I had a meeting yesterday morning with friends who run a direct marketing company in Williamstown, MA. Their offices are across the street from the building where we founded Tripod, next to the mill where we relocated a few years later. Walking me out to my truck, my friend said, “I can walk to work. I can walk to my lawyer. I can walk to my accountant. I can walk to my parent’s house. Hard to get better than that.”
That used to be my life. A year into Tripod, I was sharing a house with half a dozen of my coworkers, less than a mile from our office. We all went to the same half dozen restaurants, the two movie theatres, the bowling alley. We all drank in the same bar, watched baseball games at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield. Our hiring process was designed to find people we wanted to be both our coworkers and our drinking buddies. There wasn’t much distinction between work life and social life – I didn’t have a social life independent of my work friends for those five years.
When I founded Geekcorps, I couldn’t see any reason to stray from the model. We rented space in MassMoCA, an overachieving art museum and performance space that had transfored the defunct Sprague Electric plant in North Adams into something rich and strange. My colleagues this time around were grownups, with houses and kids, but some of the vibe was the same. My lawyer was on the board of the company, and he and my late mentor Dick Sabot held our board meetings in a 250-year old general store walking distance from both of their houses. Our focus was global, but the people I worked with every day were very, very local.
My life now couldn’t be much more different. I live over 150 miles from my “office“, and I consider myself lucky if I make it in to work once a week. About half of the time, I’m on the road – the other half of the time, I work in my home office, a reclaimed landing at the top of a flight of stairs to the attic. I keep binoculars on my desk so I can watch the porcupines climb the trees and the insomniac owls.
This time around, my coworkers are all over the world. We had a meeting today over IRC, the medium we use for almost all our realtime professional interactions. My colleagues were in Hong Kong, Oakland, Port of Spain, the Hague and Montreal. One woke up to make the meeting, another went to bed as soon as we logged off. Weeks will go by where I don’t actually speak to any of the people I work with, but it’s rare that ten minutes pass without an IM, an email or blogpost.
Part of me – a big part – thinks that businesses can’t and shouldn’t work this way. If we’re going to trust each other, rely on each other’s judgement, read each other’s moods, we need to know each other. The reason Global Voices holds an annual meeting isn’t primarily to make decisions or plan strategy – it’s so we have an excuse to wander through strange cities together, share cab rides, ethnic food and rounds of drinks. We get to know each other at an express pace, squeezing in a year’s worth of water cooler conversations in an hour-long walk through a flea market or a cab ride to the airport.
I miss working with my neighbors. When I find myself talking to the cat too often, I head to Williamstown and work at the coffeeshop where there’s a good chance that I know half a dozen of the other laptop-toters camped out at cafe tables. I wonder sometimes if it’s time to turn from global to local again, rent a corner of a mill and start working with the people I live with.
But working this new way means that I get to work with some of the most remarkable people on the globe, and that none of them have to leave their homes, their families and their lives so we can work together. Remarkable people pass through the Berkshires every day, and some even settle down and stay a while, but it’s hard to imagine a physical space anywhere in the world where I could share my office with Tunisian human rights activists, Tanzanian linguists, Bahraini journalists and Trinidadian radio producers. (London, maybe, or New York. But I bet it’s rarer than you think.)
There are half a dozen photos pinned up over my desk. Half are pictures of people I used to work with in offices we used to share. What photos will I pin up from Global Voices? Bloggers squeezing into a group shot in Delhi after the 2006 summit? Or my computer monitor, next to a window overlooking birch trees and Onota Lake?