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Your Workplace as a Village

November 12, 2008

I wrote about telecommuting a couple of days ago.

Many of us, myself included, have come to believe we only need 2 things to do our job – a clear target and the tools to get it done. That makes perfect sense if you’re a one-man show or work in a process-oriented environment where work is like a long conveyor belt and everyone moves in perfect timing.

But how many corporate folks do you know work from home? I’m talking about the folks in Marketing, Corporate Strategy, Finance & Admin, Operations and the rest that form the bulk of your company headcount. If telecommuting is such a great idea, the first thing that would’ve gone is the office rental market. Well it hasn’t so read between the lines. The revolution never took off.

It also suggests that the relationship between performance and tools isn’t as direct as we once thought. Clearly there’s something there that’s going beyond process and technology.

I can think of several things. Not an outcome of scientific study or anything but just hunches I’ve built after a few years in the concrete jungle.

EmployER confidence. Employers have an emotional need. There’s comfort in SEEING that the staff are earning their keep. The easiest way to do that is to do a raw visual headcount. Companies love to say, “We are results oriented.” In practice they are attendance oriented. To illustrate, you can produce nothing all day but as long as you clock in, you’ll enjoy a salary. On the other hand if you do deliver results but refuse to step foot in the office, you probably won’t get paid. They’ll get you for violating the 9am-5pm working hours or something. There’s no logic to it but who says these things need to be logical.

EmployEE confidence. As employees we are part of an interconnected group. We have our inbox to receive work from other people, and our outbox to pass work to other people. Because the fate of our performance lie in the hands of other people, we want our critical success factors to be within yelling distance. Sure, in the office we use e-mail to pass work to each other all the time but notice how often we have to chase someone to get it done. We feel a lot better if the people we need to chase are in the same building than if they’re miles away.

Losing the message. If you’ve ever had a videocam meeting with 5 people simultaneously you’ll know it can’t hold a candle to the old-fashioned face-to-face meeting. We communicate not just with voice but with a complicated dance of body language, something technology is still unable to convey. Having tried it a few times, I find it alarming how creativity drops when people brainstrom via electronic medium.

Team building. There’s something about the charged atmosphere of a roomful of people that is impossible to replicate on the network. The enthusiasm, the banter, the small talk, the buzz that holds everyone together, it evaporates the instant you turn off the computer. Without the afterglow that bakes in the ideas (notice how critical coffee breaks and lunch breaks are to team building) and the lack of any real one-on-one contact needed for interpersonal rapport, team-building becomes a lot harder than it should be.

You might have noticed that these are all human factors.

And that’s what I feel is the core issue with telecommuting. I suspect that when we set up a company, we unwittingly set up a village. Human factors are part of the package. Yes it can distract us from the original mission of making money but somewhere along the way, we can’t help but develop a sense of ownership and protectionism of the hive. Human insecurity takes over. When our survival depends on the collective, we constantly need to see and touch the collective to confirm it hasn’t abandoned us.

This, I think, is the subtle but critical part of business that just refuses to be arbitrated via electronic media, simply because it isn’t “real” (as in you can’t put a microphone to it). Its the bond of the community necessary to support a mission. It’s just how we’ve evolved I guess.

Deep stuff I know, but until we’ve learnt how to do all this via remote control, I don’t see how telecommuting will take off in any serious way.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2008 10:20 am

    Very good post. I used to have this team leader who always works fr home. He’s a very good technical lead. The bad thing is, he does NOT switch his mobile on, and does NOT turn on or reply to the emails.

    Unreachable.

    And funnily, the manager didn’t even complain! And now this team lead is the new Technical Architect for the project in London. 😛

    And he kicked us Malaysians out, saying that we are wasting his time. =_=”

    Yeah, once in a while you get these guys who insist on working on their terms. Unfortunately they’ll get away with it if employers feel its cheaper to put up with their nonsense than to find a replacement.

  2. LC Teh permalink
    November 12, 2008 11:04 am

    Leading a project via remote is like conducting a surgery sitting in a control room. If I’m the patient I’d object to that…

    I don’t know of anyone who can solve a real problem without looking directly at it and the conditions leading to and around it. You can read datas and draw fish bones and charts, and guide others remotely, but that’s for std problems.

    They have been sending unmanned space missions for decades and are learning to cope with probes that go AWOL once a while. Imagine the impossibility of the situation if these machines have emotions like recalcitrance and dissent.

  3. November 12, 2008 12:34 pm

    helo damien. dropping by ^^ have a nice day!

    Hi. Welcome to my blog. 🙂

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