Those following the field know that Inc. magazine carried out an experiment in February: it sent everyone home to experience working virtually. Thanks to Virginia Adamson at Volvo IT, I just read Inc. Senior Writer Max Chafkin's very good article about it, "The Case, and the Plan, for the Virtual Company."
I've complained before about how thin most of the material about virtual working really is with the endless lists of "ten ways to" and "three things that you should do..."
Chafkin's article is thoughtful, extraordinarily well written for material in this field (admittedly dominated by techies not writers), and provocative. The set of things he comes up with are very important:
- Crunch the numbers to figure out the savings and expenses associated with stashing everyone at home.
- [For]Get the tech. He makes the argument so clearly. It really doesn't matter. Spend your time doing your work, not in training with new collaboration technology. While many people have advised us to change our old motto "90% people, 10% technology" to "80-20," I might go in the other direction after reading this: 95% people, 5% tech.
- Settle in. Great stories about the tension of working at home. Reminds me of a family classic when our girls were little (we've worked at home since the dawn of internet time). Adorable little girls come into office to ask question/get a hug/aka interrupt. Immediate need met, I say, "Would you like to leave yourself or should I escort you out?" The older of the two says, "'Scort me out." She, btw, is now working two days a week from home with little people nearby who have quite limited vocabulary at the moment.
- Master your emoticons and everything else about working online. Self-explanatory. Everyone interviewed for the piece, both within Inc. and outside, which is one of the great gifts of this story, struggled with isolation and loneliness even while benefiting from the ability to concentrate. This allows me to throw in another motto: "Isolate to concentrate; congregate to collaborate," which of course can be done at a distance or in-person.
- Explain yourself. The publishing world, or at least a blogger at Columbia School of Journalism, interpreted Inc.'s experiment as the opening shot in its shutting down.
- Consider your culture. Here's my beef with the piece, Mr. Chafkin. I don't agree that "going virtual means moving away from a culture of collaboration by a group of competent generalists and toward one based on specialists who are cheap, efficient, and good at meeting deadlines." Snope. Not at all. It's not the content/expertise of the collaborators that matters; it's the way they collaborate. Yes, you can limit virtual working to brain-picking for specific expertise; it's very effective. But the big mushies of collaboration can and do still take place virtually. In fact, generalists benefit from virtual working as they generally surf more. I have no data to back this up but think about it. The most interesting stuff I've picked up today has been on Facebook News Feed. I would not be seeing it if someone were looking over my shoulder. And, please, before you think I'm saying FB should replace real news...I'm not. Just an anecdote about how we spend "idle" time.
So...turns out that most of the Inc-ers wanted back to the office. (I failed to mention that they have 10,000 absolutely gorgeous square feet in downtown Manhattan. But then again, Inc. has always had great offices - I remember going to the waterfront in Boston when they were located here in '90s.) My read on this: of course. It was an experiment, not meant to last, with coming back together to reflect built into the test. Were Inc. to seriously go virtual, it would make a plan to address the tough stuff, to build a space-and-time spanning culture, to promote norms and perks that make it easier for people, and, most importantly, it would hire differently. Everyone in the experiment had been hired into a bricks-and-mortar position. Make that same position virtual and different people would apply.
I could argue a few more points but, geez, Inc., good for you. And really good for you, Max Chafkin. Very enlightening piece.