Smarter Working 2020

In five months it will be the year 2020 – and “Unified Communications” will have been “launching” (by my count) for over twenty years.  I’m writing this blog using my mobile device on a commuter train, traveling from my home in central New Jersey to New York City.  As I sit here, heading to a dinner meeting, watching the rain and the trees out of the train’s window, I can’t help but think back a dozen or so years to when this trip was a daily occurrence for me.

At that time I ran the collaboration technology teams for a series of financial services companies – three of them in a row – all company names you’ve heard of – and two out of three of them are still around today.

My day typically started around 5am, giving me enough time to have some breakfast, read the overnight email, exercise a bit, shower and then hit that train. The 6:52am to New York was nothing short of a nightmare.  It was typically a hot, overcrowded, standing room only ride into Manhattan, followed by a few stops on the subway.  Overall, it was a total-body workout that easily surpassed my morning exercise.  I almost always arrived at my office exhausted and in need of another shower – and my workday hadn’t even started yet.

Remembering how exasperating this daily nightmare used to be puts the recent (and frequent) articles on the “evils of remote collaboration” into context.  I don’t understand why we don’t see business newspapers publish articles about the awful daily commute, the poor commuter transportation services, the wasted of hours traveling to an office and the exhaustion and burnout that piles-up as a result. They do tend to over-focus on how ‘bad’ being remote is without an appreciation for how smarter working has started to revolutionize business around the globe.

Most recently it was an article in the Wall Street Journal (which also circulated on social media) about how “embarrassing” meetings can be when one attends them from home.  Apparently, some people have issues when attending meetings “shirtless” or when their children barge into their calls.  (In response to my calling this silly article out on Twitter, one of my industry colleagues replied, “I’ve had significantly more embarrassing face to face meetings than anything over video.”)

The truth – which rarely gets covered by business publications – is that remote working / smarter working / collaboration between locations / whatever you want to call the phenomenon of mobility supported by technology can be about as fantastic an experience as you can have as a knowledge worker.  The benefits far outweigh the issues.

From the employer’s perspective, enabling a remote workforce results in significant cost savings.  Fewer people need to be in a single office, so that office can be smaller and less expensive.  Power, heating / air-conditioning, network bandwidth, etc. all have resulting lower expenses.  In the case of remote workers, studies have shown that much of the time saved in employees not having to commute goes back to the business in increased effort and productivity (measured at 22%) – not to mention their significantly improved morale.  In addition, simply using multiple smaller locations in different geographies (as opposed to one large, centralized building) allows organizations to recruit the best and brightest individuals for their workforce – without limiting the search to people only in areas nearby to one office.

From the employee’s perspective, remote working is a tremendous benefit.  Employees no longer have to exhaust themselves in a commuting nightmare before they ever arrive ‘at work.’ They no longer have to choose where to live just because it’s near an office – they can select their home area based upon important personal preferences – such as schools or communities.  If a child has a cold and the employee needs to leave work to collect them from school and bring them home / take care of them, working from home or satellite offices no longer requires the loss of the entire day.  It is now something that can be done in minutes, followed by a return to work.  In addition to those and many other benefits, working remotely is usually perceived to be a significant benefit by employees – one that actually saves an employer money as opposed to costing anything.

The above list only scratches the surface of what smarter working does for us.  I could also mention the tremendous benefit to the environment the reduction in unnecessary commuting also provides….or a few dozen other benefits just too long for this blog.

In the face of all that, we unfortunately still see an article every couple of weeks that tries to knock-down the concept of smarter working.

Part of the problem is simple, individual biases.  We humans are very resistant to change, and when presented with a new paradigm – such as collaborating over video – the instinct for many is to shoot it down.  Part of the problem is also the many unfulfilled promises of collaboration technology.  Too many organizations just try to just throw money at collaboration solutions without taking the time to figure out their firm’s actual needs.  And part of the problem is those outfitting rooms need to flip the priority of their concerns: the equipment that is in the room actually matters most for the people who aren’t in the room. When people walk into a conference room that provides a poor experience to that remote participant, that bad experience can affect their opinion of the whole collaboration technology paradigm.

To this day, some room technology providers boast about their systems with exaggerated claims, but in reality provide those very poor experiences.  Successful collaboration can’t take place when the audio is bad, the images are tiny because the room cameras don’t rapidly auto-frame, the ambient noise drowns out the communication, or – in the most basic examples – the system installed is both too hard to use and/or not compatible with the platform the other parties are using.   When these issues get in the way of the technology functioning, collaboration doesn’t happen.  Remote participants – either working from home or just in another office – need to be able to see and hear each other well and share content and drawings easily.  A webcam may work fine for the remote worker sitting at a home desk, but slapping one from some third party company into a soundbar and calling it a room system won’t help remote collaboration flourish like it can.  (When looking to purchase such systems, make sure that you actually experience them before deciding to invest.  Ask manufacturers if they have any side-by-side demonstration videos that show auto-framing, noise-blocking, and sound isolation like our acoustic fence.  Find out if they manufacture their component cameras and/or speakers, and if they don’t, be sure to double-check the actual specs from the company that does make them against the bragging of the firm reselling the components as if they are their own. )

In nearly every case, smarter working requires a blend of excellent technologies – both for the remote and in-office participants – and user training in non-technology matters – so employees don’t feel isolated, supervisors understand how to handle a remote workforce via the tools provided, and collaborating on documents or drawings from multiple locations is easy.

Whatever the specific and individual reasons for poor collaboration, I personally can no longer tolerate articles that say effective collaboration between people in different places is not possible.  I know they are just plain wrong.  I and thousands of my industry colleagues do it 100% effectively every day.

So as my delayed and miserable New Jersey Transit train inches its way toward Manhattan, taking long enough for me to write a blog, I feel some comfort in the fact that this is now the exception and not my daily experience.  It’s a genuine pleasure for me to share a meal with a client or colleague, and understand that the choice to join them in person was mine – and didn’t come from some ancient decree that I had to ‘go to work’ in a single, mammoth building – or didn’t come out of some regrettable experience caused by having the wrong technology installed in their conference rooms.   Work is what we do, not where we go.

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