A New Year and a new promise of freedom from the shackles of industrial age working practices. Today the on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, workers stand to gain whole new freedoms of when, where, what and how they work with the surge of Dynamic Work in the world.
In a similar way to which technology like the cotton gin contributed to the emancipation of the American slaves, digital technology today is emancipating the wage slaves of present day. It all sounds like goodness, but history holds valuable lessons that despite the moral rectitude of emancipation, the transition in the aftermath held repercussions that in some respects are still being felt today. Most notably, a major segment of the population was displaced from one economic activity without clear support for transitioning into a new economic role. This displacement led to poverty, disillusionment, confusion and an on-going cycle of a new form of economic oppression.
Today we celebrate the emancipation of the ‘wage slaves’, but already that very same group rightfully is getting uneasy feelings about the new liberated environment they face. Despite the Faustian pact of giving up so much of your life and control to a corporate existence, people have made peace with that trade-off and justifiably fear that an imposed liberation could leave them worse off. One of the most prominent protests against abolition was that the slaves were ‘better off’ than their subsistence existence in Africa (possibly for some) and ‘better off’ than they would be scraping an existence ‘on their own’ in a foreign land (possibly). Despite the utilitarian arguments for the benefits of slavery, above all it is a moral issue the rectification of which is deemed to trump any cost or inconvenience even to those being emancipated.
Still, sometimes Faustian pacts, giving up freedoms and dignities, are preferred paths for individuals. Whether it is Asian labourers aspiring to work in sweat shops, impoverished women plying sex trade or investment bankers working insane hours and stresses (the parallels between the latter two prominently highlighted in the film ‘Pretty Woman’), many people opt in to these painful professions for the rewards and escape at the other end.
The freedoms that new technologies and work practice innovations proclaim must not be lead to a lost generation of workers thrust into new modes of working for which they are not adequately prepared. Despite the critical mass of the Dynamic Work movement, the progress needs to continue being evolutionary and careful in order to avoid painful displacement and costly disillusionment.
Flexible means stripping away fixed alignment and ownership. All resources are flexible. To be pooled and applied to the work load needed. The concept is central to the architecture of Virtualisation technology. But the approach does impose a new requirement for managing the resources and demands on them. Collaboration software like Microsoft Exchange can be a very useful tool to manage this vital resource with the Calendaring function.
In day-to-day office routine one of the most critical and often contentiously shared resources is the ‘Conference Room’. While I maintain that most companies are over-invested in fixed infrastructure like offices, for the office space that they do have, there is one primary and bona fide use for it…getting people together. If it is not about getting people together, then by definition the work content can most likely be done distributed. And the conventional resource for ’getting together’ is the conference room. While the whole notion of a conference room, with its classic big table in the centre a fluorescent-lit four walls, tends to be unimaginative and dated, it remains a vital tool. And one of the first challenges is simply getting one’s hands on one.
But a tool is only as good as its users. Even when properly structured, bad behaviour like the common syndrome that Dilbert illustrates above derails the whole system. When people talk about ‘change management’ starting with executive sponsorship, they don’t mean the top guy sending out a cheerleading memo, but rather the leaders leading the way with role model behaviour. That’s why one of my first recommendations for companies that truly want to promote aggressive adoption of flexible working is for the CEO/MD to be the first person to get rid of their office/desk. And to abide by the Conference Room booking protocols. 72AJWHBNJW56
MSNBC featured a fine piece titled “Chatty Workers Are Best Telecommuters” (thanks Dr. Bret) with a delightfully colourful introduction…
“For years the workplace commentariat has been nattering about the no-collar workplace. Companies will hire brains, not bodies. Work will go to the talent — instead of the talent extreme-commuting to the work. Teams will go transnational, warming the undersea cables with their space-and-time shifting video meetings. The workplace of the future, they've said, will be no workplace at all. Technology will turn the globe into one giant Wi-Fi-enabled kibbutz. A post-face-time world where everybody can Tivo their work. This is one of those dreams that has actually panned out. The office — in our pocket! (Or pocketbook!) But for every miraculous solution, there's another problem created. And so it is with the wonder of wireless work.”
The article makes a number of key points that Dynamic Work endorses completely…
- New characteristics to productivity – Often, the most difficult hurdle to implementing Dynamic Work are the managers, the management skills and the management practices. All of these usually need a complete overhaul in the new approach to getting things done. That change includes identifying, assessing and enhancing someone’s productivity. In the past, conventional wisdom would cite ‘chattiness’ as a sign of distraction and lack of focus, actually correlates strongly with someone able to maintain and support the increased opportunities and demands in a distributed environment.
- No one size fits all – Dynamic Work is no more of a panacea than any other innovation. Each member of staff and the role they serve is its unique blend of skills, personality, preferences and demands that will embrace some of the potential changes and balk at other. A hallmark of Dynamic Work’s engagements is identifying the various clusters of roles and ‘psychographics’ to figure out tailored approaches and tools for different groups.
- Shirk from home’ – A persistent myth is that without direct supervision, workers will fritter away hours unproductively. Obviously, a central part of the solution is to strengthen ‘management by outcome’. But, the article highlights that the tendencies are actually quite the opposite to the fear – " ‘Mobile workers are far more organized, personally, than their office-bound counterparts,’ says a researcher. ‘They have to be on top of their game the whole time.’"
You can count on Scott Adams, and his Dilbert strip, to have his finger on the pulse of the most current trends, as well as the curious frustrations and ironies they present. Here’s a recent strip touching on the topic of ‘home working’ with insightful commentary on key (and sometime illogical) obstacles (perceptions, jealousy, status, ego).
The irony of the strip is that the group apparently precluded from ‘working at home’ are the ‘admins’. The perception of the ‘office bound’ nature of this worker group is quite common. When I speak to companies about the potential in their organisation for flexible working, I will ask for the most difficult role to take away from the desk and out of the office. It doesn’t really prove much to show how road warrior roles like sales people can work remotely, but people are more interested when you tackle the toughest cases. If the toughest ones can be cracked, then by implication just about any role seems up for consideration.
One of the most frequently proposed ‘tough case’ are the admins. And yet when you dissect exactly what they do on a daily basis, one sees that a lion’s share of their responsibilities have little location basis, Fielding calls, organising appointments, chasing administrative tasks, screening email can all be done just about anywhere just as effectively. The two key tasks that appear desk bound are (a) pseudo-receptionist (ie. physically guarding the gate to respond to people who physically stop by the office), and (b) finding stuff (‘hey, I left a piece of paper on my desk…can you see if you can find it and read it to me’). The thing is that these tasks seem urgent and critical at the time, but under consideration are rather low priority, low business value, low frequency activities.
Still, when egos and emotions get involved, lots of illogic develops. And I think Adams perfectly captures the all too prevalent resignation and passivity of timid managers: “When you find a big kettle of crazy, it’s best not to stir it.”
The more I speak to people active in workplace and work-practice innovation, all fingers point to the Netherlands as the hotbed of the most advanced and leading edge work in this area. That is certainly the case in the Microsoft organisation. Earlier this summer, I spoke with one of the early leaders of the Microsoft Netherlands’ ‘Work Place Advantage’ initiative, Robert Tempels. He shared with me more background behind the early thinking and some of the keys to the success.
Tempels talked about the outset which was a critical phase to laying down the foundations for success. Microsoft Netherlands started with a survey of the status quo. They then sat down and developed a set of ‘ambitions’ (9 in total) for the project. These ‘ambitions’ eventually became the acid-tests for all decisions. Whenever there was a disagreement on an issue, the group referred back to the ‘ambitions’ and asked what direction would best support the ambitions. The next step was to enlist the support from ‘both the top and bottom.” Many staff from all corners of the business got engaged, while the leadership, starting with the very top general manager of the country, led by example being the first ones to adopt the new work practices and eliminate their offices.
“You need people being passionate from the bottom up and committed leadership from the top down.”
The biggest change was not the physical environment at all though. Instead it was more of a cultural one. It was getting people to move from managing ‘activities’ to managing ‘outcomes.’ From everyone having lots of ‘generic’ tools, to people having a few ‘optimised’ tools (and sharing any other tools needed periodically).
Now, Microsoft Netherlands is a major destination not just within the Netherlands but from around Europe of people going to see the extent and approach with which the office has implemented these workplace innovations. Robert has done lots of presenting and tours on their experience to many customers and partners. He gets lots of questions and concerns from many different corners. One example that he shared of a bank struggling with these concept reminded me of my own experience which I posted about in ‘Tech Savvy Heavy Hitters.’ The bank was convinced that remote and flexible working was out of the question because of super strict security constraints which kept people from taking their computers out of the office. After some discussion with various staff, Tempels uncovered that the unbeknownst to the lock-down confident IT department, the staff had found a way to circumvent these constraints anyway. It turns out that each evening before leaving home, the staff were emailing key documents to their personal Gmail accounts so they could pick them up on their home computer and work on them there. This ingenuity underscored the powerful demand for flexible and remote working that was present in the firm as well as the over-estimation of just how secure one could be without the buy-in of the staff themselves.
Tempels has now taken his experience and passion for the area to local ‘Work Councils’ where he contributes expertise on how flexibility and mobility in the workplace can drive down carbon footprints.
CIO magazine ran an article ‘7 Things the CIO Should Know About Telecommuting’ with great pointers on this tactic for exploiting Dynamic Work…
1. Telecommuting Saves Money. Truly.
2. Telecommuters Really Can Be More Productive.
3. Telecommuting Doesn't Work for Every Individual.
4. Trust Your People.
5. Hone Management Skills for Telecommuting.
6. Keep the Telecommuter in the Loop.
7. Tools and Technology Make a Big Difference.
I often see #5 – Management Skills – as one of the major blockers. Managers don’t support telecommuting and flexible work not truly because of concerns about the employee or the business, but rather concerns about their ability to manage.
“Telecommuting is a true test of a manager's skill. It's hard enough to measure employee output when the individual is in the office; now supervisors need to add the complexity of doing it from a distance. And not every manager possesses the necessary skills for keeping tabs on telecommuters.
“Elizabeth Ross, director of technology projects execution at AMEC Earth & Environmental, has telecommuted and managed telecommuters. She sees a direct relationship between the strength of a manager and the telecommuting experience. ‘Managers who know how to manage resources, subcontractors, and the like, can make the situation work, sometimes exceptionally,’ she says. ‘Managers who don't communicate well, [who] don't know how to manage their own time well, and so on, don't get around to checking in or managing the telecommuter very well — if at all.’ “
“It's that latter kind of manager (for example, the inept manager) who's typically the least supportive of telecommuting, according to Ross, because the work arrangement highlights the manager's weaknesses and requires him or her to improve or change his or her style. For that reason, user experience consultant Albers suggests that only managers ‘who have demonstrated extraordinary organization and leadership abilities’ should be allowed to manage telecommuters.”
The Institute of Leadership and Management (an organisation after my other blog’s own heart) on the demands and opportunities for a new generation leadership in an era of Dynamic Work. The report is titled ‘Tomorrow’s Leaders: Managing Teams Remotely’ with the sub-title of “20th Century Bosses Hold Back 21st Century Working Practices”. It features both survey statistics on UK organisations as well as a number of case studies (BDO Stoy Hayward, South West Water, Circle Anglia) and tips for aspiring trailblazers. The abstract summarises:
“The ‘Tomorrow’s Leaders’ study, undertaken by Henley Management College, shows that managers are struggling to reinvent their working patterns to get the best from a growing army of remote workers, with visibility and presenteeism still used to judge performance.
According to today’s findings, remote working is on the rise. Three quarters (73%) of managers say flexible working is common in their organisation, and, more strikingly, 37% of all managers now look after teams who are either entirely or predominantly based away from the office.
However, although the majority of managers are working with teams that include remote workers, nearly half (44%) of respondents say managers are unprepared for the supervision of remote teams, and only 25% had received any training on how to manage such a team.”
One of the most prevalent obstacles I hear in terms of highly skilled knowledge workers adopting more flexible working practices is what I would refer to as the ‘apprenticeship problem’. At a Working Families event, a partner at a London law firm explained to me the dynamics of senior partners passing on their expertise no quite through osmosis but the physical proximity plays a huge role in involving the more junior associate in conversations that pass on specialised knowledge.
I have heard the issue raised a number of time since, most recently in a discussion at Dow Jones were we were discussing concepts in dynamic working. Gren Manuel, Editor Spot News, referred to it as the ‘kitchen issue’. That so much expertise is passed along informally during breaks in the kitchen where people share perspectives on work. Sort of a derivation of the ‘water cooler’ problem. But while the ‘water cooler’ issue alludes to the downside to the employee that by being out of the office they miss out on the fun of impromptu social interaction as well as entertaining and useful office gossip. The ‘kitchen’ problem refers more to the corporate loss from impromptu and informal knowledge transfer.
The matter of geographic proximity enabling subtle knowledge transfer is a very important matter. I do not think it need stand in the way to more flexible working. First, flexible working does is not an either-or, black-and-white matter. Rather it is a shaded gradient of how much flexibility is appropriate for a given role, company, context, etc. My premise in this blog is that modern technologies and practices can enable a greater degree of flexibility across all scenarios. So, in companies and jobs where this ‘apprenticeship’ dynamic is central, a strong degree of ‘face to face’ time will likely be key, but that does not have to mean 100% face-to-face time is the ideal blend.
Second, the ‘kitchen’ may be a key catalyst to knowledge transfer, but that doesn’t have to mean that there aren’t better ‘kitchens’ than the one stuck in the office space. It might be that dynamic work introduces new ‘kitchens’ outside the workplace that inspire similar if not better conversations and skills transfer.
Finally, I think the matter represents a challenge to these industries and new leaders in these fields will find ways to innovate around new approaches and techniques to knowledge transfer that just the time honoured impromptu face-to-face coaching.