Home Office Workers Unite! That is the call Sebastian Fiedler put out earlier this week. He ponders about working a lot of your time in virtual environments, without close colleagues anywhere in physical vicinity: Though I am in frequent contact with various people in different parts of the continent and around the world, I have done very little to establish a local network of people who live and work in a similar way like I do. There must be loads in town… but we never seem to meet… and what I often find missing during a normal work day at home is the equivalent of the occasional coffee break that one gets with co-workers, the little chat on the corridor, and so forth. Sure, I compensate with mediated communication of all sorts… but the urban landscape and my mind is calling for something else.

I recognize Sebastian’s thinking and feelings in several ways. Proven Partners, the company I work with, has no office at all. We are 12 people, voted last year’s ‘most mobile company’ in the Netherlands, who meet at clients, along the road, or virtually. Phones, exchange server, e-mail, roadside restaurants and IM take the place of offices, conference rooms, coffee machines and gossip in the cafetaria during lunch. And I can emphatize with what Sebastian is saying. Face to face contact has different rhythms and nuances from our virtual encounters. In part this is of our own making, when we think that our virtual channels are for ‘business only’, where city sidewalks, terraces, markets but also our offices are geared to different rhythms and nuances. Marcel, a colleague who recently joined us was amazed at the amount of banter we were exchanging through e-mail. In his former job e-mail was ‘serious’ only, reminiscent of what Euan Semple recently wrote about. E-mail is our virtual coffee machine.

Whenever I work from home a number of days in a row, I get a bit restless. Because of working on your own. And the daily and frequent virtual contact with coworkers is not cure enough for that. To balance that we sometimes arrange to meet with colleagues to work together in the same geographic location. This isn’t perfect of course, as you find yourself usually in some café or restaurant at a considerable driving distance, without the usual office appliances, and without the comfort of being in an environment you ‘own’, in a territory that is marked as ‘yours’.

So being able to step outside for a bit and meet up with people in similar working conditions in your own neighbourhood seems like a good thing to me. Or agreeing to work together in some spot for a few hours, at someones place even. Fact is, apart from my partner Elmine, I don’t think I know anyone in our home town either that works the way she and I do. And I am certain there must be quite a few. I think I would enjoy having a small circle of people around in the immediate vicinity like that, so why did this not happen and emerge? All other routines I have emerged in response to a felt need, as far as I can tell, so why not this one?

Perhaps it is the result of how your focus starts shifting once you enter a more virtual working life. When I first started building relationships around the topics that interested me, knowledge management e.g., I started looking outwards. I knew I was unlikely to find people in my home town, and knew I had to take an international perspective. Two years on, while looking for a new job and finding my current position, I realized that while I was busy building international contacts around knowledge management I did not know anyone (well, one or two) in the Netherlands around this topic, let alone in my town. Even though I was looking for a job in the Netherlands. I had been so busy looking outside, and so captivated by the conversations I found there, that I did not notice I was creating this big blind spot called ‘local environment’. When we are used to meeting our virtual co-workers in Copenhagen, Vienna, or elsewhere, or that when they visit your home for f2f discussion it is not from within driving but from within flying distance, we easily forget that there might be people in similar working conditions right down the block. I think Lilia Efimova and I had already been in contact for several months on-line before we mutually realized we both lived in the same town, a ten minute bike ride apart, and had our first lunch discussing knowledge and blogging together, somewhere in 2002.

So I pick up the banner that Sebastian raised, and ask how many home office workers have you connected with in your home town? Home Office Workers Unite! And I think I might need to translate this into Dutch as well….

Photo Solidarity Mural by Atelier Teee, Office by Elmine, both under Creative Commons license, photo Witbiertje aan Zee by me.

In the past days I visited Vienna, on the invitation of the ZSI, Centre for Social Innovation. They organized a workshop on the fringe of the yearly conference for the European distance and e-learning network (EDEN). The workshop was titled Social Software in Professional Learning Environments, and an initiative of both the PROLEARN and iCamp European projects, and took place at the technological university of Vienna.

Sebastian Fiedler and Barbara Kieslinger kindly invited me to speak at their Social Software workshop about the pioneering our company Proven Partners does in working with social software, both internally and for clients. In my presentation I talked about the rationale for using social software in our organization, and our experienced benefits, challenges and obstacles. Based on the questions I also introduced some of the examples in working with our clients with social software.

My presentation was the first, which worked out nicely as I approached the subject in broader terms, and as seen from the ‘user’-perspective. Subsequent presentations were by Thomas Burg (on tagging), Karsten Ehms (on internal weblogs at Siemens), and Ralf Klamma (on research perspectives and projects around social software). Ralf does interesting stuff on visualization issues, reminiscent of the work of Marc Smith at Microsoft Research. The few dozen people attending were active listeners, with a good number of questions.

Apart from the workshop this was also a good chance to talk to Karsten, Thomas and Sebastian again. It’s always a pleasure to meet them. And the ‘beer gardens’ in Vienna, such as Altes AKH and the Hermann’s beach bar (photo) were good places to have those conversations. And of course new faces and names were part of those exchanges as well. Such as Norm Friesen, Jan Mendling, Ralf Klamma and Fridolin Wild, and a whole bunch of others. All in all a very pleasant experience. Looking forward to returning to Vienna in the fall for the BlogTalk Reloaded conference, for which we just heard a proposal by me and Elmine got accepted. Photo’s are up on Flickr, ofcourse.