Sunday, December 09, 2001

Home, Not Alone

About twenty years ago I decided to give up my staff job and go into business for myself. I remember that on my first day of independence, I slept late, took a leisurely walk to the store, and a nap in the afternoon. I did much the same on the second day. However, things changed on the third day, when I woke up in cold sweat and realized that I was totally, completely unemployed. I had no regular income, no systems in place to support a business, let alone the business it was to support. Thankfully, the tide turned... though it was three years before I stopped picking up my phone every hour to make sure there was still a dial tone.

Part of that paranoia was related to the tenor of the time. At that juncture, the business economy was just beginning to shift from a staff model to a freelance model. Sure, there were consultants who went from company to company, but they were generally fielded by some big firm who employed legions of them. They adhered to a certain model in their own right, and had a home office with all of the trappings. None of them had their international headquarters on a butcher-block bar on green shag carpeting at the end of the living room.

Added to my own personal lack of infrastructure was the reality that many of the tools we now take for granted were unavailable or unacceptable. Email didn't exist. Answering machines and voicemail were seen as evidence of someone not prosperous enough to have a receptionist or secretary. An address not on a major street or in a downtown business center marked you as a minor leaguer at best. And a technology called telefax was the only way to move paper short of a messenger... but no one had the machines.

Well, a lot has changed. Between mergers, acquisitions, downsizing and telecommuting, not to mention the technology of the internet and wireless, the state of the art has been stood on its head. No longer are the lone rangers of the business world operating against the grain. Rather, more and more people are proud to call themselves independents, freelancers, self-employed or contract workers. Indeed, it is the staff person who seems more and more to be an anachronism in the current economy.

Those us who have made the transition to being our own bosses have learned along the way how to function efficiently. The good news is that we've had time to evolve the model as our businesses have grown and changed, and the world along with it. But that's not the case for tens of thousands of workers displaced by the events of September 11. Research analysts are looking up historical models from the computers in their kid's rooms. Directors of marketing are recreating quarterly launch plans from an end table in their bedroom next to the TV. Heads of sales are banging our proposals from a new laptop in between the ping-pong table and the Nintendo. Throughout the metropolitan area, white-collar refugees are streaming to CompUSA for computer tables like Afghans through the Khyber Pass.

And so as a public service, let me pass on to those affected some tips accumulated over years of working out of a home office. Sure, there are the purely practical matters... find a workspace you can call your own, put in an extra phone line dedicated to your business, make sure your computer and printer are up to snuff. But there are many others that aren't so apparent on first blush, methodologies that only emerge after a few years of doing battle in your flip-flops and tee shirt.

Wherever your office is, make sure there is a door between it and the rest of your life. Remember that great feeling your had at 5PM on a Friday when it was time to go home, and you realized that you could walk away from your desk and all the problems it held? Well, that's impossible to achieve if every time you lay down on the couch to watch TV or sit down in the den with a book you see a mound of paperwork staring you in the face. All the experts talk about being able to achieve a balance in your life between work and play. And that's impossible to do if your quarterly plan is staring you in the face when Michael Jordan's first game back is on the tube.

Find the grocery list in your house and add baby carrots and no-fat pretzels to the bottom. That's because if the second casualty in war is fidelity and the third is sobriety, in this new war the fourth is most assuredly your waistline. At the office, when you needed a break, you took a stroll to the water cooler or the coffee machine. You lost time, not gained calories. But when you're working at home, the destination is more likely to be the refrigerator. Don't be surprised if you gain a few pounds while working on that new business proposal.

Train your family that when you're in the office or on the phone that you are off limits. TV commercials would have you believe that one of the benefits of having a home office is that your kids can come in and strike adorable poses while you're having a conference call. It doesn't work. Nor does having your dog bark or the guy cutting the lawn or the electronic mayhem of Final Fantasy IV in the background. Maybe you could concentrate on your paper in college while your roommate was blasting the Stones and dancing around the room in his underwear. But odds are, your powers of concentration have diminished somewhat over the years.

That being said, there are lots of positives to working from home, once you get the hang of it. You can play hooky to take a hike or shoot some hoops at 2PM, knowing that you can make up the time at night. If the forecast for the weekend is lousy, you can time shift to play a little tennis on Friday and catch up on Saturday during the monsoon. And you can dress for comfort, taking business casual to new highs... or lows, depending on your point of view.

It's a matter of adapting to a new environment. That process has been known to drive some to drink. But done correctly, to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, you can work at home again.


Marc Wollin of Bedford gets lots done in his office while "Friends" is on in the other room. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, December 02, 2001

Soldiers of Retail

OK, so you can't speak Pashto. And the guy at the recruiting station just laughed when you went in to sign up. Your foreign intelligence sources are your Guatemalan gardener and your favorite sushi chef. You already screen the mail and throw out most of it, but that's because it's people looking for money. And your idea of homeland security is deer fencing to protect your rhododendrons.

While we'd all like to contribute, the reality is that most of the action in the war is taking place five or six times zone away, far removed from our daily routine. Pilots are flying day and night sorties, and Special Forces troops are going cave to cave looking for a six foot guy with 4 wives. But what about you? Is there really anything... I mean, anything... that you can do to make a contribution to the war effort? After all, the President has said that it's up to every citizen to pitch in. Sure, you can help out in a soup kitchen, or start a neighborhood watch, or build shelters for the homeless. All worthy endeavors, to be sure, but none specifically linked to the action overseas.

But you don't have to feel irrelevant quite yet. For there's one thing that every one of us can do, regardless of location or ability or income. In Kansas City and Chicago, in Ithaca and Duluth, citizen soldiers can come out of their bunkers and get moving, doing what they do best. After all, as the old maxim says, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

That's right. As a reaffirmation of our way of life, you have to get out there and do your part to keep the economy healthy. Forget cruise missiles and daisy cutters. Nothing will show those fanatics that we mean business as much as an overloaded American Express bill. As the Xmas season begins, it is incumbent on every individual to dig deep down, and buy the most useless things they can think of to put under the tree and next to the candles. For whether you're Christian or Jewish, Moslem or Buddhist, our bond as Americans is based not so much on liberty or freedom, but on our common desire to have shiny new toys from Santa.

What you buy is less important than that you buy. But recognizing that protecting our way of life requires many different props, following is a selection is war materiel accessible to the average citizen, and available wherever fine toys are sold. Act fast: you never know when the DOD will restrict purchases for purposes of national security.

For instance, maybe you're boning up on international treaties so as to be able to participate in the ongoing debate about power sharing in the new Afghanistan. In your reading, you find yourself confused as to the homelands of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shia Hazaras that formed the government that collapsed in 1996, enabling the Taliban to take power. Sure, you could stop what you were doing, and run to your computer to do a little research. Or you could use your handy Zelco Bookmark Dictionary that you have stuck in the next chapter. This wafer thin device not only marks your page, but also contains a keypad and display, enabling you to access its 50,000-word dictionary. At only $40, you can afford to buy one for yourself, as well as send one to Tom Ridge, so he can look up "superfluous."

Like many of us, maybe you feel it's important to be able to move quickly should the need arise. If so, then get out there and get yourself a set of Heelys. They may look like regular sneakers. But flip them over and snap a single high performance wheel to the heel plate, and before you can say "Moonwalk," you'll be gliding and spinning. At about $100 a pair, they give you that quick mobility needed to stay one step ahead of terrorists.

Or perhaps you're a little concerned that the neighbors are building a nuclear device next door... or if not that, their French au pair must be monitored during her morning aerobics routine for signs of subversive activity Do your part for the country while keeping a watchful eye over the fence with a SkyDoc camera surveillance system. This $16,000 tethered balloon and video camera combination operates at about 300 feet, and enables you to pan, tilt and zoom into the smallest detail, whether it be a plutonium trigger or that cute dimple on her cheek. could be a disguise.

Finally, maybe you're entertaining a group of friends, one of which you suspect of being an agent for the Evildoer himself. You cleverly offer all in attendance a glass of wine, fully expecting to lift his prints from the glass and fax them over to Interpol for investigation. But when you leave the room, a helpful guest collects all the glasses to bring to the kitchen for cleanup. Which was his? Well, if you were using the Wine Glass Identifier, you'd have no question. This set of detachable charms hangs around the neck of your wine bottle. As you serve a glass, you snap a charm off the bottle and onto the stem of the glass. Then each person can identify their drink much as they would a Monopoly piece. With prices starting at just $12 a set, identifying fanatics has never been so economical.

So don't just sit there; do your duty as a citizen. On this, the official start of the holiday season, get out there and put down your credit card for America. As they say in the Marines, spend, maggot, spend. And remember, you're not doing it for yourself; you're doing it for the country.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is running up his credit card bills this season, if only to be viewed as a patriot. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.