A Business Technology Place

Creating culture with remote teams

“What are ways you are building a ‘lean culture’ with remote team members?”

I posted this question on Twitter and a LinkedIn group because during the 25 years of my professional career, I’ve seen working from home (telecommuting as we used to call it) go from a special once-per-week privilege to a common status of working from home multiple times a week.  A growing number of workers are also now considered full-time remote. Some factors contributing to this change:

1)The technology for connecting employees to the company network is ubiquitous.

2) Companies realized they can recruit workers regardless of location and expand their talent pool.

3) Commute time is a factor affecting employment decisions.

Weaving together disparate blocks is like building culture with remote workers

In our knowledge economy and bit-driven world, location is irrelevant for completing work and contributing to mission of the team for many of us. But how do we create and maintain a group/company culture when workers are not co-located? How do we build a new culture when we see each other through conference calls?  My group is in the early stages of a ‘lean’ culture transformation and geographically dispersed. So I’ve been wrestling with this question and concept.

I read some online posts about others’ experience with building a culture and it’s quickly apparent the answer depends on the environment, value, and people in the company. There is no magic elixir or secret equation. Each company has a set of beliefs they strive to follow and a set of tools they use to connect their daily operations fit their desired company culture. It’s apparent, culture isn’t based on tools, ping pong tables, free lunches, etc. Culture is built from a shared set of beliefs and practices for how to deliver products and services to a customer.

In my own journey to answer this question, I’m focusing on a few fundamental building blocks to promote and build ‘lean’ into our team culture:

Explain the why.

When people understand the root of ‘lean’ is to add value for the customer, it’s easier to gain momentum as compared with getting momentum from cost reduction and cycle improvement tasks. Reducing costs is important, but will come as the result of adding value to products and services the customer wants. Lean doesn’t come by osmosis. There should be training involved to reinforce the daily operations of the team.

Build leaders that focus on creating flow and reducing waste.

It’s unusual for anything to survive in a company setting if there is no support from executive management. For ‘lean’ to survive, the team needs to see more than verbal affirmations from executives. They should see a leader who engages with local and remote workers in the tasks they are assigned (Go to the gemba). They should see a leader that actively promotes and discusses the benefits of completing recurring root-cause-analysis events for problem solving. They should see a leader that examines metrics and assigns actions to improve performance through counter measures.

Attribute action and results to the mission of the organization/group.

The mission of the organization states why it exists. The mission is a connecting statement between organizational actions and providing value to the customer. To develop culture with remote employees, they should understand how their daily activities map to the mission. Strong leaders frequently remind employees of the mission so it becomes a source of motivation and a common bond.

Promote team over individual efforts.

This last building block requires additional focus from remote employees or it can become a stumbling block to results. Include the voice of remote team members by making sure there is adequate participation and polling for their input. It’s through actions like these, the bond between remote workers will develop as strong as two co-located workers. It promotes helping co-workers when they have a question or need some extra man-power. It promotes the cultural feeling that we succeed together and we fail together. It promotes clearer understanding of team roles and boundaries.

Lastly, I realize I must have patience because this isn’t a sprint. Culture is built over time and through actions. Culture isn’t built on hanging platitudes, rah-rah speeches, and lofty goals. Rather it’s built-on working together, investing in each other, coaching, gemba walks, and shared experiences.

Onward and Upward!

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/oFffVN – Porch Weave by Kay Hayden on Creative Commons

IBM reverses course on work-from-home

We can improve business results with this change!

IBM recently announced the end of work-from-home for the Marketing department as it moves towards regional offices for co-locating the Big Blue workforce. They aren’t the first to do this. Yahoo reversed course in 2013 by banning work-from-home and Best Buy followed their lead. Could this be another business cycle forming? Companies have been centralizing and decentralizing organizational layout for years as they switch between shared service cost-savings and greater focus on customer needs. Now it appears working-from-home, telecommuting, and flexible work arrangements may start going through similar cycles.

The debatable points.

Working-from-home has many characteristics and touch-points to create debate:

  • Team collaboration vs private think-time
  • Consistent schedules vs flexible schedules
  • Meetings together vs conference calls
  • Productivity of the group vs productivity of the individual
  • Commercial office cost vs home office cost
  • Relationships and culture
  • Employee retention
  • Commute time

The irresistible force to change something.

It’s easy to see how business leaders are drawn towards this policy as a means to improve efficiency and productivity of their workforce. The debatable items can all impact workforce productivity. But change is initially disruptive and must be executed properly to yield the desired results.

Obviously there is no single right answer. Organizations must weigh options and make decisions based on their business environment, their workforce, and their culture. Workers have preferences based on their life-stage, distance from the office, position in the organization, and personality.

Regardless of personal preferences, it does not change the mission of the organization or the commitment required of the workforce to produce great work. Ultimately, managers make a decision and move forward with it to create the culture and environment they want to achieve the mission of the organization. The work-from-home policy attracts or repels would-be workers. But the workforce needs to understand the interests of the company must survive to provide services customers will buy and to provide long-lasting security for employees.

Onward and upward!

photo credit: Debra Roby via creative commons.

Death to the Office?

Do interconnected electronic devices eliminate the need for the traditional office?

I read “Death to the office” and stopped to think. Wait, did I read that right? Yes, it said “death to the office” because of commute to work options in the new digital age. The traditional office of the 20th century is history. Then I read it again in a piece by Andrew Keen of CNN entitled Five reasons the office will become redundant. Keen’s argument is that advancement of technology, ease of access to the internet, and increase in commute times, make the office unnecessary as an everyday place to conduct work (My one sentence interpretation and summary).

The argument reminds me of the paperless office idea from the 1980s. Remember when the latest buzz was the traditional office would become paperless? The amount of paper may be reduced, but we certainly are not paperless. In addition to the physical evidence next to any network printer area, the local IT support tickets for printer help show that we are not paperless. So is the paperless office a myth, novelty, or aspiration?

One reality is today that most organizations today have employees that are 100% remote or that work-from-home at least one day a week. Will that change? I don’t think so.

What about job types?

Sales positions or jobs that act as an individual agent to create work already have limited use for a traditional office. That’s nothing new. Sales employees are compensated to find business and maintain client relationships. The office has existed through the years for the knowledge workers and the administrative workers to have a place to gather. In the past electronic interconnectivity didn’t exist.

Obviously jobs like manufacturing or those that require physical access to a piece of equipment that is not mobile are not subject to remote working. The office will continue to exist for these workers. Can departments like Marketing, IT, and Finance operate as individual agents connected by electronic devices? I realize employees can produce work from just about anywhere as long as they have a computing device and connectivity to the central systems of their company. But I also know that these same workers need to inter-play with members of their department and other departments to get work done.

Remote working can be done. It has advantages. But’s it not always the best choice.

Email, phone calls, video calls, and instant messaging are all viable communication mediums. But they have their own set of challenges:

  • Multi-tasking on phone calls
  • Misinterpreted emails
  • Unclear emails that results in threads that span more than five messages
  • Video call avoidance because the employee does not like to be seen on camera (no makeup)
  • The time to type instant messaging instead of just finding the person and talking it through

Nothing replaces a face-to-face meeting with team members to whiteboard solutions, diagnose problems, or clarify the needs to solve a situation. Team unity isn’t the same when it’s build through email as it is when team members meet each day.

Location. Location. Location.

I’ve held a job that was 40 miles from home one-way and one that was 9 miles from home one-way. I know what it’s like to spend two hours each day in the car commuting back-and-forth to work. It’s natural to favor remote options if this is the situation of the employee. It’s also helpful to work from home in this situation. When I lived far from the office and worked from home I would spend those extra two hours doing work rather than something else. Yes it helped productivity.

But workers that live close to the office may not have the same feeling. In my current job, I’m only 20 minutes from the office. I go to the office five days a week. I prefer it. It gives me the ability to manage, interact, and build relationships much more than if I were at home.

Don’t kill the office just yet.

Businesses need an office. They need it to bring workers together to create unity and a sense of shared purpose. Mission statements are easier fulfilled by people working together side-by-side, not by people working as virtual free agents across a digital divide.  Brands are established by people not machines and programs. So let’s keep the office around a little longer.

Programming to simplify work flow

Everyday programmers go to work to create new shiny custom pieces of work that have the bling and entertainment value to satisfy consumer’s digital appetites. The objective is to turn the bling into dollars. In some circles I’ve heard it referred to as creating the “sexy stuff” while playing with the latest and greatest programming tools and techniques.


There are also programmers that go to work everyday to solve problems for what I call the plumbing and work flow areas of the business. This is the non-sexy stuff. Yet it’s the essential stuff. This is the programming that automates business process, eliminates manual workflow, and connects disparate systems so they can trade information.

Some of these programmers work on computing platforms with computing languages originally developed over 30 years ago. These are the programmers that wade through years-and-years worth of business rules and customizations to determine how to put in another piece of logic. They don’t work with fancy GUIs or create mobile applications. You’re more likely to see them moving and transforming orders, invoices, reports, and purchase orders from one place to another.

Did someone say that working on the programming that moves millions of transactions through a system and across systems is boring and outdated? There’ s no bling I’ll admit. But there is cha-ching. It’s the work of turning bits and bytes into pennies and dollars.

The next time you see a programmer that does this for your business tell them thank-you. If you are that programmer then smile and give yourself a pat on the back.

Working from home is intertwined with employee retention and relationships

Should working from home be listed as a company benefit?

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer created an industry stir recently when she announced a ban on working from home. That’s the type of announcement that will send media and bloggers straight to their keyboards as they position what it means and what motivated the action. A spokesperson for Yahoo! gave this quote a few days later, “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home–this is about what’s right for Yahoo, right now.” That quote captures the key point. Mayer is operating and making decisions on what she believes is in the best interest of Yahoo! Individual policies are a means to an end for her. These policies are not her ultimate goal which is to make Yahoo! a healthy and growing company financially.WorkFromHome

Working from home home is not often listed as a company benefit. In many companies, it’s an informal agreement between the manager and the employees. It’s a perk. It’s part of the work hour flexibility program. It eases work-life balance for employees with long commutes. It can often be used as a salary offset (what’s a day at home worth to you in salary?) I’m not sure about other functional areas of the business, but working from home at least once a week has become an expectation for today’s technology work force.

Employee retention is at the core of the conversation.

Beneath the surface of this conversation on working from home is employee retention. Mayer wants to encourage closer collaboration from teams by eliminating some of the challenges with remote communication. But if good employees leave does the policy back fire and end up hurting Yahoo! more than it helps? Employee retention is now a critical metric for technology leaders. Outside of their technology skills, employees have institutional knowledge composed of systems, business rules, customer knowledge, and inter-departmental relationships. When a good employee leaves their institutional knowledge leaves with them.

Can you build relationships at home?

Laurianne McLaughlin of InformationWeek.com captures another piece of the core implications in her commentary about the Yahoo! policy on working from home. She includes a quote from Martha Heller, a CIO and IT leader recruiter, “The No. 1 skill in IT leadership right now is the relationships they can build with people in the company. CIOs have an issue right now where they can’t find people to report to them with that skill. You can’t build that at home.”

Good relationships will keep teams together and bad relationships (or no relationship) will break them apart. Technology leaders need team members that work well together and they need team members that work well with employees outside the technology department. While communication from remote employees is technologically easy, it does not enable the full relationship benefits people receive from being together.

Working from home once a week does not make building relationships unachievable. But once a week is 20% of the work week. If team members work from home on different days of the week it creates a more complicated matrix of when they can interact. The amount of time when the full team is together decreases and the idea of building relationships through co-location is more complicated than it seems on the surface.

So what does a technology leader do about it?

Allowing employees to work from home is a means to an end. A primary end goals is employee retention. Working from home isn’t for everyone. Some employees may live close enough to the office that they would rather be in the office each day. Some employees may recognize that they are too easily distracted with home life to be productive. But for others, working from home may provide them with the flexibility they need in their personal lives so they can be a full contributor to the team success. So I believe a work from home policy must be handled individually but should be supported in general terms as a company policy.

Building relationships is a key component to employee retention. Technology leaders need to stretch themselves in this area and try new techniques. That may mean using video conferencing services (i.e. Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.) instead of text based instant messaging. That works for team meetings in addition to one-to-one conversations. It may mean creating “drive-bys” for remote employees as well. We get interrupted each day from co-workers that stop at our desks to chat. Why not do the same for remote employees to create the in-office feel? Maybe that becomes to disruptive, maybe it doesn’t. But the bigger point is building and maintaining relationships that help with employee retention and ultimately productivity. I suspect technology employees are open to trying new ways to make it better. Just make sure someone still brings the donuts on Friday morning.