The Zero Hour Workweek

“I quit”.

It was easy.

Except it wasn’t. It was gut wrenching and the implications clawed at my self-doubt, my pride, my sense of duty. Was this really the thing we wanted to do? Was I making a huge mistake? Was I derelict and irresponsible, lazy, delusional, reckless? What would be the consequences on the family of an unemployed husband and father? This wasn’t the first time I’d been without a job, without income, but it was the first time someone hadn’t made the choice for me. I did this.

Getting a family of seven out the door on a grand adventure isn’t exactly easy. As I write this story 5 months in, I realize it is easier than one might think, but at the time it was a daunting mix of dreaming, scheming and hard work with just enough good luck to get all the pieces to stick together. The foundation which had allowed our dreams and schemes to move forward, however, was my job managing IT network projects for a global company. My manager had been receptive, enthusiastic even (maybe?), when I proposed extending a two-week vacation to Samoa into a multi-month remote work situation. Ninety-nine percent of my projects were in global locations, so delivering work product remotely was already something I did every day.

We planned and researched and publicly announced our intentions, secure in the knowlege that our income would continue.

As January became February and then March, we had a rough itinerary. We would leave Atlanta the end of May, attend the Nelson Family Wedding in Washington, DC, and fly out of New York City for Samoa in early June. Samoa would be vacation and family time, re-connecting with a son and brother only recently returned from 2 years away, and where better to do so than the small exotic locale which held such a huge space in Doran’s heart. Additionally, the Internet connectivity in Samoa was rumored to be barely marginal; best to embrace dis-connectivity and not set the expectation I’d be working. After Samoa, the schedule would hopefully include New Zealand and eventually Thailand.

The “extended travel with the whole family” thing was to be a new adventure. We weren’t sure exactly how it would work, especially in SE Asia. We took a 3-week trip through Central America in 2014, the difference being we spoke the language, and had been there before. This time it was all hand gestures and smiles once we left the pleasingly accented English of the Kiwi’s.

Work, however, was another story. I was 100% confident I could produce for my employer regardless of my latitude and longitude. As long as I had decent connectivity, I’d not miss a beat. To be extra cautious, I planned to work US hours so my support of the team in the home office would be unaffected by the time difference. As a personal bonus, this arrangement would allow me to explore during the day with the family, settling down in front of the laptop in the evening. Two additional factors reinforced my belief work would continue to work. First, the company had 190+ offices around the world, including Wellington, NZ, and Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Worst case, I reasoned, I could “hotel” in one of the offices and leverage the very connectivity my team supported. Secondly, the company had a new CEO who in his introductory video to employees clearly stated he was a “Global” CEO and by leveraging technology could be wherever he needed to be whenever he needed to be there. Any questions from colleagues about my travels would invariably fade in the face of this new leadership stance.

Not everyone agreed.

In April, things got serious. Delta award seat availability opened up, providing passage for 7 from JFK to Samoa via Los Angeles and Sydney. We booked tickets and informed my manager of our departure date: June 8, 2016. Then he got serious and took our proposal to management “just to be sure”. They were sure – absolutely sure – all right. But the answer wasn’t what I wanted nor expected to hear. “We can’t support this. If we let Robert go, everyone will want to do the same.” Something like that, anyway. But the message was a clear “No”.

Wait, what?!?

We had a plan, so many pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place. It was practically perfect. This trip was supposed to happen; it was meant to be. But now, we had choices to make. Should we…

  1. Resign, immediately or perhaps closer to departure.
  2. Just go as planned and see if the company would either change their mind or fire me.
  3. Pull the plug on the whole grand adventure and make the best of 2 weeks of vacation in Samoa.

There were other options, of course, but those were the most likely. Before choosing, however, we sidelined a final decision en lieu of some old-fashioned work. I’m a problem solver, a fixer, and this was a problem I was certain we could fix. In fact, so confident were we that we found tenants to rent our house and signed a lease.

I asked the company to reconsider and they did. No small amount of effort was expended exploring all available HR options – family leave, short-term leave, a two-month trip instead of the proposed six. In the end, we didn’t find common ground. I don’t know if the outcome would be any different, but the “way” it went down likely would have. I’m at peace with the result, but wish I’d handled my part of the process differently.

First, the “solution” was crystal clear in my mind and aligned perfectly with my world view – flexible work arrangements increase both employee engagement and organizational productivity. Additionally, my personal productivity improves in proportion to the time I spend not just thinking outside the box, but in “being” outside the box; the mind opening and productivity enhancing jolt that is “travel”. Such obvious benefits would far outweigh any negatives. Turns out it’s not that obvious to everyone. Maybe I was too close, not leveraging my strength in seeing the big picture, or perhaps I was seeing the big picture but facing the wrong way. Probably a little of both. In the end, I didn’t seek to understand, only to be understood. Lesson learned. In retrospect, I now see I was completely in love with the solution and not the problem.

Second, I was asked not to discuss my plans with colleagues pending resolution of negotiations. My agreement to this request was unfortunate. Not to say I live my life out-loud, far from it, and my best thinking happens most frequently when I have time alone. However, when a group of people get together to solve a problem, especially not caring who is “right” or who gets the credit, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. In this case, I think collaborative input may have provided a breakthrough, or at least awoken me to the reality of the situation sooner and I could have exited with more grace instead of stumbling out the door exhausted from repeatedly searching for the key argument that would unlock the future I desired.

In the end, I quit.

Having kept quiet, many colleagues were caught by surprise, a few expressed dismay. Several – more than I could have hoped – expressed support and endorsed my decision of family and adventure over the job.

Was it worth it? Is it worth it?

From family perspective, I would say, “Yes, without a doubt”. I’ve gained fresh appreciation for the amazing individuals I call family. They are without exception, even more smart, funny, tolerant, critical-thinking, insightful, supportive and likable than before. Becky, of particular note, has demonstrated a fearlessness and confidence she may not feel – whether zip-lining (Fun Mom!) or packing our possessions into storage.

Financially and professionally, I’d also answer, “Yes.” as my capacity and confidence in providing for a future of our choosing grows every day. The impact of people we meet, places we see, stories we hear, and things we learn all magnified by the adventure. Time will ultimately be the judge of whether our foray into the unknown was wise, foolish, or somewhere in-between, but I suspect that it isn’t the experience itself as much as what we do with it that matters. Now, excuse me, I’ve got no work to do. J

remote work

Thinking, thinking, thinking…

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