The best thing about talking to multiple generations is letting go of preconceptions and stereotypes and simply enjoying the human connection. Generational titles make great magazine covers and give shape to employment research, but it’s the people who round out great work teams.
Jeff Walters was running a bit behind for the conversation due to an urgent work matter, but his face soon beamed in over Skype. Jeff is no digital nomad lounging by a pool with a laptop. His setup includes three monitors, laptops of various types, iPads, tablets, and a few phones. Working from the local coffee shop is not a choice he has. Jeff is not a short-term gig contractor, but a salaried employee with Northstar Academy, an online school based in Mississippi.
Making the Jump
Jeff hasn’t always worked from home, so I was curious how he came to be a full-time remote worker. He explained that when his wife took a job as a teacher with the online school, they drove one state over to meet some of the school staff. “I was busy working with an organization specializing in business development. I traveled a lot, meeting with governors and non-profits and businesses. But, there I was in this couple’s home. As the IT guy explained the system, I found myself re-wording his instructions. Within weeks, they asked me to come on board in IT support!”
Working at Home
I was curious about his workspace. He explained, “On my monitors, I run 5-10 applications I need for day-to-day support. The various makes of computers, tablets, and phones allow me to troubleshoot across student and staff systems.” It did seem overkill until he told me the numbers. “We have over 3000 students, staff, teachers, and supervisors. Some of our students are studying at home—from urban areas to jungles. We also connect with some brick and mortar schools, providing a portion of their class offerings. The school has students in 83 countries!”
When I asked what his job included, he told me about the essential IT support, but he also mentioned the extras he and his team provide. “Sometimes, just by watching account activity, we notice that a student hasn’t submitted work in a few weeks. We can alert the teacher to get in contact with the student to make sure the student gets the attention needed for class success.” Knowing that working from home can blur the work/life boundaries, I couldn’t imagine a school that is open 24 hours a day! That’s where his team comes in. He explained that his boss starts his day at 6:00 a.m. Others on the team keep an eye on the e-mails. Most things can wait until the next day, but if something is urgent, someone will respond. His IT group is multi-generational spanning three generations. They all place a high value on the work of Northstar Academy, and that shared purpose motivates the response to the occasional late night student e-mail.
Life and Remote Work
“So, where’s your wife?” I asked. Jeff told me that his wife has a similar setup on the ground floor of their home, with fewer computers. She now does college and career guidance counseling for Northstar students around the world. I began to picture one big happy family, with their kids seated at the dining room table doing their school work. My assumption was dashed when Jeff said, “Oh, no…they go to the local school. With both of us working full-time, we hardly have time to home-school our children.”
Working remotely, however, does affect families. He laughingly told me, “For a while, I was working at home, and my wife was working at a school here in town. When she and the kids got home at the end of the day, I was ready to get out and do something. They were ready to be home. That felt weird. I had to figure out some things to do on my own. Now that we both work from home, I find we are more involved in our community. Relationships are important, and we’ll drive several hours to connect with co-workers and students. That occasional face-to-face time makes all the difference in remote working relationships. I can’t just pop my head over the cubicle wall to talk to a co-worker. We’re intentional and don’t let thoughts get back-logged just because someone is not right in front of us. Communication is everything.”
What’s your remote work experience? We’d love to hear your tips for staying connected in and outside of work!