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