From an early age, I was fascinated by everything from the path of the planets across the night sky to how ants instinctively follow an invisible trail to food. Wherever I lived, I needed to understand my place—geolocation as I later learned. Human technology was equally fascinating. I wondered how telephones worked, even without electricity, and how we could watch television using signals broadcast from over fifty miles away. When I saw the Winter Olympic games in France on the television in my living room in California, I had to learn how that was even possible.
My Dad, trained as an electrical engineer in the forties, clearly influenced me. I repaired dozens of vacuum tube television sets and radios. My first audio system used an early transistorized amplifier, handed down from my Dad (which I repaired). It’s a wonder I didn’t electrocute myself before I was ten, experiencing dozens of shocks as my fingers grazed electrical supply circuits.
Although I was interested in the order of things, many of them human, I had to choose a way to make a living. At seventeen, I was yet unaware of academic fields of study that fascinate me today: anthropology and human culture; sociology and human society; psychology and the human mind. I could visualize the work of a chemist, so that started my educational path.
After earning my Ph.D. and a short postdoctoral stint with Sandia National Laboratories, I landed a job as a scientist at The Aerospace Corporation. First doing laboratory science, then program management, and then business development, I eventually found myself in human resources but specifically in the field of learning and development. My primary audience was the professional staff and management of the company. It was here I became intrigued by human systems.
I came to realize that work itself was often an experiment with unknown outcomes. From a scientific perspective, the work experiment wasn’t always well thought out, and results would often leave more questions than they answered.
There was no recipe for workplace leaders to follow in charting a course for the company, yet they seemed adept at doing so. Most worked on instinct, often consulting with experts, but they were also guided by those who came before as well as by their own extensive experience.
I also came to understand the nature of workers, most of them intelligent, some highly educated, and several who later became leaders of the company. I learned both first and second hand about the work challenges faced by many, which were almost always interpersonal at their core.
I became responsible for creating training programs that helped people communicate more effectively with management and customers. I focused on practical things they could implement on the job. My favorite comments from executives were their descriptions of noticeable performance improvement from employees who’d attended my classes.
In hindsight, I understand how fortunate I was to enter the workforce at such a remarkable time in history, given my fascination with technology. I saw the commercial introduction of the fax machine, which changed the pace of work by eliminating delivery time. I wrote papers and reports using the earliest commercial word processors. I created applications on a variety of mainframes, microcomputers, and then the personal computer when it entered the workplace. I was “the first on my block” to use the World Wide Web and to build websites. I used email long before anyone heard of spam or viruses. I also became the first on my block to telecommute.
Through it all, I saw technology change the very nature of the workplace. I saw some struggle, and others thrive. I found that failures were often rooted in interpersonal relationships that had changed because of technology. Unlike so-called thought leaders, I wasn’t on the sidelines studying it. I was living it, and I was helping others thrive amidst it. Better yet, I’d developed a diverse worldwide network of colleagues who contributed the additional breadth, depth, and insight from businesses of all types and sizes necessary to understand changes in a more global context.
All of this prepared focus on my current work, seeking to help organizations and individuals survive and thrive in the new digital teleworking era, where traditional expectations meet ever-evolving technologies. My hope is for employees and managers alike to better understand the inherently social nature of work, how to address its most critical aspects as work continues to decentralize, and how we can continue to provide optimum value to our employers.
My goal is for us all to remain out of the office, but not out of mind.