Do you want your people to be productive or do you prefer them to be creative? In a perfect world, of course, they'd be both. Are you happy for your people to work remotely or do you insist that they come into the office every day? The answer to that question might depend on your answer to the first one. Let me explain.
This article in the June issue of Wired Magazine highlights one of the biggest paradoxes of the modern working world. Remote workers and those who avoid the office are often more productive than those who work there day in and day out. On the other hand, creativity and problem-solving are often enhanced by interacting with co-workers in both formal and informal settings.
As the article points out, the decision by Yahoo, Best Buy and other companies to rein in their employees and try to leverage their collective brains is understandable, but slightly misguided. Yes, as Yahoo's CEO Marissa Meyer points out, "Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together." Research also shows that being in close contact with your co-workers can often result in less actual work being done, and that's not good either.
The author points to research that backs up both points, and it's well worth reading.
So what does this mean for managers of remote teams and those of us working on projects?
First, and most importantly, "telework" doesn't need to be an either-or proposition. Sometimes you need to put your head down and get your work done uninterrupted. At other times you can benefit from the stimulation of other brains. The trick is to balance the two - especially when you have a strong preference for one or the other.
Introverts, if left to their own devices, might prefer to hide out but can become focused and suffer from a lack of input from other people. On the other hand, we extroverts really need to stop pestering others and get to work.
If you don't have a choice about where or how we do business, can we maximize the environment we're in? In a world of cubicle farms and "open door" policies, can we find ways to get the quiet, focused time we sometimes need? If we're managing our projects or teams remotely, can we use technology and thoughtful leadership to offer opportunities for brainstorming, idea sharing and creating human connections?
Secondly, technology helps, and it doesn't have to bust the budget. Inexpensive webcams and conferencing tools are becoming more common and tools like smartphones and tablets make it easier than ever to stay connected no matter where your butt actually sits.
Here's the key take away for me. Managers (and I say managers because organizations are insensate and only made up of the collective thinking of their people) need the ability to examine what and how their people actually work every day. They need to help their people identify situations that require laserlike focus, when shared brains are what's needed, and the ability to coach and noodge as appropriate.
They also need the support of their company's policies and budgets. Rigid rules and unflinching commitment to a single policy may well result in a lack of balance between creativity and productivity. If your team is mostly remote, how can you create opportunities for healthy, informal interaction and brainstorming? If you're in a Cubeland, can you find ways to offer structured quiet time for focus and productivity?
As leaders we have to make policy that makes sense, and make peace with the policies that don't.