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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Work is not a place, it is something you do

7:12:00 PM Posted by Oscar Berg , No comments

Online, on virtual places like Yammer, Twitter or LinkedIn, people tend to tell their colleagues and others what they are doing, thinking, liking, reading...and not so often where they are, when they arrived there and when they left. Why? Because the latter often just doesn't make much sense. Knowing where someone physically is doesn't usually contribute very much to your work. But knowing what someone you work with will help you coordinate actions, and tell you when it time for you or someone else to contribute. By learning what other people are doing you might also spot opportunities for exchanging ideas, knowledge or opinions, or doing something together.

Most people today understand that being physically present at the office is not necessarily the same thing as working or being productive. Still, most corporate cultures are stuck with the mindset from the industrial age that work is a place and uses time spent at that place is the main way to measure work.

It has not always been like that. In the agricultural society, work used to be about what you could produce. Then we moved into factories and offices and began to refer to work as a place. The introduction of the time clock, invented in 1888 by jeweler Willard Bundy, reinforced this. It tracked the number of hours an employee worked and was the main measure by which work was measured and workers were paid and rewarded.

If time spent at the office is a relevant measure or not depends upon the type of work you do. But in most cases it is a misleading measure. For knowledge workers such as marketing and sales people, engineers, IT consultants, writers, and so forth it is damn right wrong. Our work environment is getting more and more complex, with more interactions with more people across organizational, geographical and cultural borders. Many of us work with people in different time zones. Still, our contributions are very much measured in the same way as during the industrial era peaking during the 20th century - by the face time we spend at the office during office hours.

Sooner or later, virtual work will be the norm and a practice that will catch on everywhere. But if it is currently allowed at your company / department / team or not usually comes down to individual managers and whether or not you have a trusting boss. In a Harvard Business Publishing article called "Stay Home and Work", Rosabeth Moss Kanter states:
Choosing how long to work and on what schedule has long showed productivity benefits. People are less stressed when they can adjust their hours or days to family or personal needs. A greater feeling of control is associated with more energy and better health, studies show, making those workers more productive.

Technology exists to make remote work feasible and effective. Cell phones have liberated people from desks. Cisco's telepresence capabilities make it possible to feel as though you are in the meeting room with people anywhere in the world, sitting just across the conference table.

The barriers are the usual human ones. Without a culture of strong accountability, collaboration, trust and personal responsibility, remote work doesn't work. That culture is missing in too many organizations. Managers don't always know how to coordinate and communicate with people they do not see face to face; they must value the work product and not the face time. Leadership is important. People need clear goals, deadlines, and performance metrics. Team members need trust and the ability to rely on and fill in for one another.
It is pretty clear that we have to get away from concepts such as face time and office hours. We need to stop thinking of work as a place and make virtual work a norm. What really matters in the end is what results we produce and that we achieve our goals. But that of course implies that we must define what kind of results we expect, what goals to achieve, and probably also provide some directions. A problem is that a lot of people still don’t know how to do that. That includes managers, and possibly your boss.
“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results” - General George Patton


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