Saturday, March 1, 2008

Don't Bring Telecommuters Back to the Office...

...just because you can't think of any other way to make your business better. This piece from the WSJ reports on the recent news that several big telecommuting powerhouses (AT&T, HP, Intel, and some parts of the federal government) have been roping their telecommuters back into the office. Corporate spokesmodels cite reasons like, "We're trying to foster teamwork, and we feel that face-to-face is an important component," or, "We need to consolidate operations for greater efficiency." Ummm, right. Friends, I must tell you that anytime people start telling me that just structural changes will solve fiscal or cultural problems, it makes my Spidey-sense tingle. Because it's nuts.

Do you have communication problems? Are people not collaborating properly on projects? Surely if we're all in the same physical space, those problems will magically disappear!

Are people not working on things that might could make money? Let's get those people back to the home office double-quick, and their workloads will re-adjust to eliminate tasks and projects that don't positively affect the bottom line, lickety-split. They just need closer supervision, that's all.

If people don't work together well, just putting them in bullpen-style floorplans and making them show up there at the same time every day is not going to help. Instead, you have to do the hard work of culture change. Like, actually take the time to understand what managerial barriers exist to your desired outcomes. You have to be willing to hear people say, "I have been told explicitly by my dean that this special event is my number one priority, despite the fact that it is not fund raising-related, no donors or prospects will be involved in the event, and planning it is taking 70% of my time for the next four months, leaving only 25% of my time available for what I'm actually supposed to be doing." And you have to be willing to tackle the issue with a powerful dean and do the heavy lifting along with your staff members.

Dig it: if physical proximity automatically caused good teamwork and a doubling of revenue, you would see countless examples of this. But it ain't necessarily so.

Instead, over the years I've worked with dozens of offices where I, the outside consultant, was more of a conduit of interoffice communication -- as in, "Hey, did you know that your colleague down the hall is working on a similar project with this exact same group of constituents -- maybe we should only do one email campaign instead of two for this group?"

I'm all for reorganizing for optimum efficiency, but if you want me to be a happy camper about the whole thing, you had better be able to tell me specifically what is wrong with what we're doing now, and demonstrate how what you're proposing will measurably ameliorate that particular problem.

Because otherwise, it's just a mule in horse harness, I'm afraid. And roping your telecommuters back into your little corral isn't going to help.

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