Telecommuting and remote offices

Is telecommuting a Knowledge Management issue? On the face of it, it would seem not. Surely it's just a technical question of plugging router A into slot B and typing password C.

But it's not that simple. As anyone who has ever worked for a multi-site company knows, those at the smaller, remote sites can easily feel excluded from the decision making process that goes on at Head Office. And really, what is telecommuting but an office of one?

After gathering 350 different stories of telecommuting experiences from readers, Bob Lewis succintly identified five flavours of telecommuting:

  • Ad hoc or casual telecommuters: Employees who work from home when special circumstances call for it, like when their pet iguana needs veterinary attention, they need to focus on a single task without distractions, or their spouse is called out of town and someone needs to watch the children.
  • Scheduled telecommuters: Employees who work from home on a regular and predictable basis — for example, commuting Monday and Friday while working from home Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Mobile workforce: Employees who need to be able to create an office in unpredictable, random locations such as hotel rooms, airport lounges and Starbucks.
  • Remote workforce: Employees whose home office is their primary location, and who have no place to call their own in the company’s offices.
  • Virtual enterprise workforce: Employees who work in a company that has no physical location — a company designed from the start to be staffed by employees whose primary contact is through telepresence, and who meet each other face-to-face only rarely, or not at all.

I strongly recommend reading the whole article, its well worth it (also Bob's article on 10 sure fire ways to kill telecommuting).

The thing that struck me about the stories Bob gathered is that any of these models can work. Casual and scheduled telecommuters are probably the least disruptive to a traditional workforce in that they still have regular access to their face-to-face network.

Even a mobile sales team can relatively easily build camaraderie and team spirit because everyone faces the same benefits and difficulties. Tools can be provided which leverage this common work model.

What is really hard is to avoid isolating workforces that are different from the norm. When an organisation has two main sites and then a single branch office of just 2-3 people, the branch office will almost always feel left out.

There's a clear productivity conflict: to include small branch offices in communications, the main sites should be using virtual team technology such as emails, wikis, etc. But when it's quicker and easier just to walk down the hall and talk to your neighbour, taking the time to consciously include your remote colleages "feels" inefficient. At a recent conference, Stuart French talked about the difficulties in managing overseas staff who had a home office but no company office in the same country (kind of a blend between remote and virtual enterprise).

From a KM perspective, the result is horrible because remote sites are cut off from any chance of participating in the collective problem solving process.

People often talk about the deficiencies of remote or virtual collaboration and emphasise the importance of face-to-face communication. But as anyone who has participated in a wholly virtual organisation or community knows, very rich and productive communications can take place as long as everyone is in the same situation.

Some offices make a conscious effort to co-locate staff in the same teams to foster communications. But ironically, if some staff are telecommuting or on a remote site, co-location may be counterproductive to the overall team engagement. Instead, scattering staff to encourage them to use virtual tools and therefore include off-site workers in conversations.

This should not be taken as a blanket recommendation against co-location. Rather, it is simply an illustration of the importance of taking a principles-based approach to KM rather than applying a cookie-cutter "best practice" technique for implementation.

Did you know...

Our expertise in complex systems analysis, combined with a deep understanding of technology and modern, agile management and leadership techniques makes knowquestion uniquely positioned to find strategic solutions to your tough problems. Contact us today.


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <small> <blockquote> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <br>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options