Do you remember those ads that ran on television for most of last year, the tag line of which was "Is this a great time or what?" I have been repeating that line on a number of occasions since early 1997. You see, in January of that year I became a telecommuter. The organization which employed me on a contract basis was in Ottawa. I live in Nova Scotia.
It all started with networking - not computer networking, but the kind where you phone people up, tell them you are looking for work, and ask to drop off a résumé. Months after I had made my rounds, résumé in hand, one of my contacts called me. She didn't have work for me, but someone else was looking for a person to do some research. If I was interested, I had better call him, which I promptly did.
We had a pleasant chat, he asked me to email him the particulars about my qualifications and job experience. After some telephone and email exchanges, I had a two month contract to carry out research, largely over the Internet, and write a report on my findings. The subject was Canada's role in space. I was about to learn more than I ever thought I'd need to know about astronauts, the space shuttle, the International Space Station, RADARSAT, and various satellite communications systems.
My supervisor in Ottawa was just a voice on the phone and an email correspondent. I didn't hear from him that often. There would be an occasional email message, a suggestion for a website to check out, or an answer to a question I might have asked earlier. He was happy enough with my work to increase the scope of work and extend the contract. Considering the length of time I worked on the project (four months), I feel that in retrospect we had remarkably little contact with one another.
It really was delightful. I set my hours and evolved my own system for getting the work done. My working day started right after I saw my husband off to work. I'd start a pot of tea, check the mail, and get to work. I'd do some searching, bookmark files, make notes, and compile information for the report. There was the occasional trip to a library or other local resource.
Most of this work was done with my trusty Chebucto Community Net account. I had been a member for some time, and it really was CCN that made it possible to land the contract in the first place. Eventually I had to have easier access to images on the Net, but I still haven't abandoned CCN. It has some features that make it more convenient for me to use than my "other" account.
What did I learn from all this? Well, I learned that I have enough self-discipline to get up in the morning, have breakfast, turn on the computer and start work, even though no one will notice right away if I decide I just won't bother today. And that I have enough focus to stick with it. I learned that I really like ferreting out information, sorting it, organizing it, and putting it into a useful format, (a skill which I have been putting to use as I work on the User Reference Index for the Beacon.)
I've also learned plenty of really practical stuff. My bookmark files are better organized now, and I make more efficient use of search engines. I learned that if you send a really big file as an email attachment, it's a good idea to get it out of your home directory and the sent mail folder as soon as you know it has been received safely; it's amazing how quickly you can exceed your disk quota if you don't.
Would this work for everyone? Perhaps not. Your own home is filled with distractions, so it does require a certain measure of self-discipline and focus. Some people miss the social interactions of a traditional workplace; they enjoy tossing ideas around with their co-workers.
The other factor in the equation is the supervisor. Mine returned phone calls and email messages promptly, but he wasn't breathing down my neck all the time. I can envision employers who are so remote that you can't get the help or advice you need when you need it. I can also picture someone who is just a little too involved in supervision. Someone who is always asking for updates, second, third and fourth drafts and interim reports is only hindering the work.
Would I do this again? Absolutely! In fact I have been approached by the same organization to work on two more contracts. However because so much depends upon both the employer and the employee, it might not work for everyone, all the time, but so far it has worked for me.
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