Supporting a Virtual Organization

Upfront admission: I work from home more than I work in the office. Having said that, either what I say makes sense or it doesn’t — decide for yourself.

Marisa Mayer, Yahoo!’s CEO, provoked outrage from the Internet by banning telecommuting for Yahoo employees. Such outrage was not difficult to predict in this age, with the Internet making it often better and more efficient for employees to work from home than the office. But of course like many things, there is more to this than meets the eye.

She has a point, There IS something to being able to walk down the hall and corner someone in their office. Or running into them while getting lunch or a cup of coffee. I get that, and that’s also why I travel on a regular basis, as my colleagues do even more, back to the Mother Ship. But partly this is still due to old ways of thinking, and please don’t make the mistake that this has anything to do with physical age.

To an organization that is truly forward thinking, there is not just an opportunity to work as a virtual organization, there is truly an imperative. Does Ms. Mayer really think that everyone they employ needs to show up at 701 1st Avenuc, Sunnyvale, CA on a daily basis? I mean, srsly? If so, then I will divest any stock I may have in that company.

I’m sorry to admit this, but I have a better Internet connection from home than I do in the office. I can have a perfectly great conference call from 20 feet up in my backyard treehouse, and often have. I can have really productive, concentrated development time from home — more so than when I am in the office. I can use the saved 3 hours a day that I’m not driving to the office and back to do real work instead of catching up on NPR shows and getting high blood pressure from the driving behavior of others. Come to think of it, I would miss Morning Edition and Marketplace if I didn’t drive into the office twice a week.

This isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be possible to abuse such a telecommuting situation. But come on, does the fact that you showed up at the office really mean you are working ALL THE TIME? Of course not. It’s an illusion that people who come to the office work any harder than those who don’t. And it’s even an illusion that the boss will check up on you more. Really? How often does your boss look in on you in your cubicle to see that you are doing real work?

Meanwhile, what does it mean to have a global organization, like OCLC does? It means that virtually everyone is virtual to someone else. And that is the very crux of the matter. If your organization is truly global, then everyone is virtual to some degree. And if you understand that as an organization, then you put into place the structures you need to make it work. Just a few of these include:

  • Really robust video-conferencing. Seeing people is still so important. So having ways to include “virtual” staff in meetings via video is essential. Even simply providing virtual staff the opportunity to provide a visual cue when they want to speak can be more inclusive than the usual conference call. At OCLC, we have video conferencing rooms in offices in every geography, as well as a client that works with individual computers for those calling in from home.
  • Pro-active inclusion. Those who are “in the room” need to be very aware of those who are not, and allow times for them to have the floor or watch them if they are on video for visual cues that they wish to speak. It can be very hard to break in to a conversation when you are not in the room.
  • Being aware of audio issues. If you aren’t in the room where everyone else is, spurious noises are definitely more annoying when you are on the phone. Keep the paper rustling near the microphone to a minimum. Try not to talk over each other, as it can be difficult to parse the conversation. Also, when someone is speaking, make sure they are near enough the microphone to be heard.
  • Being aware of timezone issues. Being a worldwide organization is very hard because you really can’t set up a meeting that includes staff in Australia and Europe without making someone get up at some very early hour or stay up well past a reasonable bedtime, or both. Try to make accommodations for timezones as much as possible.

For an organization like OCLC, it not only can be done, it must be done. There is no way we can all be in the same office. So making it work takes effort, by everyone, but it is effort that is well spent. Any global organization is a virtual organization, so it would behoove such organizations to get it right. Thankfully, I believe OCLC is getting it right, after putting the required effort into it.

2 Comments on “Supporting a Virtual Organization”

  1. I absolutely agree. Globalization is hard and requires constant practice. Being confronted by the tradeoffs on a frequent basis is vital. If it ever becomes easy, its because we’ve lost sight of unfulfilled business opportunities.

  2. Roy, I agree with pretty much everything you said–and, like you, am hugely grateful to be able to have this incredible job in OCLC Research while working from home–my commute would be more like seven hours, at best!. The key point I took from the Yahoo kerfuffle though is the value of casual human interactions in the workplace. Videoconferencing is a huge boon, but it doesn’t replace the serendipitous “water cooler” conversations that go on in the office. I sometimes realize I’m really missing something when I find out after the fact about the latest great idea that was born when a few of our group gathered around somebody’s cube and started thinking aloud. It’s why I’m so happy whenever I get to visit the office! Speaking of which, see you all Wednesday! -Jackie
    P.S. None of this means that telecommuting should be banned, of course. I think you’ve got the perfect situation being able to head to the office a couple days/week.

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