in Washington, DC, when she had the same machine available in her own house and the capability to forward the finished product to a supervisor in a matter of seconds.
"You should be able to do a lot of this work from any worksite," they told me. "We encourage you to telecommute. Its the way we want you to work."
Absolutely. But what about the hierarchy? Who would my manager manage? Wouldnt his job be altered as well?
The Big Picture
NPR wasnt just working to change the way I did my job -- their mission was to help agencies "reinvent" the federal bureaucracy, especially those agencies that serve the most people. To change it in ways that would make it work better, cost less and deliver results people care about.
In a reinvented government, employees are trusted to do their jobs and empowered to make decisions. And so in the new scheme of things, managers have a new role, and its not command and control. They involve all employees in shaping a clear vision and a shared sense of mission. Technology -- computers, telecommunications, the Web connects everything and everyone. The organization gets flatter, information flows faster -- much faster -- no matter where we do our work.
Some people might call it Quality Management. Other people might call it innovative thinking. I thought it was common sense -- for me, less travel equaled more time to write. Less physical fatigue meant better use of energy needed to work. A quieter environment translated into better concentration, more attention to detail, more coherent work schedules and increased productivity.
Some people in my agency werent as convinced, not because they didnt think my job was a natural "fit," but because, like any bureaucracy, they suspected long-term ramifications.
Let one do it, and everybody will be storming the gate . . .
In the end, however, my request was approved and there were a lot of reasons for this. My agency had embraced the notion of reinvention early on and had already received a number of Hammer Awards for streamlining and improving processes and customer service. My job -- as a speechwriter -- was tailormade for telecommuting. My supervisor had confidence in the quality of my work and the head of the agency understood technology and the differences it was making.
Making It Work
It was a deal. Three days at the General Services Administration Telecenter .09 miles down the street where I lived - 2 days back in Washington, DC for meetings and facetime with folks who needed to know I was physically as well as virtually still part of the "team."
The benefits were immediate. Almost fifty hours of commuting eliminated every month. One hundred dollars or more per month in hard cash savings. Two and a half hours of extra sleep every night. I had a chance to see what my house looked like in the daytime, a pleasure Id been denied six months out of the year when I left for the train station before dawn and got home after dark. I became a real member of my community, someone people began to wave to and call by name. I started to bank, shop and participate in the life of the town, and to schedule my work day in ways that enhanced my productivity -- telephone calls, email and research in the morning, actual writing through the late afternoon and often into the evening -- impossible when 4:45 meant a race to the train station.
At the Telecenter, the day belonged to me. I could shape it and stretch it to accommodate the fits and starts of the creative process. If a phrase Id been looking for or a segue I needed presented itself at an unlikely time, or in an unlikely place -- at home, in the shower, in the middle of the night -- I could get to my computer in minutes to make the changes I used to jot down and lose in the blackhole that is my briefcase.
Back at "The Office"
On the days I reported to the office "downtown," life was different as well. As fragmented as my days continued to be at Headquarters, the telephone calls, interruptions, scheduled, rescheduled and cancelled meetings no longer seemed as threatening to my work or my productivity as they once did. I knew there were three days out of every week to do what I was being paid to do. I accepted the fact that the days spent at Headquarters were for other business, and without the anxiety that juggling writing and administrative tasks had once produced, I got better at tasks -- the meetings, the interoffice activities -- that Id once resented.
Co-workers had different ideas of what it meant to be a telecommuter. "Hello, STRANGER," theyd shout at me in the hall. "Glad to see you were able to make it in!" To many of them, telecommuting was synonymous with goldbricking. If the bureaucracy had made prisoners of us all, logic dictated that any employee who managed to escape the scrutiny of his or her supervisors would scale the wall at the earliest opportunity. I got a lot of winks and knowing smiles - "Getting a lot done out there, are you?"
Dont get me wrong. There were colleagues who understood the initiative and who loved technology almost as much as they loved the idea of shaking up the government -- bringing it into the 21st century. They wanted to know it all -- how did I get the agency to approve my participating in the initiative -- how long would I be allowed to telecommute - what was the telecenter like -- the equipment, the support, the people -- and how could they take advantage of this same opportunity?
I have all the answers to all the questions -- except for the last one.
Past and Prologue
Despite the popularity of the telecommuting initiative, its workability and its implications for the future of work -- even government work -- in America, some federal agencies are moving very slowly and resistance to the initiative is common. My telecenter in the mountains is housed in an 18th century building once filled with mill workers, foot soldiers in the industrial revolution. No traces of them or the production equipment that once held them captive remains -- only the weathered facade of the building reminds visitors that something other than the sleek modern facility housed inside today even existed.
I think of those factory employees sometimes, as I sit at my computer and watch electricity transform itself into language and thought in front of me. I think of how some newly hired mill worker must have marveled at the sophistication of the machinery that filled the room where I now sit, -- how modern and final it must have all seemed -- the end of progress.
The telecenter where I continue to spend much of my workweek is struggling to stay open. There are more employees using its facilities, but an increasing number are from the private rather than the public sector.
No matter. We do know one thing for sure out here in the hinterlands. We understand forces beyond our control, rising water and flames on the tracks ahead, the inevitability of change, the delight of accommodating to it, how mills turn into high-tech worksites, and the rule that says there is no end of progress.
About the Author
Kathleen Millar is a speechwriter at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR), representing the U.S. Customs Service, Department of the Treasury. During her ten year federal career, she has written speeches for cabinet secretaries, heads of agencies and members of Congress. Ms. Millars work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Washington Post and Vital Speeches of the Day, and she teaches a graduate course in speechwriting and rhetoric at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. Before coming to work for the government, Ms. Millar worked as a writer and reporter for a major newspaper and several well-known periodicals. Ms. Millars interests include political rhetoric and she is currently researching the rhetorical challenges facing women who choose to run for national office.