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When Hiring Remote Workers Makes You a Better Person

Recently I had the pleasure of participating in a debate, on BusinessWeek.com, about the pros and cons of letting employees work from home. Those who know me will be unsurprised to hear that I argued the “pro” side of the debate. Having worked at home for most of the last 30 years, any other position would have been grotesquely hypocritical.

The debate was extremely space-limited, and as I edited down my remarks I found that I had reduced a very important point to a single passing reference: “Being open to physically handicapped or geographically isolated workers can improve the prospects for finding a highly qualified candidate.”

This comment only scratches the surface of the importance of Internet technology in empowering the handicapped to play a more full role in our society and our economy. Had I more space, I would have mentioned not just the benefit to the employer of being able to employ skilled but handicapped workers, and not just the obvious benefit to the handicapped themselves of being able to find more meaningful and satisfying work. I would have mentioned the benefit to all of us that comes from getting to know some amazing people who are otherwise invisible to us because of their handicaps.

Most of all, I would have mentioned John Ferguson.

In 1994, I was the co-founder of a company called First Virtual, a pioneering Internet payment system. During our salad days, our service was growing so fast that I calculated that, if it continued, everyone on the planet would be our customer in 16 months. Obviously that didn’t happen, but the growth posed a customer service challenge that we met well enough to get accolades from our customers. Much of the credit for that goes to John Ferguson.

We hired John as our first customer service representative, and he developed most of the templates, processes, texts, and procedures that served us well as we grew. Customers often told me how helpful and efficient he was, and how happy they were with him. But there was something about John that none of them even imagined.

John was a quadriplegic. Confined to a wheelchair, at best, for virtually his whole life, he did all his typing with his mouth. I’m not sure anyone has ever felt as liberated by his job as John did — even Stephen Hawking was 21 before he was first afflicted, but John had been fighting his disease since early childhood, and he’d had few chances to put his talents to productive use.

First Virtual gave him a chance to be truly useful and appreciated, and he thrived in that role, and in not being seen primarily as a handicapped person. In fact, even one of my friends and colleagues who worked with John very closely had absolutely no idea of his handicap for the first year or so they worked together. Internet technology didn’t just allow John to work from home; it allowed him to be as close as he could ever get to a “normal” — non-handicapped — person. He never wanted pity, and he clearly delighted in having his disability be, at least in this one context, utterly invisible to the world.

I believe that working with John enriched the lives of all of us who knew him at First Virtual. It was impossible to come to know him and not become more sensitive to the situation of the disabled, more aware not only of their difficulties but of their potential and their dignity. Handicap or no, John was simply a great customer service agent, and it made a big difference when you learned that fact before you learned anything of his handicap. Working with John changed me forever, making me aware that even sympathy and pity can be a form of discrimination.

Several years into his time at First Virtual, John died rather suddenly. I don’t think he expected a long life, and he certainly knew how limited the time he had would be, but he was determined to make as much as he possibly could of the life that was given him. I will always remember him as an inspiring example of how determination and technology can overcome even the most extreme handicap. And I will always be glad that we at First Virtual were daring enough to hire someone who worked from home not by choice, but out of necessity.

So that’s another argument for having people work from home, one that I couldn’t possibly do justice to in the space available in Business Week. If you go down the path of hiring remote employees, and you’re very lucky, you might meet someone like John Ferguson, and he might just change you for life.