A few weeks ago, the New York Times had a story about HP and its telecommuters – “Back-to-Work Day at H.P.” While not quite calling for an end to telecommuting as Yahoo done earlier this year, HP said they had added space and “invited” its employees back to the office. Once again it seemed that a big tech company was doing a decidedly untech thing – downplaying the use of technology and pointing out how it can’t really substitute for old fashioned patterns of interaction.
How do tech companies expect people to believe them, if their words don’t match their actions?
While the current technology for virtual interactions and a virtual workforce can certainly be improved, it’s not the major obstacle anymore. A more important part of the disconnect between words and actions is that these tech companies are engineering leaders, but not leaders in organizational culture – and it is culture that is the real hurdle here.
Tech and non-tech companies that want to ensure success for their virtual workforce need to build an appropriate culture and practices.
For example, everyone involved with telecommuting needs to understand that email, text, even phone calls constitute only a small part of the communications that human beings expect and is insufficient to support a high level of trust. However, video chatting does enable people to get much of what would be communicated in person and has been shown to enhance trust. So video ought to be the rule, not the exception, for virtual interaction.
Another important part of the culture of innovative companies is the encouragement of random interactions and collaboration among people. This is what underlies the Three C’s which Tony Hsieh of Zappo’s emphasizes: collision, community and co-learning.
He clearly believes that this is only possible in a physical environment. But these three C’s can also be well supported in a virtual environment, if the company sets up that environment for such collisions and makes it a part of its everyday culture. Indeed, the range of people who can interact easily in the virtual workforce is much greater than in a physical office.
The company also needs to ensure that telecommuters don’t feel their chance of career advancement is dramatically diminished unless they show up at the office and hobnob with the right executives. The article “Creating an Organizational Culture that Supports Telework” relates a good example of this situation, along with good general guidance on the positive actions that companies need to take.
In sum, as James Surowiecki wrote earlier this year in the New Yorker:
“At companies with healthier corporate cultures, it [telecommuting] often works well, and [former head of Xerox PARC] Seely Brown has shown how highly motivated networks of far-flung experts — élite surfers, say — use digital technologies to transmit knowledge much as they would in person.”
Building a 21st century culture of successful virtual interaction won’t come easily to companies that developed their more traditional culture in the 20th century. But in an increasingly virtual and mobile world, it will be necessary for the HPs, Yahoos, and others to flourish.
© 2013 Norman Jacknis
Seven years ago, Chris Anderson, recently retired editor-in-chief of WIRED magazine, wrote a groundbreaking book, “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More”. He contrasted the one-size-fits-all, mass media world in which he grew up with the new Internet-enabled economy that requires business to target increasingly smaller niche markets – ultimately to a market of one unique person. The phrase “long tail”, which has become a catchphrase in business, refers to the decreasing percentage of any market that is commanded by the best-sellers.
This book and others before and after it have influenced the strategy of increasing personalization of products and services. In the industrial era, up to 1970 or so, one-size had to fit all because it was too costly and difficult to do otherwise. Today, that is no longer true, so personalization is a major focus of consumer products corporations.
But the concept of personalization does not have to limited to the consumer realm.
Last week, I met with one of the most respected and innovative California state government agencies. (Yes, there are some stellar public agencies even in a state government that has had more than its share of fiscal and management problems for quite some time.)
The focus of the four-hour meeting was the workforce of the future.
During the course of the discussion, only partly in response to a mini-debate on teleworking, I was prompted to point out that technology today enables different styles of work to occur. It is not like the factory of old where every task was monolithically prescribed.
Instead, those who want to work in an office can do so. Those who want to work at home can do so. Those who want to work in some co-working space with others, who may or may not be in the same organization, can do so.
When we say that many people are now in jobs where they can work anywhere – that even means working where they have always worked.
The results oriented work environment (ROWE) that often accompanies telework program is the sort of program that makes it possible for this to happen. (See my earlier post “Telework: Good For Productivity, Bad For Innovation?" http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/44219104836/telework-good-for-productivity-bad-for-innovation .)
ROWE focuses on work outcomes, not work patterns. While ROWE is neither an all purpose solution to all corporate problems nor yet fully developed, it is a useful way to think about work. From a management viewpoint, it is the outcomes produced by an employee that we really want, even if we would not personally do things the way that employee does.
So this story isn’t just about teleworking. It is true for other aspects of work that we have always assumed required rigid patterns.
This is all not an earth-shaking insight, but just the application of a trend – personalization – that we all know about to an area of life we haven’t thought about in that way. Yes, it is possible to personalize the nature of work.
© 2013 Norman Jacknis
As a full time teleworker, I have been bemused by the widespread and unusual attention in the general news media this week about telecommuting. See, for example, the front page story, “Yahoo Orders Home Workers Back to the Office” in the New York Times this week (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/technology/yahoo-orders-home-workers-back-to-the-office.html) or “Does Telecommuting Hurt Your Career” from CBS Money Watch yesterday (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-500395_162-57571587/does-telecommuting-hurt-your-career/)
Yahoo has its own peculiar problems to address that don’t necessarily apply to other companies. The news reports about Yahoo would seem to indicate they did not understand that telecommuting is not just about the technology making it possible, but is part of a larger transformation of management and employee behavior. It’s no wonder they feel it hasn’t worked out so well for them.
This provided an opportunity for the usually hidden critics of telecommuting to come out of the woodwork. It reminded me of the “I-told-you-so” crowd in the print newspaper business a dozen years ago – when the dot.com bust occurred and they thought the threat of the Internet was vanquished.
There has been much pushback from advocates of telecommuting. They like it for the work/life balance, the reduced greenhouse gases, a less draining commute to work, the sense of autonomy, among other reasons. And, despite early concerns to the contrary, the evidence seems to point to increases in productivity on the part of telecommuters.
So, some recent critics of telecommuting are offering a more balanced critique, which has quickly become the conventional wisdom of the day. They say that telecommuting does indeed increase productivity, but it isn’t any good for innovation – which, of course, we know is the key to 21st century prosperity. The message: if you want to succeed at high-level jobs you’ll have to go back to the 9-to-5 office routine.
See, for example, the discussion yesterday on Public Radio’s The TakeAway – http://www.thetakeaway.org/2013/feb/27/pros-and-cons-telecommuting/ .
Perhaps the argument about innovation is just the latest excuse. First, let’s not forget that an office often breeds “group think” too and its social pressures can severely dampen innovation. Innovation occurs when people are exposed to different currents of ideas outside of their usual environment. The global connectivity that the Internet offers is more likely to enable that kind of creative leap than just showing up at an office and talking to people who likely have the same background and mindset as you do.
Second, we need to recognize the fact that the Internet is actually quite immature. If you think about what we do with telephones today, then, by comparison, the Internet today may be at a stage equivalent to where the telephone system was in 1920. People then had only a cloudy vision of the various ways that phones would be used and incorporated into everyday lives.
It will take more time – perhaps ten years or more – before we have the software, cultural habits, incentives, ubiquity and all the other factors lined up to enable the collaboration and creative serendipity that can occur when people are physically face-to-face. (I suppose we ought to replace the phrase “face-to-face” with something like “touching distance” since I can be face-to-face in a videoconference 😉
Are we there yet? No, but does that mean we reverse course, instead of further developing the Internet and moving to a better virtual future? Of course not.
What do you think?
© 2013 Norman Jacknis