Which is better? A workplace where everyone schleps to work every day, or a world where everyone works virtually from anywhere they are? That seems to be the question a lot of companies are asking themselves. It's also the wrong question. This shouldn't be an either-or proposition.
A great example of this was pointed out in a recent post on Heather Clancy's Small Business Matters blog. She tells the story of Grower's Secret, a company in Hawaii. You can read the whole article for yourself, but essentially the company started as an all-virtual company.
Webmeetings, conference calls, Skype chats. Technology enabled this small startup to be nimble, cut costs, and get on its feet. As the company matured, however, they found that a whole other set of problems started to emerge.
While mundane matters could certainly be handled through technology, tasks such as brainstorming, problem solving and even forging good working relationships wasn't happening the way they expected. As a result, they have settled on a middle ground, where some unnecessary travel can be avoided, and they have to suck it up and invest when getting people together makes more sense.
There are a couple of lessons to be learned from their experience. They seem obvious but I'm always amazed at how many companies take an all-or-nothing approach to remote teams, projects and company structure.
- It's hard to maintain purely virtual relationships over time. Even occasional get-togethers form natural human bonds. It helps foster trust, which is crucial when you can't just poke y our head over the neighbor's cubicle. One major problem, of course, is that once the accounting department gets used to not paying anything for travel, asking for a little bit becomes a very big deal. Help your company realize there is a cost of doing business.
- Problem solving and brainstorming can be done electronically, but it's tough and requires skill and flexibility. Many a great idea was formed in a formal session but expanded and perfected over a shared doughnut in the breakroom.
- Not every important thing needs to be in person. Technology allows for speed and convenience. If you've ever tried to get three managers schedules to mesh for more than an hour or two, you know that you can't wait three weeks to tackle some challenges. Technology gives your team a nimbleness and flexibility it might not otherwise have.
- Make smart decisions about which tools to use for what purposes. This means occasionally taking a hard look at the communication needs of your company, your project teams and your sales force and readjusting expectations.
Few tools are completely useless (I'm talking to all the Sharepoint haters out there), if used properly. But few are going to be worth the time and money if you don't use them well. It's vital that companies offer both the hard technical skills (how do I use this thing?) as well as the soft skills (how can I facilitate a good webmeeting with the tools we have to get the input, feedback and results we need?).
You can learn from companies like Grower's Secret. Create a communication plan purposely. It doesn't mean you won't make adjustments as you learn more or circumstances change, but you won't fall into the trap of all-or-nothing.