Accountability Part 1: War of the Worlds

(Note: I intend to make this post is the first of a five-part series, every Thursday, on accountability as the missing link in new-world, new-millennium, post-downturn management. Tim.)

I’m wondering where, and how far, this goes: The virtual world (meaning cyberspace, and working at home, working on the web, and online applications) merging with the real world (meaning people working together, having physical presence, at the business location). I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings on this issue. Let me explain.

On one hand, the world needs virtual workplaces.

Flashback: Tokyo, 1993. I was stuck in traffic on one of the many elevated highways, in a bus, on a weekday morning, looking out at cars with drivers, some with passengers, buses, trucks, all stopped on the road. The city spread out below us all.

“What a waste,” I thought. “What a waste of humanity.” People in cities routinely spend an hour or more just getting from home to work and back again, and, in many cases, for no good reason. Sure, taxi drivers and retail sales clerks and cable repairmen need to be physically present, where they work; but not middle managers, knowledge workers, and maybe half, maybe even two-thirds of the work force.

Not that Tokyo is any different from most cities; it’s actually a bit better organized. I spent a week per month in Tokyo for about four years, ending in 1994, so that’s what I think of first. But I lived in Mexico City for nine years, and that traffic was way worse. And I had a few days in San Paulo a few years ago, and that’s worse than Mexico City. We moved from Palo Alto to Eugene in small part because we were tired of traffic in Silicon Valley (that was just one of many reasons).

On the other hand, teams, infrastructure, and real world.

I spent most of the last 20 years running a software company. As I write this, my office door opens to an area full of cubicles. People are talking to each other. I see programmers talking to programmers, marketers talking to marketers, and — wow — marketers talking to programmers. The people who answer the sales phones are 10 feet from the people who offer tech support. The other day we got news of a surprising sales spurt in one of the retail channels. Five people were standing among the cubes, talking about it.

All of which makes me a hypocrite. Or confused. Because I believe spreading work into the virtual workplace is good for people, reduces the commuting problem for many, is generally a good idea, an advance of civilization. But not in my company. We’re a team. We work together when we’re together.

And, (oh no), I don’t have a third hand

Things are neater when we can take the two hands and synthesize. But we can’t always.

Maybe, just maybe, the answer to this dilemma is in the tools and the technology. That makes sense. In the spirit of synthesis, I asked Jason Gallic about this via instant message. Jason, product manager for Email Center Pro, is very up on all this.  Here’s the IM:
jgallic: i’m in it now…so you’re looking or applications that aide the single-person office, or the aide the virtual community at large?
Tim Berry: good question. I think my angle is more the small but growing group, the team, because that’s the front lines of the conflict between virtual and real. Things that would help a company like us do more remote work …
jgallic: ok…working on it
jgallic: here’s a list of tools that would fit the bill:
jgallic: Start of course with Email Center Pro, for managed collaborative email with shared addresses.
jgallic: basecamp: project management
jgallic: zoho, google docs, shared documents
jgallic: webex, gotomeeting: meetings, shared screen
jgallic: gotomypc: remote terminal access
jgallic: wetpaint: easy to create wiki community (a wiki intranet)
jgallic: Instant Messenger (any application)
jgallic: shared RSS
jgallic: Skype: for free voice to voice and face to face
jgallic: Yammer: for a non-intrusive IM application that provides overall updates
jgallic: that should give you some things to work with…

Yes, it sure does. If only we could bring these together, somehow. But then, if we did, would we still miss those hallway meetings and the sense of the team together? I think so.

And I suppose another answer to this dilemma is the one-person business. I should know that, since I was that for about 10 years. After all, I consulted with Apple Japan from Eugene Oregon, for more than four years, with a combination of email, fax, phone, and one week a month over there. I did a whole lot of work from a one-person home office; and that was almost 20 years ago, when email was magic and we had not a hint of shared web meetings or shared applications.

But then I get back to the problem of growth. In my case, that one-person business started to grow, and it deserved a few more people to start building it (it’s 40+ people now). And poof, there goes the magic of working at home. Back to the dilemma.

The trick to it, I think, is related to tools, but, ultimately, it’s accountability. Hence, the name of my series. Which I intend to continue next Thursday. But please, don’t hold me accountable for that.

* * * * *

Tim Berry, Entrepreneur and Founder of Palo Alto Software, and Borland International About the Author: Tim Berry is president and founder of Palo Alto Software, founder of, and co-founder of Borland International. He is also the author of books and software on business planning including Business Plan Pro and The Plan-as-You-Go Business Plan; and a Stanford MBA. His main blog is Planning Startups Stories. He twitters as Timberry.


Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.

18 Reactions
  1. I think you could be served at a “third place” between your home and office. I tried together with a couple of partners to create a meeting place for small business owners, entrepreneurs and business minded individuals. We will continue with the idea and talk with owners of already established coffee-houses, and other “public” places who could be interested to harbor “digital nomads”.

  2. Martin, thanks, good addition. Ours, however, is a different case. You’re thinking I assume of the third place as a solution for not having an office. We have nice offices in a relatively small university town in Oregon that doesn’t have big commutes, and we like our employees to be here at the office, where there is lots of interaction. Which makes me contradictory and confused and potentially hypocritical because I think the world needs remote working or working at home, but I still, as employer, like to have the people here.

    That’s why, I think, I look towards accountability. I don’t like to be conflicted and confused and hypocritical.

  3. Tim,

    I think you need an office too. The “third place” is the external office space when you are on the move, between home and office. I am fascinated by the “water cooler” discussions at offices.

    In Oregon you have plenty of coffee-houses, right? I have a friend living there now, so I have to pay a visit someday in the future.

    As long as you keep an eye on things, so you don’t end up as the situation in the movie Office Space! 😉

  4. DennisAtRetailsmart

    I run a small business – use contractors mostly & few staff. But as the ‘boss’ I find the hardest thing being accountable to myself. I thought about getting an independent chairperson – but now think maybe an ‘Accountability Board’ = a group peers that meet regularly and we help each other account for our actions.
    But gotta rush – I am off to the beach (it is summer in Australia)

  5. Martin,

    Make sure you look me up when you come, and come in the summer, it’s beautiful then and gray and rainy a lot of the rest of the year — although warmer than Göteborg in the winter, for sure.

    But for most of us in this company, the drive from office to home is about five minutes maximum, except for the rush moment, in which case it can be as much as seven or eight minutes. I guess the attraction of the coffee place would be to have it injected directly into the veins, instead of having to walk two minutes to get it.

    But then, if we could be off to the beach, like Dennis …

  6. Tim,

    Are you close to Portland? That is a short drive you have. Walking two minutes is nothing. I have no problem to walk about 30 minutes to get to a good coffee place! 🙂

  7. I have to say I go both ways on this topic as well. I love the freedom and virtual office but man you can get hooked and end up working a lot because of all the technology.

    I am always on my phone, facebook, pc, etc…

    We have put together a resource to make small businesses owners more efficient where they can focus on their business and not researching,etc.

  8. I think the motivated self starter can survive at home IF they have some form of interaction available like masterminds or routine meetings with friends or colleagues. I have found that people who want to “do their job from home” rather than work in an office don’t. They don’t really work, nor are they inspired to get great, they are just avoiding the grind of a J-O-B.

    Eyejots, basecamp, skyping etc. keep me connected to humans AND I have group of “girls” I meet each week as well as regular, scheduled meetings with friends!

    And I agree, you are never off if you work from home, checking my email, looking at my google reader, adding one more comment…:)

  9. Holly from

    Tim, I understand your dilemma. It is far better to have face to face interaction with your colleagues/employees than not, but telecommuting has benefits as well. Perhaps the solution is to work out a schedule where everyone is in the office on certain days of the week, say Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday and Thursday. The other days could be office-optional.

    That way, you have your team in place (literally) part of the time, yet meet the goal of supporting telecommuting.

    I disagree with a previous poster that working from home is for slackers (which is basically what the comment indicated). Most of my projects are collaborations with people in other cities, where the phone, skype and instant messenger are our only means of communication, yet good, productive work is completed.

  10. Hi Holly,

    I am SO not saying that people who work from home are slackers (I work from home don’t you know). I am saying that people who are motivated, enthusiastic and team players work great from home – they would work great from anywhere I suspect.

    What I am saying is that I have found that SOME people who have had jobs “at work” who segue to “working from home” do not have that same motivation. They need a boss to monitor their work and find coming in to collaborate when necessary an imposition. I DO think people who are new to an industry or workplace benefit from an initial interaction that working from work brings.

    I love your idea of specific days that are in office, this would allow you to schedule those in person meetings while still giving the people the autonomy to choose their other work venue. I do think that there will be a huge move to work from home in the coming years as businesses are unable to maintain large commercial facilities. I think done correctly this could be a good thing!

  11. I think a lot of this comes down to trust. For telecommuting to work properly, you must have trust in your employees. I do think that you need to maintain some sort of communication with these employees so they can ask or answer any questions that come up.

    I agree with Tara too. I find myself working more since I now work from home. I have a bad habit of returning back to my computer to work after dinner and during the weekends. It’s easier to get sucked into working when it’s so convenient.

  12. This is a dilemma for me as well. Working at home used to work fine but my company is growing. I find the need for a meeting space where I can get together with a joint venture partner or client or a space where I can get away from all the interruptions that seem to come from working at home. I’m having to make use of libraries and coffee houses–the closest town with anything like that is a 20 minute drive. Would I trade my home offce for a cubicle? The mere thought makes me cringe. Can I get the water cooler discussions, the meeting space, and still keep my home office? I haven’t found it yet!

  13. Unfortunately, the benefits of becoming a growing business come with the downside of losing some the more intimate, family atmosphere.

  14. If transparency and accountability are key, I suggest you take a look at