SFGate047

Burn Your Cubicle Virtual Teams Are the Future of Work


Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, September 21, 2000

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/2000/09/21/cubicle.dtl

Woody Allen once observed that 80 percent of success is just showing up.

He must not have had the future American workplace in mind.

These days, letting knowledge workers not show up is fast becoming a key ingredient to competitive success in the global economy.

The United States is currently home to an estimated 20 million telecommuters, up from only a few hundred thousand just over a decade ago.

Everything from the development of open source software such as Linux to the revolution in online news delivery can be traced to the advances brought about by collaborating teams of telecommuting workers.

Let’s face it.

Today’s typical workplace sucks.

It’s painfully obvious that encouraging productive labor has not been the rationale that shaped most office settings. More typically other factors, such as the high price of real estate or the need some bosses feel to keep everyone under the same roof to facilitate surveillance, have been deemed to be more important.

That in turn has led to those dreaded, sterile, cramped little cubicles, the countless hours of wasted time commuting to and from centralized work locations, and the often-nasty office squabbles that are inevitable whenever too many people are forced to share too few physical resources.

The flip side is what happens when an employer gets a virtual team humming.

Eliminating the requirement of a daily commute, for example, can do a lot to help employers keep their best talents on board. It also saves tons of cash.

I’m not just talking about saving money on office space.

I’ve seen estimates that put the cost of providing parking alone, a common requirement in many business settings, at upward of $10,000 per year per employee when all factors (cost of land, other potential uses of that land, etc.) are considered.

Even so, many employers are balking at liberating employees from their ever-shrinking cubicles.

A typical excuse is that employees working alongside one another can do a better job of learning from one another. One frequent lament: the danger of missed water cooler conversations about vital company doings.

That’s fine, but such conversations can just as often result in the blind leading the blind.

The best-managed virtual teams, on the other hand, make a science out of collaboration thanks to the literally dozens of firms now working to develop the nascent groupware market. (Groupware refers to software products that facilitate real-time collaboration.)

Some of the best groupware offerings are already giving birth to a variety of powerful new online business and commercial nervous systems.

Users of Upshot.com’s increasingly popular sales-force automation software, for example, now have information about every previous customer contact at their fingertips wherever they might be in addition to up-to-date data about specific product features and availability.

Previously, it would have taken days if not weeks for an employee wandering around the office to gather the same records, if in fact they could ever be assembled.

Groupware makes it possible to keep accurate track of the status of projects as well as maintain complete records of communications between employees. Deadlines, outstanding problems that need attention, and tasks that must be completed in certain sequences are all easily monitored in real time.

As a result, virtual teams, even those that that rely on something as simple as e-mail to coordinate their activities, can usually do a much better job of documenting what has worked and what didn’t work for future reference.

But the advantages of working in virtual teams don’t stop there.

Take Siemens, the German technology giant, for example.

Like a handful of other very sophisticated global firms, Siemens often works on unfinished technical problems around the clock by electronically handing them off between workers in different time zones. When one employee goes to bed in one country, another specialist in the next time zone can immediately pick up work where the first one left off.

Geographically dispersed virtual teams like those at Siemens create an indispensable advantage in the emerging 24/7 world.

Smart employers also know they have a far better chance of hiring the best talents if they don’t expect all of them to be located in the same place.

Another frequently heard excuse for not allowing telecommuting is that some employees are not suited to working at home.

The fear, of course, is that lazy employees will loaf off in front of the soaps unless someone constantly peers over their shoulder.

But I have some news.

A lazy or inept employee is a lazy or inept employee. It doesn’t matter all that much whether they work at home or in the office. They probably won’t get much done in either setting.

In fact, goldbricking can be far easier for many traditional office workers than it is for most home workers, who usually have very specific and well-defined job objectives.

I even know of one organization where the decision to virtualize a department led to the first ever creation of truly accurate job descriptions. That in turn led to the startling discovery that about one-quarter of the employees involved didn’t have much if anything useful to do.

I vividly remember, for example, the worker who occupied the adjoining cubicle during my last year in partition hell back in the early ’80s.

He kept a stack of papers on his desk. Whenever the boss wandered by for his regular look-sees, he’d quickly grab the stack of papers and head purposely off to the copy machine.

We frequently laughed over the fact that he must have copied those same papers more than a hundred times. Like many big company office workers, he knew looking busy was the key to survival.

When employees work at home, however, there is no need for such silly and counterproductive masquerades.

What’s more, bosses who supervise at-home workers must become better bosses. They’re forced to be clear and precise about exactly what needs to be done and when results are expected.

The precision helps job performance. According to a recent survey of 50 different firms in Massachusetts, for example, supervisors said 96.7 percent of the approximately 300 telecommuters they supervised had improved their job performance over the prior year.

Of equal importance, the bosses also had fewer petty office grievances to arbitrate once the cubicles were empty.

In exchange, supervisors received more freedom to become the leaders most organizations need. Time previously spent counting noses in the office can be put to much better use shining the spotlight on the best approaches and helping employees learn from one another.

Working toward specific, well-defined job goals also gives employees a better shot at success. The best virtual team groupware helps employers establish clear and explicit expectations along with establishing timetables and methods for monitoring progress.

The companies that use these techniques usually end up with fairer and more accurate measurements of corporate and employee performance than are provided by the more familiar “who kisses the boss’s butt best?” office Olympics.

Personally, I find I’m able to focus full attention on my work far better in the solitude of a quite, reasonably well-equipped home office. I’m not pulled in a thousand directions, distracted or forced to attend all those ubiquitous and often-useless meetings.

At home, I regulate my own time and schedule, which lets me get much more done than would be the case if someone else were to make those decisions.

It’s possible teams of workers can reap some of the benefits of groupware without being physically separated. But physical separation does make taking the fullest advantage of groupware more automatic.

This is not to say centralized offices are totally doomed. We’ll probably still want to get together from time to time, perhaps to celebrate achievements, to entertain visitors, or for certain forms of group learning.

And there are, of course, many jobs, mostly in service industries or in manufacturing, that won’t ever lend themselves to working at home.

But other workers and employers should be asking themselves if what they do can be done in more humane, more productive, decentralized work settings.

If so, then you can bet it’s only a matter of time until a well-managed virtual team comes along that gets your job done better, at lower cost, and with far greater speed.

The sooner you can burn your cubicle, the better.

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