The Electronic Water Cooler — Or Why Google and Yahoo are Wrong

WaterCooler_450x230Waking up on a Sunday morning I find myself (again) reading another on-line article that (again) states why telecommuting is a mixed blessing. Yes, it states, the economic, productivity and environmental gains of smarter working and working from wherever you happen to be are now finally indisputable, but however, it goes on to quote so many experts who talk about how “magical” it is being in the same place together all the time. Sorry guys, that’s not magic, that’s nostalgia. People (and through them organizations) that believe it is not possible to develop creative and productive remote teams are simply people and organizations that have not been successful at doing it.

The current leaders at these organizations have seen people bounce ideas off of each other at an office lunchroom or near the proverbial water cooler and simply don’t have the vision to imagine that those interactions can happen any other way. Regrettably, some organizations that once represented the leading edge have now become established and comfortable in their ways. Clearly they’re using a paradigm that works for them.

At CES earlier this year, Bosch’s Dr. Werner Struth gave them and others clear advice when he said “organizations must be willing to break their own paradigms in order to innovate.” In a world where innovation is happening faster than ever before — faster even than anyone could have imagined – being an innovative organization means more than just funding and/or releasing new products and services. It means taking a long, hard look at the building blocks of how your organization does business and being willing to try new things — changing what’s currently working with the foresight and wisdom to understand it won’t always work. Maybe some people can’t see anything magical happening amongst remote workers, but others sure do.

Just a few weeks ago I saw my colleague Scott as I was heading to my desk and asked him how his kids liked the hockey game last night. He said they had a terrific time. It was a special promotion night at the arena and his kids got to talk and take pictures with the team. The picture of his small daughter sitting next to the burly, nearly toothless forward is especially precious. This is the kind of friendly personal chat that co-workers have all the time. Enjoying a personal interest in the lives of the people you work with makes tackling your daily duties less of an individual chore and more of team effort — these guys and gals are your teammates, your friends.

There was nothing really special about Scott and I chatting, except that Scott lives in North Carolina and I live in New Jersey. I knew he went to the game because I saw it on Facebook — right along with the cute picture of his daughter and the hockey player. When I said “I see my colleague Scott” it was because an instant message client pop-up came-up on my PC screen letting me know he was now available on-line. I asked him about the game in an instant message. At the end of this little IM chat Scott asked me what the status of a project was. We clicked a button and were then speaking to each other using high definition video and audio. We didn’t schedule or plan this videoconference, we just “escalated” our instant message to it. It didn’t last very long — maybe 5 or 6 minutes — but we shared the information we had to and then went back to our individual tasks.

Social Media + Unified Communications =

This formula — social media plus unified communications equals rich interaction — does more than just simulating the “in office experience,” it extends it across huge geographic regions. Scott and I would never be able to work as closely as we do living 500 miles apart. As another example, this formula has allowed some of the organizations I’ve worked with to appoint leaders living in one region to manage teams from another. The camaraderie that develops between distant employees simply cannot be matched by organizations that don’t use these tools. It is human nature to “demonize” those people we don’t see. Blaming “those other guys over there” becomes harder to do when you see pictures of their family’s weekend activities and you chat face to face whenever you feel like it — with none of the restrictions that come from having to find and reserve a room or being lucky enough to bump into them in a hallway or lunchroom.

The video collaboration and unified communication tools that allow this have been around for a number of years, but only with the recent explosion of social media — both personal sites like Facebook, and organizational ones like Yammer — has the experience been completed. When blended and managed correctly, these technologies foster more magical moments than any organization can produce just by stuffing everyone in one place and locking the doors. Think of it as the difference between how many people your voice can reach in only one building versus using tools that can reach any person in any building anywhere. Suddenly the water cooler and lunchroom extend around the globe.

When organizations finally realize that the needed experiences can be achieved with a remote workforce then the rest of the benefits of “Smarter Working” pour down like an avalanche. Instead of constructing or renting an office building where everyone has their own office, cube or desk, knowledge workers can work remotely from home (or wherever they are) and only head into an office when absolutely necessary. When they do commute in, they can use shared spaces — hoteling desks and conference rooms in an open-plan layout.

Finally, the collaboration and videoconference industry has a solid ROI calculation that doesn’t rely on the myth of replacing business travel. This begins with the real savings in office costs by using smaller footprints, less power, less air-conditioning, less bandwidth and port density, etc. Then, in addition to the organizational savings, there’s the employees’ savings in commuting costs for the daily trip to the office and back. At an extremely conservative estimate of $20 U.S. per day times two days per week and fifty weeks per year that’s two grand a year back in the employees’ pocket. That doesn’t even begin to address the savings in carbon emissions or increase in productivity when an average two and a half hours of commuting time goes back into the calendar as usable time. The exponential increase in remote employees is changing the economics of various sectors including those of office management, home broadband, commuting, recruiting and many others.

So the takeaway here is simple. The belief that you can only achieve employee magic by locking people in the same building is as correct as the belief that the world is flat. People made fun of the idea that we live on a round planet — until everyone finally realized it was true. How many of today’s flat-earth organizations will cease to exist because they couldn’t break their own paradigm? If your organization needs help understanding how to create a Workspace for Tomorrow feel free to reach out…

This post originally appeared on David’s blog. It’s reprinted here with his permission.

About David Danto

David Danto has over 30 years of experience providing problem-solving leadership and innovation in media and unified communications technologies for various firms in the corporate, broadcasting and academic worlds, including AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU, Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. He now works with Dimension Data as Principal Consultant for the collaboration, multimedia, video and AV disciplines. He is also the IMCCA’s Director of Emerging Technology.

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