Ann A. Dixon
Bryn Mawr College
101 North Merion Avenue
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010 USA
v: (215) 526-5002
f: (215) 526-7450
Education, higher; Health care/health services
Innovative or improved ways of doing things; Creation of new ideas, products, or services
Supporting Documentation (contact author for more information):
Story Site (if other than location listed above):
New Orleans, LA
It was an ordinary Saturday morning in March, 1990, and I had tickets to see Kathleen Turner in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that night in Philadelphia. It was no ordinary morning, though: Mom called to tell me that her doctor thought she had lung cancer. Stunned, I booked a flight to New Orleans for the next morning, wound up a few projects at the office, and packed, not knowing how long I was going to be there or what I would be doing while I was there. As it turned out, I stayed for 17 months, and the Internet allowed me to keep my job in Pennsylvania while caring for my mother in New Orleans.
I am the Assistant Director of Academic Computing at Bryn Mawr College, a Seven Sisters college of about two thousand undergraduate and graduate students located on the Main Line in suburban Philadelphia. I have supported the curricular and research computing needs of our faculty and students since 1985. Since we have a small staff of only four full-timers, I have worked on a variety of projects, including managing the timesharing computers, designing and implementing the campus network, and affiliating the College with the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) for chemistry and physics faculty. In the winter of 1989-90, Bryn Mawr joined PREPnet, the Pennsylvania regional network, as part of a library automation project which included Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges. The three colleges were to become connected by T-1 lines, and to combine their card catalogs into one database physically located at the Bryn Mawr library. I was in the midst of winding up the installation of the bridge to Haverford and Swarthmore when our family’s health crisis struck.
After I had been in New Orleans for a week, one of my co-workers mailed me a computer and a modem so that I could set up an office on the kitchen table. I sought the assistance of a colleague at the University of New Orleans, who gave me access to a local phone number and account on a UNO computer. I then regularly dialed up a UNO computer which was connected to SURAnet, and from there, connected directly to the Bryn Mawr College computer.
The administration and personnel department of the College were skeptical that I could perform my job in these circumstances. One reads about telecommuting as a trend, one of the ways that the workplace is changing, but it had never been tried at Bryn Mawr. The College did not have a formal family leave policy at the time either. I used all of my vacation time, and then negotiated a part-time arrangement where I would work 20 hours per week. The balance of my salary would be used to employ additional student labor on site. The reduced time would allow me to spend time talking with Mom, running errands, cooking, taking her places, visiting her when she was hospitalized. Retaining the job helped me “get away” in my mind from the caregiving role and its responsibilities, and the income helped pay my six month old mortgage.
Everyone was surprised by how much I could do long distance. From my kitchen “office” in New Orleans, I diagnosed hardware failures on the mainframe using troubleshooting software. I performed everyday maintenance tasks such as adding accounts, changing passwords, evaluating system performance, and programming. I consulted with the library staff by electronic mail about the local area network which was being installed to access their new database. I wrote training materials for the Computing Center’s student staff and articles for the newsletter. I advised the biology department in the selection of equipment and software for a new computer lab. I evaluated new software for faculty. I answered questions by electronic mail every afternoon while Mom was napping, and in effect, had “office hours” when people could find me on-line for an interactive chat. And finally, I gave students specific instructions for a variety of tasks which needed to be done on site, making them my eyes and hands when necessary.
The loyalty of the student staff and the close relationships which I had developed with faculty over the years, first as a student, and later as a staff member, were important to the success of this telecommuting arrangement. Before I left Pennsylvania, I had been conducting business regularly by electronic mail, so people were already comfortable communicating with me in this medium. Although news usually travels fast around this small campus, a few people didn’t know for months that I was away. The personnel department’s willingness to try a flexible, unorthodox arrangement was important too, as was the support of my supervisor. The Internet provided a reliable, cost effective means for cross country communication. I was able to retain my job while caring for my mother, and my employer was able to retain my experience while I was 1500 miles away. The bottom line is that the technology makes it all possible.