But people live differently now. Lots of people work independently, or part-time, or work as telecommuters. The lifestyle is more fluid, in part because technologies like cellphones, laptops, and PDAs allow people to work wherever they are, or to stay in touch with family or teenagers without direct supervision. I see a lot of folks with that kind of personal tech hanging out wherever there’s a pleasant setting, checking email, returning calls, or writing. It’s work that doesn’t quite feel like work.
This fluidity gives retailers and other businesses a different kind of opportunity. Retailers have always tried to sell not just sweaters, but a lifestyle. But if you become somebody’s hangout, you don’t just sell a lifestyle, you’re selling a life. If price and selection are the main basis for competition, people can always buy on the Internet, but people – teenagers especially, but everyone — will still want a place to go.
Does it work? Well, I’m writing this on a laptop in a Borders right now, comfortably ensconced on a leather couch and waiting for the line to thin so I can order a latte. I do a lot of writing here, especially during the summers or on breaks when the university is closed. (And they sell me more books and CDs as a result) A few years ago, in the pre-laptop era, it would have been a lot harder to both work and hang out; I’m sure I would have done it less.
Over the last seven years in my current position, I’ve seen how I work change dramatically.
To understand what I am going to explain, you’ll need to understand my job.
I lead a team of eight exempt managers who supervise a larger team of around fifty – seventy hourly employees. I have an office located sixty-four miles from my home – and each of my managers work in a different location spread throughout the greater Boston area. I have an additional three offsite warehouses that I am responsible for spread throughout the same area. I am generally in the office once every 7 – 14 days and spend the rest of the time with my team in their workcenters – coaching, guiding, helping them with obstacles, and so on.
My office, while quite nice, isn’t really my kind of work environment. I have a very nice company provided laptop (a Dell Inspiron 600), a great PDA (iPaq 4451), a shared administrative assistant, and plenty of desk and meeting space. Oh, and it’s a private office! But my team isn’t there – it’s just me, a computer, and paperwork. Except to see my admin, my investigator, and my partner (who actually runs the stores that I provide support for), there’s no reason for me to be there.
Especially because there aren’t any windows. But that’s another story.
Over the last few years, the ability to work remotely has changed significantly. I used to have a “cubbyhole” – which was a place I could go hide-out during the workday. It was an offsite location in the midst of my market that provided a comfortable place to work away from the hustle and bustle – and distractions – of other locations. But the only way to communicate was with a cell phone.
Wi-Fi has changed all of that. I can goto Panera Bread, or Starbucks, or a hotel lobby, or tons of other places, turn on my laptop or PDA, get online and goto town. With my latest laptop, my company has finally provided a VPN solution that allows me to fully integrate onto our corporate intranet (most of our information is sent out via the web nowadays), sync my PDA with our Microsoft Exchange servers (you have no idea how much more productive this makes me), and so on.
Sunday morning I sat on my sunfilled patio and submitted more than a month’s worth of business expenses, reviewed investigation case notes, worked on another project, and some other tasks. That eliminated one of my major reasons to visit the office.
On my Monday train ride down to Philadelphia from Boston, I used my company laptop to schedule midyear reviews, create project documents (and email them out), setup 3rd quarter developmental statuses, and a slew of other scheduling, task, project, and e-mail related tasks. When I arrived at the Marriott in Center City Philadelphia, I plugged into the high speed internet in the room, connected to our VPN, and synced up all of my work.
I often work for a few early morning hours (I leave the house at 5 or 530am most days) before visiting my first store at a Wi-Fi enabled place. They get my business because of the atmosphere they provide, the food/beverage that’s there, and the wi-fi that enables me to complete my work without driving all the way to my office to do it.
We’re getting closer and closer to the convergence that I expect we’ll find one day. Bluetooth is going to help with that (I sync my PDA to my laptop via Bluetooth now) – but one day my PDA and Laptop and Cell Phone and Blackberry are all going to share information with each other – seamlessly. It will be interesting to see how things evolve in the months and years ahead….