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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Everywhere is Local: Live where you want, and work Everywhere

[Also available as a Podcast]
The world continues to shrink day by day. Not physically of course - but practically, in how we conduct business and communicate. Today many take this for granted - but do not truly realize the full implications of the changes over the last couple decades and how this can affect your daily lives - both personal and work.

Today, I "travel" 30,000km or more every day - with a 2 minute commute, plus a few overseas trips every year. I am living where I want to - and working with clients everywhere.

So how did we get here?

Looking back: 1990. My first international work trip away from Canada was to New Zealand. 18 hours, two middle of the night stopovers, and I was finally there. But where was that? A long, long way from home. A beautiful place - but feeling very isolated from anywhere, way down in the South Pacific. 

Some of the reasons it felt so far away in 1990:

- International calls were still very expensive, so we did not phone home much except for work calls
- Cellphones were costly and rare (and literally bricks).
- No video calling - the only way to "see" each other was travelling there in person.
- Data communication from the Canadian office to the customer site was by a single 14.4K modem - slow, and also unreliable at times.
- Email was available but not standardized yet - few systems supported attachments of any kind. 
- Software patches were sent by tape - multiple days by courier.

- We later developed a method of emailing patches by breaking a program into many emails as text in 1000 line chunks - a vast improvement over the courier method, but only feasible for single executable patches - which were often over 47 emails long that had to be combined on the other side.
- No Internet (yet)!

Back then, I could never have imagined working the way I do now.

My, how things have changed!

Today, I live in New Zealand - but work anywhere and everywhere, and feel close to all of my clients on a daily basis. But how is this possible?

In short, and no surprise - the Internet.

Some history: 1993 - Mosaic brought a Web Browser GUI to the fledgeling Internet, which up until then had primarily been text based and low bandwidth as it grew up from its origins in ARPANET. Ever since then, there has been an explosion of capabilities and capacity as networks have grown at an exponential rate, both in reach and in bandwidth. Quite exciting times - as I also worked for a company that contributed one of the first commercial Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) fast packet switching solutions into the global market. With this solution and others, network capacity literally took off - and with capacity came the ability for more and more features to be developed. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, of course, the Internet is so ubiquitous it is taken for granted almost everywhere. People make hotel decisions based on the quality and cost of their Broadband connections as much as the quality of the rooms, and choose coffee shops for meetings based on their WiFi availability.

Some of what has changed from 1990 to 2012

- Mobile phones are cheap and everywhere
- International calling costs have plumetted
- Internet provides a huge range of capabilities
  - Emailing of 10-20MB files is normal (good-bye 47 emails for a 384KB EXE!)
  - Phone alternatives abound - VoIP providers, IM services
  - VPN secure connections from site to site - extending your reach
  - Free video conferencing options
  - Online meetings
  - And much more!
- The world is becoming more Local

Our Shrinking World

In many practical ways, this is not the same world anymore, and it will continue to change tomorrow as technology continues to accelerate. If you are communicating with clients, or working in IT - you are truly not very distant from anywhere on the planet with an Internet connection.

The Changing Workscape

In the traditional workscape, the "Live-Work" model that most people continue to live in today has you live close to where you work, or at least close enough that you can commute in to work in the morning, and back home in the evening. Work is centralized around an office, a factory, or a job site. Everyone goes into work, does their job for 8-10 hours, then commutes home, in many cases consuming endless hours in traffic or on public transit.

In this model and in years past, "Remote clients" were anyone in another city, or other countries. And there was plenty of travel in order to meet with clients.

Of course, if you have a job requiring physical interaction (construction, manufacturing, retail, and others requiring daily direct face to face client contact), this is hard to avoid.

But if you are in a job that requires communication and not much direct daily physical interaction, such as IT or many roles that you could potentially do at least some of the time by video or phone - you have other options.

Working another way

In 2001, I changed careers. Still in IT, but from the Telecom domain to another Information System space. Clients were spread across North America and numerous locations around the globe. There was still a high degree of physical interation with new clients - there truly is no replacement for face-to-face time, especially at the beginning of a project. This meant a lot of onsite time for team members, so the Services team was highly mobile.

This also meant that it did not matter where you lived - you were prepared to travel. So much so that people did not ask where you lived, they asked what your home airport was. 

However, although the client facing time was primarily physical, the overal job and its tools were virtual - you were able to work with the client in their office, from your hotel, from home, or from the main office, really - from anywhere. With VPN you could securely connect to and work within a client's network from any location with a broadband connection. And as the projects wound down, support was then provided remotely, with little change to the interaction with the customer systems and the level of support that could be provided. You also had a lot of face-time built up with the client which eased the later remote client communications by phone/video/Webex etc.

In 2006 I shifted from primarily on-site services to a more remote role, at least from the client's perspective - working with hundreds of clients by phone/email and Internet. And on a trip back to NZ in 2007 to visit my wife's side of the family, I came to another realization.

It really does not matter where I am to do the work I do - so why not live where I want to?

By August 2008, we had done just that - and my family and I had moved (back) to New Zealand. But I never really changed clients. I continue to work with the same people, primarily in the US and Canada, but also with clients around the globe. And from here I manage a team who works remotely - but also who do on-site client work when needed.

We are now in a world where we can begin to Think Global - and Be Local.

So - What do we need in order to "Be Local"?

 - Communication transparency (VoIP/Phone/Cellphone/Email)
 - (Tele)presence: “being there” (VPN/VoIP/Phone)

 - Access to/for clients and teams (VPN)
 - Community: Virtual teams are real teams (IM/Chat/VoIP/Phone)
 - Quick access to global team members (IM/Chat/VoIP/Phone)

 - Collaboration, not frustration (Online tools)
 - Location independence – every day! (Phone/VoIP/Cellphone and all the rest!)

Got Laptop? Go Anywhere!

The Acid Test

If they cannot easily tell if you are down the street or across the world – you are, in practical terms, Local

Digital vs Personal Contact

Much of what we do is information exchange (email, text, Instant Messaging). However, the human element is important - Sight and Sound. We need to talk, and to see each other regularly to connect and reinforce relationships. In person is best – when you have the opportunity to do so, take advantage of it.

When you can't be there, fill in the gaps with video and phone calls. The better the relationship you establish at the beginning of the project (preferrably in person, next is video, then phone), the more successful you will be in having effective ongoing remote communication with them.

Talk to me, I'm Human

It is tempting to just use email for everything. It is quick and convenient - however it is very impersonal, and messages can often be misinterpreted (i.e. tone, all caps, etc) and this can cause major upsets. However, a quick phone call can more effectively nip a problem in the bud than another email, which might otherwise stoke the fire instead.

Note that voice communication is technically relatively “inefficient”, based solely on words per minute. And yet - the need for personal contact will never disappear. The personal touch of tone, and the sound of your voice communicates volumes - far more effectively than any email.

And the good news, of course - is that it has never been cheaper to talk!

Keeping the Team Together 

Working with clients is one thing - but you also need to keep your team working effectively together, when you may not see each other in person for months, or even years. Regular weekly calls is a start, and ad-hoc calls as needed. I make things easy for my team and clients by providing a VoIP inbound (real) phone number in the main countries where they are - so it is a local call to reach me, anywhere in the world. I just change forwarding when I travel, and use a VoIP provider as my primary communications hub.

Another tool that I use extensively with my team and the extended teams we work with is an IM chat tool (pick your favourite). Everyone in the extended team uses it, and is generally connected into it when online. It helps us provide fast access to each other, so that questions can be quickly answered, saving time over emails and providing better service to the customer, no matter where we are. 

However, another use is just as important - keeping the social glue in place by a moderate amount of just plain chat while you are addressing the work questions. If you don't have much (or any) face time, a bit of chatting, by IM or by phone helps to keep the team connected and strong. (Too much chat becomes gossip, so you need to strike a balance, but I strongly favour use of an IM tool - and in my experience, very few tend to over-use it).


Today, it is possible to conduct most of your business from anywhere with an Internet connection. You can apply this as much as you want to suit your situation - reduce travel, reduce your commute, work from home a few days a week, or, in extreme cases like mine, pack up and move to wherever in the world you want to live, and continue to work from there with your remote clients, travelling only as needed.

You, too, can Live where you want - and Work Everywhere!

Note: For more details on effective global communications done cheaply and effectively,  including using VoIP as your communications hub, please read Everywhere is Local: Providing seamless local access for clients, and stay connected globally - Cheaply! 

Gary Nelson, PMP
Gazza Consulting Services

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