Virtual Office … High Touch and High Tech

digital hand, touches real handMy husband has been working at home for more than five years now.  Every morning he gets up, eats his cereal, pours a cup of coffee and heads to his office in the basement.  He is very disciplined (he even gives himself “casual Fridays” when he can wear t-shirts instead of his usual polo shirts), he is highly introverted, and he works in software development and analysis.  He loves it!  He is more productive, even when he takes a break now or then to practice his bass guitar, or run 5K or 10K.  And he is very happy to have the commuting time back.  The 3 hours a day he would commute in Houston is priceless.  Working from home doesn’t work for everyone, but in the right circumstances and with the right parameters, it can be both a cost savings and a boon to “production.”

As a rule of thumb, I believe that a church’s resources should be more invested in people, and less invested in buildings and space.  So when our finance guy, Howard, asked me if we could turn the heat down in the Monmouth Presbytery office in order to cut our heating bill, I asked the inevitable question.  How much is heating this place costing us?  In cold months, it could be as much as $900/mo.  Our lease is up in a few months, so the new information begged me to ask the next question — is having a physical office like this worth the expense?  This question has led me and the Monmouth Presbytery staff to consider the pros and cons of working without a presbytery “office.”

Pros

  • cost savings … while some initial costs would be incurred to get us technologically up to speed, a “virtual office” would save us money on building maintenance and upgrades, heat and electric, custodial and lawn services, telephone, internet, other supplies and insurance.
  • staff time … Howard is our bookkeeper and finance guy.  He has, however, been the go-to guy for building maintenance and care.  He’s the one we send into the basement to check the internet router and he’s been found cleaning our gutters and landscaping.  Marie (our administrative assistant, communications person, and all-around assistant to the Regional Presbyter) also spends her time tending to supply needs, washing dishes, etc.
  • staff security … we are ALL part-time staff.  That means that many of us are often working in the building alone.  While we all have a decent level of grit and have no trouble with this, we all have the ability to “get spooked” every now and then.
  • less travel and fossil fuel usage … traveling to the office in New Egypt is a significant commute for all of us.  Commuting 30 minutes or more, so that we can work in an otherwise empty building, is a waste of time and gasoline.  In addition, heating an older house while it sits empty or is used by one staff member, is a waste of fuel oil.  I imagine there are more faithful ways to use the building for the blessing of the community.
  • Staff meetings and staff workdays would be held in local churches, giving the staff the ability to meet and get to know the work of our congregations, pastors, and staffs.
  • The symbolic “center” and picture of the presbytery will be less concrete … and it could help us to re-define the presbytery from being a building, a staff, or a structure, to being a network of people.

Cons

  • A building and a place is a symbol for the “center” of the organization.  With no “place” to call home … it’s more difficult to interpret and understand just who, what, and where the “presbytery” is.
  • There is a passive proximity advantage for communication and creativity.  When I come to the either of the presbytery offices, I spend a great deal of time just sitting and chatting with the staff.  It’s a highly valuable time … we share the everyday happenings that are not important or urgent enough for a phone call or an email, but integral to the work we do.  New ideas come to life during these informal visits … and I enjoy a quick shout from the office to get an immediate answer to a question or share an “ah-hah”.  We won’t have this in a virtual office … we’ll have to intentionally make time and space to “chat” and be working “together” even if we’re not in the same place.
  • We need a physical address for many legal and corporate matters.  We need a place to receive mail (currently we have a post office box) and someone to get it, sort it, and distribute it.  Snail mail will be an even slower way to communicate.
  • Files.  Most of our files can be transferred to a “cloud” and digitally stored and accessed.  There are, however, some records that need to be saved, preserved, in paper files.  Some of these are confidential.  We would need to find a place to store records and files that is accessible when needed.
  • Telephone.  One of the first comments I received on Facebook when I raised the question of virtual offices is that people, that is PRESBYTERIANS, want to be able to call a phone number for the presbytery and speak to a live person.  There are a host of telephone options we could use, but all of them would take some adjustments and getting used to.

The staff and I have been imagining working from different locations.  We even imagined some new ways of relating … like having two “staff days” a month at different churches.  We would begin our time together with prayer and worship, chat, share lunch together with staff or members of the church, and “set up shop” for a day’s work around church tables in a Sunday School room or board room.  We really like the idea of being intentionally prayerful and worshipful while we’re gathered together.   We would pray for each church and each pastor, too.  Some of us would set up a space at home … others would work primarily from other offices, coffee shops (I already have a Hamilton “office” at Panera) or our cars.  We would call each other more frequently … use conference calling and Skype and DropBox … some of us will have to get a whole lot more comfortable with the digital solutions.

What are the pros and cons you think of if our presbytery went “virtual” … that is high touch and high tech … what would you miss?  what would you gain?

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