In interviewing someone yesterday for an upcoming presentation, he made this good distinction in his workforce: remote workers, who are indeed far away and rarely, if ever, come to the office, and telecommuters, who work from home but come into the office once or twice a week.
Each requires separate engagement strategies with the harder challenge coming with those who are remote. One way this exec addresses it: remote workers lead conference calls. Results in very high participation from those at a distance.
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.
Three times in the past day I've heard this from employers: people who work from home are more productive. This is not data (though there's plenty out there).
One of the times I heard it was at a face-to-face meeting this morning in Boston. The meeting was informational and we sat around a table looking at each other. No handouts even. Just talking. Useful but we agreed that we would have learned more if it had been virtual. On the phone, looking at the screen, we could have shown one another stuff...and probably accelerated our thinking.
Blarneycrone's post, "As large as life and twice as cheerful," about the NACD Digital Directorship session is great journalism. Factual, captures affect, and, thank you, Liz Barron, is humorous...and the pictures are fantastic. Teaser:
Take two tables, each shaped like a slice of melon and place one of
them in Boxborough MA and one in Phoenix AZ. Add the magic of Cisco Telepresence, three 65 inch television
screens, and some eerily good audio and suddenly people in both
locations appear to be sitting around the same board table. The people
in the North East can see the powerpoint slides projected in the South
West and the other way around. Everyone is as large as life and twice as
Despite the physical divide, we spent two hours in the same room, with Scott Greenburg presenting on "Digital Directorship," me chiming in and facilitating, fifteen people on their end, two on ours, the directors speaking up as we went along, make observations, asking questions, exchanging insights. (Scott and I had some practice together face-to-face at the NACD conference last fall when he, along with two others, was a panelist and I moderated.)
Yup, me here, them there, and it felt--to all of us--as if we were all together.
You have to experience it. I'm about to shill for Cisco Telepresence--and I know, it's expensive, a bandwidth hog, and blabbedy-blah--but, as per before, you've got to experience it. For anyone who's suffered through a video conference, Telepresence is your hard-won reward.
I'd done a Telepresence session last June (Cisco's Worldwide Inside Sales Group's annual meeting) in the same Cisco facility in Boxborough but in a different room where there was one screen and only me, with a few people each in other locations (London, Singapore, Miami). Last night's room had three 65-inch screens, meaning we were lifelike in size to each other. Perfect video. Wrap around desks that made it feel as if we could pass each other drinks. Same color on the walls. No delay in transmission. Perfect audio. And I could see Scott's slides (I didn't have any.)
Gene Papula, Senior Engineering Manager for Cisco in North America, was the host on my end; Dale Walker, Systems Engineer in the Phoenix Cisco office, was the host on the other end. Both, most gracious, and forgiving of a slip-up that had eluded our guests. While most of the US switched to daylight savings time last weekend, Arizona did not which meant that our 7:30 EDT start time was delayed until closer to 8:30, result being we kept Gene around longer than we had hoped AND, as we discovered driving home, we missed dinner as there is not a single open restaurant between Boxborough and Newton after 10 PM on a weekday (do we live in the sticks or what?).
Gene used the perfect expression when describing his daily Telepresence routine: "I meet in person with my folks all the time." Not face-to-face. In person. One other factoid: he made two trips in all of last year. Two. Telepresence replaced the airport.
So, these pictures, which I hope convey a bit of what it was like--but just a bit as I only had my phone. Judge for yourself.
It is more difficult to follow standard meeting processes over
distant locations, cultures and time zones. Take the time to state the
meeting preparation expectations for the project. Find the best time
zones for the team and alternate between them. For example, in a recent
client engagement involving a US company expanding in an Asian market,
we had meetings every Tuesday, but alternated between 7 am and 7 pm US
CST. We were all equally inconvenienced, and that is the only fair way
to do it.
Repeat names during the meeting. Since you cannot see body language,
proactively monitor meeting reactions and performance, and address
Rotate meeting leadership and scribe roles
To promote inclusion and participation, rotate leadership and scribe
roles. Wake up the team by raising your expectations of them. Whoever
takes the minutes should be the next meeting’s leader, since one
prepares you for the other.
Spend 70-80% of time with team members that are NOT co-located
It is easy to stay in the pattern you are already in: building
relationships, sharing information and spending time with those already
in your location. Global virtual team leadership requires you to go
beyond your comfort zone and not just reach out but to focus on those
that you cannot easily communicate with. Schedule one on one
conversations for feedback and focused conversations.
Assess team and leader skills, and design training to close gaps.
With a team that is in your location, you may have a better
understanding of what the team’s skills are. With a team in another
location, special effort needs to be made to understand the team’s
skills, and where and how to improve them.
Much of what I see these days around virtual teams and telecommuting--and much is hardly the proper descriptor for HOW MUCH there is--centers on what the "home office," meaning of course HQ, can do for the people in the real home offices. What I like about Sarah Beckham's interview in The Statesman with Jayna Wallace, a "principal user experience designer for Blockbuster" (and if you don't know what that is, don't worry: it's happening to you even as you read), is her grasp of her responsibility in making the arrangement work. A few of her tips about making it work from home sweet home:
• There's no IT department at your house. Learn to fix your own
computer problems, or to work around them — if your Wi-Fi goes out, be
prepared for a trip to the library or coffee shop to work.
available. A quick reply when your manager contacts you will help allay
any concerns she might have about your working remotely. If you don't
respond to her instant message right away, it's all too easy for her to
her assume you're watching Bravo instead of working.
• Have a friend on the inside. If you
work remotely and most of your co-workers are at the same office, you
need an ally who'll tell you what the boss has been saying and give you
the number for a conference call if the coordinator forgot to.