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Making Work-at-Home Work for Everyone

 
12/16/2002

Thanks to technology and the increasing mobility of society and business, decentralization has become a massive trend. The fears and aggravations associated with business travel in the wake of September 11—not to mention the financial costs—have pressured companies to cut back "face time" with far-flung colleagues and have increased the demands on virtual work.

But this rearrangement of the conventional office comes at a cost: It breaks up the informal social network of work—the way that people informally meet, talk, solve problems, and interact up, down, and across the chain of command. Knowledge management research has shown that this kind of "indirect learning" is key to successful companies, although it rarely shows up in business plans and organization charts. But as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid write in The Social Life of Information, the truth is "people often find what they need to know by virtue of where they sit and who they see."

If we ever give up our need to be face-to-face we might as well pack it in and become automatons.
— Jessica Lipnack, NetAge

So how can managers and employees bridge the gap when the person with the answer to an important question may no longer be down the hall but in an office halfway around the world? Experts warn that as important as planning and technology are, they are no replacement for in-person meetings. Managers can, however, create a strategy for meetings and online follow-up that keeps communities working together.

"If we ever give up our need to be face-to-face, we might as well pack it in and become automatons," says Jessica Lipnack, CEO and cofounder of NetAge, a West Newton, Massachusetts, firm that offers software and services intended to help people work together better. "The value of face-to-face can't easily be replaced, just augmented. When you decide between remote and in-person interactions, it's hardly ever an 'either/or.' It's a 'both/and.'"

In their book, In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work, Larry Prusak and Don Cohen point out that the companies with the most success at virtual work have strong internal networks, a clear sense of values and culture, and a deep reservoir of trust between bosses, employees, and coworkers. For that reason, they say, one consumer-products company discourages distance work for anyone who has been at the company less than a year.

Keeping knowledge flowing
Other companies work continually on strengthening communications between telecommuters and branch offices. Hewlett-Packard has a program for managers of remote workers that deals with communication, leadership, and evaluation issues. NCR has coaches to help virtual teams work together. Merrill Lynch has used a five-person team to help managers and employees set up communication plans.

All of the companies require teams to regularly meet face-to-face to confront the problems of working at a distance. The emphasis is not just on the technical aspects of keeping people connected but on trying to integrate the whole network of knowledge—something that is harder to do when colleagues don't meet informally and thus don't start their own unscheduled conversations.

"When you design a formal organization, you always leave white spaces," says Etienne C. Wenger, a consultant who specializes in social learning systems. Those white spaces, Wenger contends, are best filled by communities of practice, groups of people informally bound together by shared knowledge and interests. So communication needs to flow not just from department heads but across units and specialties.

"Creating communities of practice across an organization is a way to avoid the two extremes of total centralization and total decentralization," Wenger says. "You've got to organize at the level of learning and knowledge, and then create horizontal communities around knowledge and the exchange of ideas."

For that reason, Wenger, Lipnack, and other experts recommend that in-person meetings are essential both to maintain networking and to launch projects involving several units or divisions. Lipnack, for instance, recently worked on a project for Shell in Europe that involved an intensive large-scale meeting followed by people responsible for smaller units connecting in person and then working from afar.

"They had good operating agreements, a clear purpose, clear roles, and high degrees of trust because they met for real first. It works best that way because you can't rely on technology alone to make remote meetings work," Lipnack says. "If you don't know the person you're going to be working with well, some sort of face-to-face is highly desirable. After you develop the trust that comes from that, it's easier to work remotely with someone. What we've seen work best is a sort of oscillation between meeting to get started and then coming apart to get things done."

Creating communities of practice across an organization is a way to avoid the two extremes of total centralization and total decentralization.
— Etienne C. Wenger, consultant

But ongoing distance relationships need reinforcement, too. Merrill Lynch, for instance, asked telecommuters to come in once a week so managers, employees, and colleagues could talk in person and be sure that they weren't missing nonverbal cues in their e-mail exchanges.

Written progress reports, e-mails, and conference calls can help fill in the gap, but only if all parties stick to a plan, experts say. Creating a routine so that groups understand accessibility and set expectations and deadlines can help keep confusion and disappointment to a minimum.

Uncertainty about the timely arrival of information is one potential problem, particularly in different time zones. "There's a huge time zone problem with decentralization," says Lipnack. "There's no good time for people in North America, Europe, and Asia to meet in real time. I know someone who once took part in a conference call with Singapore at 2 a.m. from his car in the parking lot of a hotel in Los Angeles. He didn't want to wake up his family, so there he was, in the parking lot, in his pajamas."

Two meetings better than one
One way around the time zone problem is to schedule two meetings rather than one, and have a person or a small group of people take part in both meetings to create continuity, Lipnack says. For example, someone in North America can work out a schedule in which he "meets" with European colleagues one day and Asian counterparts the next. The person in North America becomes the link.

Consultant Shannon Bradford suggests that managers from headquarters assign specific individuals to give the distance workers "the big picture" as well as the daily news. Bradford says managers have to understand that people in branch offices or remote locations can quickly feel like "second-class citizens" because they can easily be cut off from resources and opportunities and feel less important than those who work at the main office. "When they are not getting regular news about the office activities, workers might assume that something negative is happening," she says. "Because distance workers are disconnected from the everyday operations and conversations, it is also more difficult for them to gauge how they are performing in relation to the business."

That's one reason UPS administers a survey that gives the company and every center manager an annual report on the working relationships with their people and gives employees an opportunity to make their concerns known. UPS puts a strong emphasis on quickly addressing problems and concerns raised in the survey. And in so doing, they confirm what Wenger says about bridging the traditional and the decentralized workplace: "When a community of practice is working, it's not about headquarters distributing knowledge. It's about letting those with knowledge distribute that knowledge, wherever they are."

Reprinted with permission from "Out of Sight, Out of Mind," Harvard Management Communication Letter, Vol. 5, No. 9, September 2002.

See the latest issue of Harvard Management Communication Letter.

Jimmy Guterman is president of The Vineyard Group and publisher of Unspun.

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