Working in a Connected World
Much of my team doesn’t work in my Silicon Valley location. They are distributed throughout the United States, in cities like Seattle, and around the world, in countries like Mexico. And we have partners and customers in many countries. I could not do this job without this wonderful, very dedicated distributed team.
I grew up professionally working as part of a distributed organization. For about 10 years neither my manager nor my team was located in the same place.
In the past, most jobs required, or at least were perceived as requiring, physical co-location. If you got a new job, you moved to where the job was located. But today, we not only have the technology to connect and collaborate globally, business models have changed so there are benefits to creating a distributed organization.
Before I get into my observations about working in a connected world, I have to say that I moved from Europe to the US for one of my jobs because it required me to be in the same time zone; I did not move for personal reasons, but later found a job and a location where my family decided to live. And on that move, I did something I never thought I would do. I bought my new home without ever personally visiting it.
Attracting and retaining talent
In places like the Bay Area, it is very expensive to move people to this area, and it is very expensive for them to live there. If you find the right person, and they are very connected to their local community, why uproot them and bring them someplace new and make them re-establish their lives. Perhaps more importantly, they wouldn’t have to adjust to new levels of spending on mortgages or rent. If they live someplace with lower costs, a new job with a salary increase would really improve their disposable income, which is a good retention tool and very positive for the economy.
Some people may want to move because they want to live in the area where their company is located, but it is becoming less necessary since companies are more distributed and current technology makes it unnecessary — and I think, letting people live where they want, near their families and friends, helps them transition to the new job faster, and it also helps distribute the company brand. If you have volunteer programs or matching contributions, those can go to local causes for remote workers, and that will connect you with them and enhance their connection to the community. I find that people will stay in their jobs longer if they feel connected to the company and to their local communities.
It is particularly true when you are determined to have a diverse team and bring more women onboard. The importance of having a strong support system around you can be a primary reason why women prefer not to move geographically. In addition, when a woman moves for a job, almost 100% of the time, her partner also needs to move, and aligning two careers is much more difficult. By allowing flexibility of where both partners work, you support diversity.
Retaining people, however, doesn’t just happen. It requires a good design for engagement.
Staying connected to the company: Designing for engagement
You have to think about people in a very personal way when they work remotely. You can’t just drop into their office and ask how things are going. You have to set expectations for yourself and for them. And those expectations you set for yourself are a promise. If you set up regularly meetings, you can’t cancel them, or the remote worker is not going to feel important or needed. And you have to make it clear that their participation is also a promise. Be very cautious about people who don’t meet and just say, “everything is OK,” because it probably isn’t. The one thing that you can be sure of in that situation is your communication isn’t OK, and you don’t have visibility into what that person is thinking, the challenges they are facing — and they don’t have access to what you know about the company, questions you may have or ideas that would be better expressed by voice and video rather than by e-mail.
Ensuring transparent visibility on key milestones across the company is critical. ‘Over’ communication on important milestones is better than ‘under’ communication.
Building and maintaining trust – Micromanagers not wanted!
Engagement is the first level of building a trusted relationship. You are trusting that someone you don’t see everyday is doing his or her job, and they have to trust that you are looking out for their interests, keeping them in mind for interesting assignments and creating open channels so they can attend the meetings they want to attend. Your confidence in their ability to do their job remotely is very important. If you do have someone who isn’t delivering on their commitments, that is a problem, but it is a problem if that person works locally or remotely. I don’t think trusted, engaged remote workers are any more or less likely to do their work. If you build the engagement models and create a reciprocal trust relationship, people will do good work regardless of how far they are from their manager.
Going back to key milestones, and any other information you think everyone must know, that information needs to be posted in a common place, even shared in a traditional weekly report. Transparency promotes trust at the same time it keeps people focused on outcomes. It is important that managers share the goals, but don’t micromanage all of the details, trying to control everything. That does not promote trust because micromanagement, by its very nature, suggests that the person doing the micromanaging doesn’t trust those he or she manages. It is also very hard to micromanage at a distance, so those who want to micromanage should avoid managing distributed teams.
The technology of distribution
It is important to support distributed teams with good communications technology. I use tools like SharePoint, WordPress, Skype, and of course, e-mail. I like to see people, but I also want people to work effectively and not feel like they have to have the team working with them simultaneously, so collaborative portals, blogs and enterprise social tools can be important. I don’t want to specify what is best for your organization, but I will emphasize that you should choose a set of tools, use them yourself as a leader so that others will use them, and try to master them so that you can be effective. Too often organizations buy tools and don’t use them as well as they could, which results in communications friction. I like to encourage people to use the best technology for the moment, and to take the time to use it well.
Leveraging time shifters
Time shifting is a very important element to relationship building, and it is also a good place to think about employees in a personal way. If you have a night owl working for you, for instance, perhaps they are the right person to work with Japan or China late into the West Coast night of the United States. They might rather get up late and work that way, than to get up early and put their sleep deprivation on the company. Find times that you overlap, or perhaps occasionally time shift yourself to synchronize with a time shifted worker.
There is benefit from bringing people together. I sponsor meetings a couple of times a year where we bring everybody together to discuss the company, our strategy and investments and to hear from each of them personally — and for them to build their own relationships. This isn’t inexpensive, but I think it is necessary. It reinforces connections, builds connections for new people and creates a touchpoint in time and space that helps people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
Future: Cities as talent hubs?
I think there are also some interesting models that cities should consider. Perhaps rather than attracting companies, they should consider becoming hubs for talent. This would require great technology infrastructure, good services like day care and community colleges that teach people how to collaborate globally, along with good access to an airport — think about that shift: being recruited by a city because they want your talent to enrich their community. Since the city is attracting great talent, companies look there for people who already know how to contribute remotely, and they know that they will have great connections and the ability to get to other places without too much difficulty.
This would also be great for cities because they would have the opportunity to leverage their local talent for improving their policies and infrastructure. It would be a very positive feedback loop.