Thursday, January 31, 2008

Communication Can Be A Struggle

...even whilst in the same room. It can be so difficult sometimes to make yourself understood, even when your colleagues are right around the corner, down the hall, or sitting across the desk from you. What can you do with someone who doesn't seem to a) remember what is discussed in meetings; b) read or understand email; and c) read and respond to documents? I'm at a loss.

It was easier to communicate with people who were 2,000 miles away, frankly.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I Think I'm Coming Down With Something*

Here's a pleasant thought: in case of pandemic flu, who will be pushing the buttons to invest my retirement money? Yes, it's probably the last thing we'll be worrying about at the moment, but security of the financial sector should 50% of the employees get sick is something that in the long run will really have an impact. This article from ComputerWeek reports on a recent paper business continuity exercise that was conducted by the U.S. Treasury.

While overall, the financial industry felt pretty able to cope, there is concern that the existing internets would not be able to handle it if suddenly a few extra million people were sitting in their slippers telecommuting.

Bummer. But, as usual, solvable. Goooooo infrastructure! Fibre to my house! Go!

* Boogie Fever, I'm afraid. I think it's goin' round.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Tool to Measure the Impact of Telecommuting

Among other things, PeopleCube software (described in this post from ZDNet) will help business measure how much money they're saving by using teleconferencing and the like. That's cool, but what I really love is this concept of resource scheduling as a key component of a successful telecommuting program. Here's the scenario:

You're wandering around your building and see empty offices and cubes. Where are all the workers? At home, on the road, in the coffee shop, or what have you. But you're not saving any money because you still have places for those people when they dew drop inn.

It sounds like PeopleCube could help you set up a flexible workplace arrangement that would actually reduce your real estate, power, and so on costs. (And so on is one of the biggest business expenses, I hear.) Your employees can schedule time in flexible workspaces, conference rooms, lounge areas, or whatever you want to set up in the system. Workers have a definite place to alight when they come on site, and you can accurately measure how your space is being utilized to determine if you have too many offices, not enough, or if it's just right.

I know I'm probably just falling prey to marketing hype, but why would the Resource Scheduling Advisory Board give us bad advice, eh?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Oh, that Seth Godin

This post actually confirms everything I've ever observed about online giving in the seven or so years I've been doing it. Simply put, well-placed online giving forms are merely a convenience for the donor. In the main, by the time folks get to your website they have already made the decision to give, and, if all has gone right, you've accommodated them by making your "give now" button super-beyond-easy to find.

But this isn't how it has to be, my friends in non-profit land. I think that it's possible to engage the un-engaged through web magic. I firmly believe that it is possible to design a web experience that effectively nabs the donor who is seeking a meaningful involvement with what it is you're doing before s/he pulls the trigger on their bank account. The secret is to look critically at what you're doing that really, really has an impact, and figure out how to get folks to get into those things online.

Maybe you're looking to raise the sights of your annual donors: then you need to give them highly personalized (e.g. specific to the particular donors -- yes, they may have to log in) ways to see the impact that their modest gifts have had, and then show them how great things could be if they gave a little (or a lot) more.

Maybe you're trying to get people to give in the first place: this can be a question of giving them something highly focused and compelling to feel, along with an easy-to-complete giving opportunity that is closely tied to whatever brought them to you in the first place. Implied in this is search engine optimization so that your compelling pages turn up when they search for "sad, but cute puppies" or whatever your highly-worthy cause is.

There is a lot of opportunity around crafting online experiences that deepen your donors' emotional and financial involvement with what you're doing.

Don't you think?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

How Does Taxing Telecommuters Help NY?

The more I read about how New York state taxes people who work in the state but live elsewhere, the more cheesed off I get. I just think it's a terrible idea to penalize people whose slipper-based lifestyles are easing the congestion and pollution around the city. One would hope the companies employing these out-of-state shut-ins are contributing enough through their other economic activity to make their existence beneficial from the state's point of view.

But nooo, Janie B. Telecommuter and John Q. Videoconferencer have to spend time figuring out how much time they spent working on site and off site in New York, or jumping through hoops to prove to the NY tax (wo)men that their telecommuting arrangements are at the convenience of their employers.

That just isn't helpful, folks.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Best Places to Telecommute

In my experience, you're probably better off trying to negotiate a telecommuting work arrangement at a place where you're already valued, entrenched, and largely indispensable. But if you are casting about for a new job and want to try to find a place where they are at least somewhat predisposed to allow folks to telecommute, you might look at one of these employers.

Fortune's annual survey of the 100 Best Places to Work includes telecommuting programs as part of their analysis. I can't seem to find what constitutes a "yes" in the telecommuting checkbox. The closest thing to a definition is this:

Telecommuting: Companies that allow employees to telecommute or work at home as a regular work arrangement (i.e., where employees telecommute or work from home at least 20% of their time).

How many people are actually working from home at least 20% of the time? Can't tell. Do telecommuters get plum assignments, promotions, and the like? Dunno. But these places are at least willing to admit that they might send you home with a laptop. This may be because they expect you to work all day, all night (Mary Ann/down by the seaside/shifting sand*).

* Weren't you a Girl Scout? I wish I could free up the part of my brain that is occupied with remembering the lyrics to songs I learned thirty years ago, but I guess I'm just not that guy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We're Going Mobile, Apparently

The IDC research group (more about them here) recently released a study that projects some dramatic growth in the mobile workforce. The actual study costs $2K to peruse, so I'm going on the press release summarizing the study, but I like what IDC is forecasting. For example, they foresee 75% of the U.S. workforce as "mobile" by 2011, and friends, that's not that far in the future.

A couple of caveats: the detailed description of the study more specifically identifies it as a hardware study, and so the researcher(s) were really looking at the deployment of mobile devices like laptops, smartphones, and other connected-but-handheld crap across enterprises. You could be sitting in an office with a Palm-Berry buzzing on your hip, too, so don't get excited yet. But if those kinds of devices are widespread in the enterprise, it also signals a shift in how IT is going to be focused toward facilitating the connection of remote stuff to central resources, and that is certainly good news for shut-ins, or those who would like to be.

An aside: I found this study through this Albany Business Review news item reporting on it. Note how they put the "comprehensive" study of a single badly-run telecommuting program done by Professor Golden at RPI as a suitable counterpoint to a broad-based industry analysis. Although I will also say this: I haven't been able to find the Golden study, and so it's possible that, like so many reports on scientific research, reporting on this piece is not accurately reflecting what it actually says.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

People Who Hold Data Should Be Careful

When I worked on the data-tending side of the database equation, I was afraid every single day. No, I'm not mentally ill (well, I'm not paranoid, specifically). I just had a management environment that was fixated on the idea that data security was a big, important issue and should always be on our minds. We didn't do everything we should have, probably, but we made every effort to make things tight: encryption on hot stuff, one way encryption on hot stuff that was more easily accessed on the web, firewalls between the servers hosting web-available stuff and the servers hosting the in-house stuff, no data on laptops that were taken offsite, VPNs to connect, and so on.

I don't want to tell you too much, because then I'd have to kill you.

In any event, worrying non-stop about data security is a good idea. As Cory Doctorow notes on BoingBoing this morning, data breaches are really serious business, most significantly for the people whose data is breached.

So telecommuters, please don't make a local copy of the database on your laptop with "only a few" records. Please. Don't.

Monday, January 21, 2008

In Order to Measure the Impact of Telecommuting've got to be measuring productivity in the first place. Yes, this brilliant thought occurred to me as I re-read the Mavericks @ Work article. It's completely obvious, I know, but also true. How does Best Buy know that productivity in the ROWE scheme has gone up 35%? They were already measuring the stuff that is important to them.

This actually seems kind of hard to me when I think about the kinds of things I have done in my work. I think that people would notice if I did absolutely nothing while working remotely, but measuring incremental improvements in performance seems like a challenge. If you're working on long-term and somewhat nebulous projects, months may pass before you have actual deliverables. If you hit your posts, are you being productive? Well, probably, but are you also wasting a lot of time that you could be using to do other, even greater things? Maybe. Who knows.

So this is where managers start relying on face time, perhaps. And it's where studies of telecommuting break down into feelings, as in, "I just feel more productive. I sense that I'm getting so much more done."

But coming up with quantifiable ways to prove this is one of the challenges of the telecommuter. It's probably something each person has to do with his or her actual job -- find the things you do that are measurable, and then make sure that your manager tells you how much she wants of those things and how she'd like to hear about how you're accomplishing them.

Oh, and then you have to actually work, too. It's not all slippers and coffee shops my friends.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

You Will Note

...that Stella spent some time categorizing her posts. I haven't done all of them yet, but I hope that the categories will help people find things that are of use to them. Let me know if the categories don't make sense, aren't useful, or just seem dopey.

Remember, kids, Stella is here to help you make your telecommuting dreams come true! Or to serve as a stark warning to you. Whatever works!

Another Take on Measuring Results

Good telecommuting programs require managers who are comfortable measuring how much you do, not how much you're there. This post, from the Mavericks @ Work blog, really hits that nail on the head, if you ask me. It's not specifically focused on telecommuting, but it speaks to this idea that when you give people the freedom to accomplish work in whatever time frame and location suits them and the work best, that's a good thing.

They write about the Results Only Work Environment that BestBuy implemented at their corporate HQ. I like this:

"...the program attacks head-on what most “alternative work arrangements” only tip-toe around: the fact that we’re literally laboring under a myth (namely, time put in + physical presence + elbow grease = RESULTS). Our assumptions about how work works, where we work, and when we work are relics of the industrial age....The basic principle: people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. Period. You can come in at 2pm on Tuesday. Leave at 3pm on Friday. Go grocery shopping at 10am on Wednesday. Take a nap or go to the movies anytime. Do your work while following your favorite band around the country."
But wait, there's more:

"The results have been spectacular: an average 35% boost in productivity in divisions working in ROWE and a decrease in voluntary turnover by 52-90% depending on department. (Interestingly, involuntary turnover increased among ROWE workers—while it might seem like slacker paradise, shirkers have no place to hide when the only measure of work is results. What’s more, as the number of meetings fell, collaboration and teamwork improved.)"
Yes, I know it's only one workplace, and we were just giving another study a hard time for only looking at one workplace, but this illustrates the shift that is going on here. For knowledge workers, where they are is not as important as what they're able to do from there.

Beyond workers, for managers of knowledge workers, it means that you need to have a good handle on what the company should actually be doing and know who's actually doing it. It means you have to stay in touch with people and really understand what they're up to.

And you can't do that kind of management by assuming that if you can see people in the office they're working.

Friday, January 18, 2008

More On Those Left Behind

A nice person from the Telework Coalition left this in a comment on my earlier post, but I felt it was so right on, that I wanted to call your attention to it:

Validity of Conclusions in Research Findings Questioned by Telework Coalition

After reviewing the Study “Telecommuting May Harm Workers Left Behind in the Office” conducted by Timothy Golden, associate professor in the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer, we question the validity of his research and quite frankly are surprised that it was released. Drawing conclusions on a study based on “a couple hundred people from a single company”, may say more about that company’s policies and procedures, or lack thereof, than teleworking. How can anyone perform a study with his only source of data being one medium size company and imply that his conclusions are valid for any other organization?

In 2006 we, The Telework Coalition, conducted a Telework Benchmarking study of 13 large organizations with mature telework programs. In it we asked about the attitudes of those employees who did not telework. Both our study and two previously conducted studies by other organizations in which there were multiple participants showed that the non teleworking coworkers were both enthusiastically supportive and felt teleworking was good for the organization, or at the least, the situation was a non issue.

In Mr. Golden’s study none of the distributed work program’s many benefits are measured, compared, or contrasted with the grumblings from 'those left behind'. We have seen more employers concerned with transit strikes, the possibility of a bird flu pandemic, terrorism, recruiting and retention issues, rising gas prices, faltering transportation infrastructures, the environment, etc. than the negatives alluded to by Mr. Golden.

Were there no positives in this company’s telework program? Was there top-level support, written policies and procedures, and processes, selection criteria based on the employee and job, a communication plan (so everyone is the “loop”), training, and program evaluation (to identify/resolve any start up issues). Did this company follow these steps?

So many questions, and yet so few answers from Dr. Golden's research.

The Telework Coalition
Washington, DC

To which I say, "Right on!"

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Telecommuting - Bad for those who are left behind?

There's been a bit of reporting about a new study that suggests that those who don't telecommute are more dissatisfied than their colleagues who do.

Well, duh.

This is completely understandable, particularly if the telecommuting/remote work program is poorly set up and managed. I'd be bummed out, too, if "telecommuting" meant "the people who the boss likes get to 'work' from home, and they're impossible to get in touch with when they're 'working' from home, and they don't get anything done when they're 'working' from home, and it just makes more work for me". But it doesn't have to be that way. Just set up a real telecommuting program/policy and you can have some hope of avoiding resentment.

What are the components of a real telecommuting program? I'm glad you asked.

1. A well-thought out written policy that sets standards that all who wish to work from home must be able to meet -- employee in good standing, written proposal submitted and mutually agreed upon by manager and employee, communications expectations, no-fault out clause.

2. Technical support for remote workers in place, tested, and ready to roll -- phone forwarding, VPN and remote connection technology, enterprise IM, web cams that workers have or can check out.

3. Training for managers and employees on how to measure productivity against whatever standards exist at your organization and formal support for remote workers and managers.

Once you have all this set up, you must make it available to all employees, and encourage them to use it. If you're a manager, take the lead and go to your manager and negotiate one work at home day a week, and then be relentlessly in touch with your staff on your work at home day to show 'em how it's done. Make sure that it's not just mommies taking the telecommute option; seek out high performers of all types and encourage them to use the program. Make sure it isn't just the elite using the program; seek out admin staff with recurring duties that require long periods of concentration (entering loads of financial data from a paper report into a big spreadsheet, for example) and see if they would find it helpful to do that from another, less distracting location. Deal with problem telecommuters (e.g. those who 'work' from home) quickly and decisively to try and nip resentment in the bud.

I can't help but think that effective management of telecommuting could reduce some of the problems that the study found. What do you think?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Best News I've Heard All Week

Yes, we all know that coffee shops are the workplace of the future for the shut-in who doesn't like to be completely shut-in. But now we can see that Congress is getting on board with the free wi-fi. Thank you, The Onion, for turning us onto the latest trends, once again.

We all get inspired when we move to a new location. "Many senators claimed that Café Karma's collection of experimental water colors, alternative music, and eclectic light fixtures was in stark contrast to the staid and regal backdrop of the senate chamber where they normally meet. Moreover, a number said they found the youthful staff and clientele inspiring."


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

This Is Disappointing

I wrote a while ago about GiveWell, but I'm really bummed out to see that two of its founders have now been tagged engaging in deceptive behavior to promote the organization. You know what, kids, when you purport to serve as a measure of integrity and accountability, it is really super duper important to not engage in duplicitous behavior yourself.

I can't stress this enough. If you aren't doing right, you shouldn't be publicly placing yourself in a position to judge whether others are doing right.


I've been reduced to pirate talk.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Do You Have What It Takes?

To telecommute, that is. This is an interesting blog post from Tech Republic listing ten signs you might not be cut out for telecommuting. I think one of the best items from this list is

#4: You can’t sustain enough (or any) proactive contact with the office

and this goes hand-in-hand with

#6: You have a manager who can’t or won’t manage remotely

The other issues (distractions, ability to be self-motivated, technical set up to get things done from where you are, handling the relative isolation of working at home) are the usual problems that people face. I think the key to staying super-productive and not isolating yourself is striving to be as available and in-touch as the people in the Real Office. Often this means technology that fosters casual contact, like IM and low-cost video conferencing so that anyone and everyone can pop in on you as needed without booking the super-high-tech-telepresence-equipped conference room.

It also requires a mind-set that your colleagues have where they understand and feel free to pop in on you. You really need your manager to foster this mind-set, too. S/he must bring you in on meetings where an issue that you should weigh in on emerges, for example. It's just like what people do when you're physically co-located -- they get to talking about your project in the conference room and realize they need your expertise, so someone stumbles down to your desk and says, "Can you join us for a minute?" As much as we all wish we could just work all day without any interruptions, the fact is that we work in social contexts and even when you're out of the physical office, you're still part of the group.

So act like you're part of the group and you'll have more fun and success in your slippers.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Thoughts on Non-Technical Work

I spent nine years working in an IT shop that supported fund raisers for one of the most capable tech (and people) managers it has ever been my pleasure to work for. Now I've gone back over to the dark side of direct fund raising, and I believe I've discovered the key difference between the IT-people (e.g. nerds and geeks) and the people-people: planning.

Even the most chaotic and flying by the seat-of-its-pants software development team knows in its heart of hearts that it should have statements of work, project plan documents, and a structured process that starts with analysis and ends with deployment. Even if what happens between analysis and deployment devolves into a morass of scope-creep and other hilarity, doing structured software development is what most teams aspire to. Good teams do it, too, delivering software to spec and on time (especially if their analysts and project managers have been careful to control customer expectations on both of those fronts!).

By contrast, offices full of social butterflies who value relationships over almost anything else do not get excited about sitting down and planning out six months worth of events, solicitations, and other goals, and mapping out all the steps that it will take to execute those plans. They just won't do it. Each year's holiday card mailing must have a flurry of last minute madness, even though it happens at the same time every single year. The year-long planning calendar has events mapped out, but people won't begin talking about invitation lists or other concrete plans until six weeks before a planned event (or even later), even though time and time again it proves difficult to get busy people to attend unless save-the-date cards are mailed early and often. The department spends more money than it should because there isn't a well-understood process for reviewing print materials and things must be re-printed frequently and at the last minute. And don't get me started on money goals that don't have any ties to the reality of the prospects available.

These problems are similar to those that plague poorly-structured software projects -- the cost of last minute changes because developers didn't review design carefully with the stakeholders before starting coding, and thus left out key features that were in the spec. The recurring problems when you don't do the basics right -- like forgetting to involve the testing and training teams in the analysis and specification steps so you can benefit from their experience in dealing with the goddamn customers and not make dumb mistakes over and over again.

The difference is that geeks seek structure (at least some of them do), and non-geeks think that chaos is normal and desirable (at least some of them do).

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

When a Daddy and Mommy Love Each Other Very Much

This image set from Gizmodo shows you one of the funniest pieces of marketing I have ever seen. Particularly when you limit your consideration of marketing just to that which deals with home networking and server acquisition. Oh, how I wish that everything that I do could be infused with so much snark and style. But alas, I must straighten up and fly right.

Mad props to Gavin for turning me on to this!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Now Clinically Proven: Shoes Are Bad

Well, high heels, at least. I've written before about how big the adjustment from slippers to shoes is, and BoingBoing has called our attention to a nice infographic from Sociological Images showing the effects of high heel-wearing on the foot and leg.

To be honest, I haven't noticed the specific effects mentioned more or less with high heels v. low heels. I mostly just notice my feet hurt when I wear any shoes for long periods of time. I'm sure that if I were a high heel devotee, or ran marathons in them or whatever, I might notice.

A quick tip for the heel wearers out there: a square heel is easier to deal with than a stiletto (although a bit less fabulous looking, I'm afraid).

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Robots: Take Two

I've now managed to get both robots working on my behalf and they are really great. The coffee robot sits there, makes coffee, no big whup, but the Roomba? May I just say it's about the cutest thing ever? There, I said it.

It bustles around busily, it goes under the couch, it cleans under the table and then it takes itself back to its docking station to await my next command. There is something really charming about how it bumps into things, explores them a little bit, then vacuums around them. I haven't quite got all my power supply issues worked out, and the scheduler relies on it sitting on the charger waiting to go, but overall, I'm extremely pleased.

One concern: as a youth, I spent hours on the couch spent watching Battlebots, and I can't help but wonder if it mightn't sprout a large circular saw blade at some point. I'm putting these thoughts out of my mind, however.

This is a benign robot.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Not that I Encourage Goofing Off

The NY Times has an interesting article today about the online video primetime, aka "lunch". Apparently and unsurprisingly, online video sites measure huge spikes between noon and three in the afternoon as people eat at their desks and tune in for online videos. I have two thoughts on this.

First, people should get up from their desks and go running or something. Get a little fresh air, people, it won't kill you. Of course, as one person noted, eating at your desk can help to keep your flow going, but I don't imagine this is actually true if you're interrupting your work to watch a confused young man defend Britney Spears' honor or whatnot.

Second, concerns about productivity are probably unfounded. Who's worried? This guy:

“Based on the traffic I’m seeing,” said Miguel Monteverde, executive director of AOL Video, “our nation’s productivity is in question.”
Well, I guess if you expect folks to give you their lunch time too, maybe there might could be a problem. But in general people should goof off a little bit at lunch, don't you think? Or maybe Mr. Monteverde is seeing other traffic patterns not reported in the article -- like maybe we're watching video all the live-long-day, and scamming our employers out of bandwidth whilst not producing their product.

Whatever. I love this idea of the synchronous and asynchronous coming together -- even though all the content (in general) is sitting out there for consumption any time you wish, in practice people still seem to want to come together around the gentle glow of the radio and listen to Little Orphan Annie at the same time. It's sweet, really.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Do You Dare?

I have refrained from any "start the new year right" style posts because frankly, it's a little bit silly (unless you're talking about financial stuff, in which case it really is a new tax year and you can start doing things now to make April 2009 better for you...but I digress).

Today is Wednesday. It is not the start of some grand new adventure in which you will lose twenty pounds, climb a mountain, and change the world, any more than last Wednesday was.

However, I wonder: Is this the year we all dare to ask traditional workplaces to let us telecommute one or two days a week? Do you dare to read your company's telecommuting policies and determine how you could engineer what you do to enable you to do it in slippers? If you are a manager, do you put aside your fears of non-stop Sports Center-watching to let your most valuable employees enjoy some productive flexibility? Do we decide to stop slow-tracking those who use existing flexible work arrangement programs and actually promote people who consistently deliver great results from wherever they may be working?

Gosh, I hope so.