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(HOST) Over a decade ago, the business world was welcoming a new tool: the Internet. Now, businesses employ many workers who grew up taking the Internet for granted. Commentator Helen Labun Jordan reflects on how early expectations are matching up with reality.

(LABUN JORDAN) I was born in the same year as PacMan. I can’t imagine high school without e-mail or college without accessing research online. The race to the newest computer gadget was always on – and with the evolving technology there was always the expectation that just around the corner was a new world for business – a world without offices and, therefore, without boundaries. Freed from the constraints of the physical workplace, the individual would be left alone to pursue her creative genius to its fullest.

The prognosticators were reaching full vigor the summer that my friend Seth and I were sixteen. Their predictions of something earth shattering seemed on track. Seth was spending his vacation at home devising online inventory systems for a multinational company to move billions of dollars of product through southeast Asia. This was the same kid who would greet the advent of chat rooms as a way to hold real time conversations in Latin and, later, in ancient Greek. His example for me became wrapped up in predictions about the infinite possibility for the 21st century workforce; it wasn’t one person’s particular talent – it was a promise to all of us.

I had almost forgotten that promise until, six months ago,
I accepted a job working from home. Suddenly, I had arrived.
I was part of a workforce unfettered by traditional office life.
I settled in, sat back, and waited to enjoy my piece of the revolution.

My first discovery was that our physical surroundings still matter. My creative spirit, for example, demanded an office suite and so
I promptly expanded from a single den to take over the kitchen, dining room, and living room.

And I discovered that conversations still matter. It can take days to clear up a single line of misinterpreted e-mail – that is, when
my e-mails reach their destination, without disappearing into mysterious Spam filters.

People matter. Websites don’t have curiosity. Websites can’t whisper secrets or hit upon flashes of insight. My computer is entirely unhelpful when I have writer’s block. In my virtual office,
a conversation with my cat is the closest I get to hearing an unsolicited, unfiltered new perspective – and her analytical
skills are limited.

It turns out that the workforce of the future owes a lot to the workforce of the past.

I recently heard one entrepreneur, who manages sensitive electronic data, attribute his client portfolio to the fact that
people “trust” Vermonters. That trust stems from a culture built long before the first computer and I see his point. Given freedom to build my working world, I’m seeking out elements from the “old” ways of doing business – hoping for the healthy mix of independent thinking and personal connections that has long defined Vermont’s business climate.

In the end, I predict that real success with new technology won’t be measured by how far it moves us away from pre-telecomm life, but by how well we use these tools to strengthen our state’s traditional advantages.

This is Helen Labun Jordan of East Montpelier.

Helen Labun Jordan works at the Vermont Council on Rural Development. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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