Disrupting the workplace

Disrupting the workplace

In 1989, the CEO of my global employer allowed me to work from home rather than demand I move halfway across the US to be near corporate headquarters. Two technologies made his decision possible: Overnight delivery and an early fax machine. I was the first distributed worker other than our sales and product service representatives.

Flash forward to 2013. I worked for IBM where 45% of its global workforce (and growing) worked from home offices. Those of us already virtual referred to IBM as “I’m By Myself.” We used a shared on-line knowledge base so poorly structured that we often entered the IBM site pretending to be a customer—it was the fastest way to find the information that we needed to complete a pitch deck. Many a day, I thought I was working for a computer, not a company.

Distributed work is an unstoppable trend. But are we ready? My IBM experience suggested not. A recent MIT Enterprise Forum panel I facilitated provided some needed tips on how to deal with this trend.

The panel included three people: Lars Helgeson, CEO of GreenRope (#247 on the Inc 500 2014 list), an international Customer Relationship Management and marketing automation software firm. It has over one thousand clients in 20 countries, served by 18 employees and still no office. Lisa King, Director of HR Operations and PMO for CareFusion, has been involved in virtual teams throughout her long career and within the last ten years exclusively global, virtual teams. The third panelist was Morgan Tracy, the Director of HR at Mitchell International, a leading provider of property & casualty claims technology solutions. She supports a team of one thousand, over half of which work remotely from four countries.

The panel agreed that underlying economics gave rise to distributed work, and the trend is only getting stronger. Mergers and acquisitions created global companies. The Internet and global logistics services accelerated globalization, including in supply chains. Another trend is technology companies seeking to attract the best talent across the globe and keep development projects running 24-7. And workers increasingly desire work-from-home options to avoid commuting, a waste worsened by our nation’s underinvestment in infrastructure.

Is it any wonder then that tools have emerged to manage the geographic spreading of work? Video conferencing, e-mail, chatting, software solutions that replace in-person IT and HR support, mobile computing, and on-line collaboration tools for meetings and document sharing are now mainstays. Collectively, these tools have created a 24-7 work culture that demands still better tools.

But our new way of working raises many disturbing questions. US productivity growth is slowing considerably, despite the Internet’s promises. Are virtual teams less productive? Employee loyalty is plummeting. Is the virtual nature of the company connection to blame? Has our education about teamwork and management kept up with how we work today? Although CEOs site the need for more creative employees, can we create them? Technology allows (perhaps encourages) workers to put in more hours, but creativity demands time away from work. Finally, are the laws governing our workplace — be they about sexual harassment or IP — designed well enough for virtual and globally distributed teams?

The panel felt overwhelmingly that a distributed workforce is a net positive, but managers must work proactively to avoid its pitfalls. Distributed work can result in a singular focus on outcomes, versus relationships and the trust and openness they create. Communications are too often one-way instead of two-way. In face-to-face conversations, awkward silences are often vital, allowing people time to marshal their thoughts and then speak up. Online, silences are often closed quickly with, “I guess that means there are no comments or questions.” Trust is harder to build, as there is less time spent discussing shared aims and interests over coffee and meeting breaks.

The solution is to use the same kind of motivation-building actions that were so natural in pre-digital work settings. Schedule regular and virtual coffee breaks with each employee. Spend time as a team being off-agenda. Check-ins when a meeting starts help. Find out what motivates each employee. Use webcams as often as possible, so people see faces, not just hear voices. Find new measures of success — leading indicators of results — so you can ID a team in trouble and intervene before results decline. Teach cultural sensitivity. Greet people in their time zone: there’s nothing worse than saying “Good morning everyone” to a worker struggling to keep her eyes open before bedtime. Respect work-life boundaries. Rotate who gets the late night and early morning meeting times. Encourage team members to meet each other online, one-on-one. Finally, invest in in-person gatherings. They are not the “icing” so often deleted from budgets when profits are tight: these meetings are essential.

Helgeson closed the session with a challenge: “This is the new way of working. Jump on the wave and master it, or risk becoming obsolete as a leader or company.”

What best practices can you recommend?

More articles by Kay Plantes

Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. She resides in San Diego, California but still considers Madison home. She is the author of Beyond Price.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.