Working from home, or WFH, has become an accepted practice. Indeed, telecommuting grew by 79 percent between 2005 and 2012 and continues to gain momentum. Yet some companies still believe that people always have to lunch in the same cafeteria to be effective. This belief is based on three out-dated ideas:
- The assumption that when more people work in the same physical place, the company is more successful.
- The belief that this is not a coincidence: that working in the same place causes company success.
- A theory, invented to explain this: it must be the interactions. People must have better interactions when they are in the same place.
Unfortunately for the theorists, there's no science behind this. It is easy enough to test the first part of this hypothesis: if company success requires that its people be in the same place, then company failures should increase when its people are distributed. But none of the "25 Worst Business Failures in History" found "people didn't work in the same building" to be a cause of failure. To the contrary, Enron and the Edsel were both developed by co-located groups, as well as most of these modern, collapsed companies.
On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of companies that succeed because of distributed working. For virtual companies such as Basecamp , virtual working isn’t a perk - it's the way they do business. By incorporating virtual teams, Basecamp makes the distributed remote workforce a core pillar of company strategy. Basecamp is spread out across 26 different cities around the world, but while the head office is in Chicago, everyone is free to live and work where they want. Even though they don’t work in the same location, they’re always collaborating!
It may well be that people who sit together can communicate better, but there's a contradiction here, too. Think about that term, "sit together." How many people can you sit closely, really closely, with? Two? Four? Maybe twenty? It's often assumed that if people working on the same project can sit next to each other, they should. However, the nature of the modern job, the modern project, is that we collaborate with a range of teams on a range of projects, even on different facets of the same project.
Whatever the reason, the modern workspace is, more and more, an open workspace. This openness allows employees to see and hear one another, but this openness is uncontrolled, so every fruitful connection is outnumbered by irrelevant conversations, sneezes and general noise out there in the open. Beyond their drain on productivity, these overlapping conversations in open plan offices can make their way to customers and competitors through the open microphones of telephones and desktop devices. Managing this distracting sea of sound is nearly impossible, yet it has been well documented that environmental noise slashes worker fatigue and accelerates fatigue. Recent studies show that today’s open plan office spaces are built on a false economy, saving rent but adding distractions that slow down well-paid employees and make their work more sloppy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Tools are available to facilitate agile, comfortable communications among far-flung extensions of the business environment and enable to organisations to defy distance while collaborating in real-time.
Good communication is an essential part of effective collaboration, but it doesn't really matter whether those collaborators are five feet or five thousand miles apart. The UK arm of headset manufacturer Plantronics, based in Royal Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, currently offers an option for remote working across the whole of its UK workforce. Implementing a good coordinated approach, the company has an IT strategy to support this, which includes the adoption of unified communications programs.
Building a collaboration strategy that supports a vibrant and location-independent organization doesn't just let people communicate easily when they're still within driving distance from headquarters; it builds into the corporate infrastructure the same ease of conversation across cities, states, and around the world. The winning collaboration strategies are those that take advantage of the powerful resources available today, leverage within-site and across-site collaboration enablers, and embed the agility to continue adding new abilities that are constantly enhancing whole location-independent collaboration environments.
Check out my latest WIRED blog posts to read more about my thoughts on how good communication is an essential part of effective collaboration.