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Telecommuting – Outsourcing – Building a Virtual Team

Source: http://www.gensler.com/uploads/documents/2013_US_Workplace_Survey_07_15_2013.pdf

The world has changed.  The workplace has changed somewhat as well although old habits die slowly.

There are volumes of articles and research about workplace trends, productivity, team building and a myriad of other topics that affect how organizations leverage their human capital.  This post will seek to ask more questions than it answers and perhaps inject some common sense or at least raise a few questions to think about.  This will also be more observational than highly scientific as it has not been rigorously researched but rather a product of 25+ years working in a corporate environment and over a decade of being part of virtual teams across 50+ organizations.

Let’s start out by reflecting on the well reported policy change made by Marissa Mayer at Yahoo eliminating telecommuting.  For an internet company, that seems like a ridiculous policy that ignores that working from home became much more viable with the growth of the internet.  Mayer defended this by acknowledging that “people are more productive whey they are alone but more collaborative and innovative when they are together”.  There is merit to that but the reality is that most people are spending the majority of their time emailing or copying co workers in the next cubicle, next office or the next continent anyway.  If innovation and collaboration are what you are looking for, why make your company less attractive to your superstars and workhorses who may value the flexibility of not having a commute or being able to better balance family and work.  Those benefits to employees are likely to be the incentives that generate loyalty and retention.  There are better ways to achieve those goals than encouraging those employees to seek positions with competitive companies with more flexible work policies.

Working from home is not necessarily something that I recommend for entry level employees that companies will be providing substantial levels of training and development to but rather something that is earned or used to recruit the best team members wherever they may live.  Even the best and most promising team member is affected by spending an hour or more to get to work and the affect is not likely to be a positive one.

Fortunately for Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s market value has benefited from the investment in Alibaba that was made by her predecessors and a case would be made that not much value would be lost if she sent all 12,000 employees home for good.

From my personal experience, I have worked with clients whose offices I have never traveled to, some who I only meet face to face a few times a year and some who I have never actually met face to face.  Skype calls and Facebook posts don’t count!  That has not stopped us from exchanging thousands of emails, phone calls and sharing many personal details about families, hobbies and travels.

Now let’s talk about cubicles.  A case can be made that they are better for socializing than for productivity and focus.  By having everyone wear headsets to listen to music, to talk on the phone or just to block out the noise and confusion of open work environments defeats the benefit of having the open office.  Actually the benefit is probably more a cost one than collaboration contrary to what companies that cram as many people as possible into a small space may say.

A workplace study by Gensler found that strategies to improve collaboration provided ineffective if the ability to focus was compromised.  It is clear to me that the trend to open offices and cubicle farms diminishes the capacity of employees to work effectively.  The study indicates that not only do knowledge works need to spend most of their time focusing, but a greater share of their time is spent in those activities compared to five years prior.  The only other activity that has increased is socializing while time spent learning and collaborating has declined.  (see chart at the bottom of the page)

A conclusion one could draw would be that there is some value having knowledge workers focus on your business over time.  Retaining employees who have experienced multiple business cycles in your business as well as having some outside experience should be beneficial to your business.  Having long term advisers and consultants is another means of accessing this institutional knowledge.

The research Terri Kabachnick conducted for her book, “I Quit But Forgot to Tell You,” states that up to 65 percent of all employees are disengaged. This figure is based on surveying, interviewing, assessing, analyzing and studying more than 44 organizations with more than 6,500 employees at every level. The research revealed a much deeper level of understanding of not just who among the employee population was disengaged but why the employee was disengaged. 

One takeaway for companies like Yahoo to consider is that when you change policies like work at home, you are more likely to lose your super stars and retain the slackers.  And the ones that may be retained are the whiners and complainers who are burning up the clock fomenting dissent.  Poor performance by co-workers is a leading reason why engaged employees leave a jobs. Good, hard-working employees often leave an employer because they have high confidence in their abilities, a proven track record, know they are talented and won’t be looking for work long. They choose to leave disengaged employees and the employer who tolerates them, behind.

It can take a manager nine months to recognize a new employee’s quality of work is below standard and is not likely to get to a desired level anytime soon.  Due to legal ramifications it can take a number of months to document the performance, implement an improvement plan and take action that doesn’t have a high risk of litigation.  Building a high functioning team requires employers to identify high performing team members – employees, contractors, vendors – and then figure out how to retain and motivate them over time.

Sick Performance Concepts has enjoyed a number of long term “virtual team” relationships with clients that have provided for multi-year insight, focus and collaboration on businesses that have resulted in continuous improvement and results.  In many cases, we have collaborated with staff members in positions that have turned over multiple times as it is not uncommon for employees, particularly younger ones, to seek new opportunities after two or three years in a position.  If you think hiring a professional is expensive, think what it will cost to hire an amateur. 

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