By J. Michael Willard
By J. Michael Willard
My office today is about a dozen steps from my refrigerator, which can be harmful to the waistline. It’s also within arm’s length of my Martin guitar, which can be devilishly distracting.
However, I am quite content working virtually from home, checking in with contacts from Bangladesh to Cambodia and from Birmingham, Al. to Britain and Ukraine.
I’m also 10 minutes from Orlando’s International Airport, convenient to jet most any direction.
It wasn’t always this way.
There once was the typical professional office with about 100 staff sitting in various desks in two East European cities — Moscow and Kyiv — and in a third, Istanbul. It was called The Willard Group.
My own desk seemed the size of a small aircraft carrier. I benevolently suggested a 9 to 5 regimen, and occasionally, they paid attention to me. Mostly, though, they struggled in by 11 and left when the work was done, perhaps by 5, but more often late into the night.
They were damn good at what they did as art directors, designers, copywriters, account executives, PR specialists, strategic planners, and governmental relations specialists.
That was then.
Eastern Europe is in the rearview mirror. We left, reluctantly, after two revolutions in which Olga and I participated, and when the Russians started shooting our direction in the far east of the country.
The fact was, after 23 years it was time to come in from the cold and start anew. We did, launching again from scratch in the US.
However, some 15 years ago at my company’s headquarters in Kyiv, I had an epiphany. It was more a commercial reckoning than a religious experience. It was brought about by technology, and the belief that our offices are actually north of our belly buttons, located in our noggins.
It was the summer of my Ukrainian discontent. The country’s economy was teetering between merely disastrous and catastrophic. But that was not unusual for the Wild East.
Managing a business in risky markets is more complicated than putting together a Rubik’s cube blindfolded. So, I thought, why not jitterbug on that thin ice. New ideas to me are like hashish for the soul.
I called it The Freedom Solution, and for Ukraine, it was a revolutionary way of working. After one year, I claimed success because that is what PR folks generally do.
Basically, I set out to determine if a freer and more open environment could actually work in a land where work structures were rigid and experimentation rare.
In other words, could one make a profit and serve clients to the hilt while having an atmosphere that was more similar to a frat house than a traditional office.
The Freedom Solution consisted of the 24-hour workday, an open-space office, and an all-mobile office. We went for the trifecta, a whole-hog adaptation of all of them. It wasn’t easy.
I felt adaptation to the 24-Hour Workday would be the most difficult to implement. I was wrong; The Open Office concept in which staff didn’t have individual desks was hardest. I had not counted on the nesting instincts of professionals.
The all-mobile office — only using mobile phones and Wi-Fi — went down as smooth as 16-year-old single-malt Lagavulin.
The most misunderstood concept was the 24-Hour Workday, which, as branded, seemed to imply that employees were on-call and working 24-hours-a-day. It merely meant getting work done within a 24-hour span, regardless of when and where.
This takes a little explaining.
We live and work today in 24-hour time segments, and it really makes no difference if you are behind a desk, driving your car, taking a shower or washing the dishes.
Time is not a thing, but a state of mind. Intellectual work — that creative and strategic thought that you bring to your job — cannot be lassoed and contained within a glass cubicle any more than it can be sustained in a Petri dish for study.
It is, in fact, a misnomer to label work by that traditional name, sort of like calling a car a horseless carriage or a refrigerator an icebox. My suggestion would be to simply call it compensated time.
Paid time can and does occur anywhere, and it is a 24-hour phenomenon. To my knowledge there is nothing written down that prescribes a workday as consecutive hours, usually eight and during the day. Weekends don’t have to be sacrosanct, but they certainly can be.
We as professionals have become too sophisticated, too mobile, and too global to think in the narrow confines of traditional paid time. Business time is all the time and it has been for at least the last couple of decades.
This doesn’t mean you have less time for family and leisure activity. It could mean more. Just think. You have seven days, 168 hours, and 10,080 minutes to develop that killer proposal to win the Acme Supermarket account.
Surely you can find room for a couple rounds of golf, workouts at the health club, a night on the town, and a TV or cinema movie or two in that great ocean of time.
As companies realize this, they will also conclude that the paid time of the individual worker can be adjusted to fit global circumstances, and not just the mere convenience of fellow workers, even bosses.
The Freedom Solution paradigm recognizes that a professional who takes a long lunch to shop for disposable diapers is not inciting mutiny but rather, living a life.
Life is complicated, more so, I believe, for female colleagues where tradition has bestowed on them many more “real life” responsibilities. There has been some societal change in this, but it is far from a sea change, particularly in more conservative and non-secular countries.
Would I recommend the Freedom Solution for most professional offices? Yes. it takes a very responsible employee to make use of it effectively.
That which does not have walls does have fences of paper-mâché. I believe if Benjamin Franklin were around today — in the wired age — he would propose it and revel in it.
Old Ben was never a 9 to 5-er. He liked to sleep until noon.