Face Time

from Matt Ehlman
April 10, 2013
Rapid City, South Dakota

James Surowiecki’s article “Face Time” (The New Yorker) about Yahoo’s decision to end its then-revolutionary practice of allowing employees to telecommute virtually has been mentioned frequently in the media over the last weeks, and indeed among our circles here at The Numad Group, where even our company name is based on the notion of “the new nomad” (as The Economist referred to virtual telecommuters like us). As happens frequently when I read articles regarding business management decisions, when I read this article my mind immediately jumped to how these decisions relate to (or not) nonprofit management decisions. 

Surowiecki’s article focuses on the policies regarding telecommuting for those corporations that have the means to bring employees together in one location. There are many points in Surowiecki’s article that would be interesting to explore further (such as the fact that John Seely Brown’s time as Director of the Xerox research PARC ended in 2000, and since then he has sat on the board of directors of Polycom, whose products are used by the nation’s educational institutions to build the most important resource out country has--its youth--by increasing access to education through virtual technologies). However, to focus on one, my point here is that trust, relationships, and “intimate” communications (the factors Surowiecki cites as being crucial components for productivity that are not present in virtual environments) are indeed happening, and happening productively and with quality, even without the benefit of “face time.” 

These interactions are indeed happening more and more, and even more naturally, in the virtual environment, using the array of technological tools available to today’s organizations and employees. Moreover, for philanthropic organizations with limited resources that struggle to bring specific skills and talent to organizations in remote regions of the world--remote access and the ability to work from home is simply a must, or otherwise those quality skills, crucial for successfully achieving the mission of the organization, will simply be absent. Additionally, nonprofit organizations have been successfully raising funds across the country through many more avenues of communication than just face time for years. 

My argument, then, is not that we do not need face time, but rather, for virtual telecommuting to be successful, there needs to be greater accountability from the employee and the employer, and the way that accountability has been traditionally articulated and used to measure success may not be adequate in the case of virtual offices.  Our experience at The Numad Group suggest the beginnings of a few key points that seem necessary for the success of virtual offices:

Find ways to build the kind of trust and intimate conversation that Surowiecki references as so important to a culture of productivity. For example, build time into meetings for what we would otherwise think of as chit-chat. 
Ask open-ended questions about “how things are going.” 
Use the full array of technologies available for communicating quickly and effectively with each other--email, text, IM, phone, video-conference. 
Communicate successes (and challenges) to each other in real time--not just when a meeting is scheduled.
Keep employees informed about the bigger picture, again, even when no meeting is scheduled for doing so. As things change, communicate that change.
Consider the culture of your own organization and employees, and make building the ease of informal communication one of the missions of the organization--not just productivity.

Working from home will be one of the most important resources in the United States as people search for life balance, as well as for impact with organizations and causes from which they may be geographically removed. It seems that instead of trying to fight the trajectory of a society that is increasingly connected by wireless technology, we should be forward looking and adapting to the workers’ motivation to be at home. Instead of claiming that the model of virtual telecommuting is not working, let’s determine what the challenges are, and work strategically to overcome those challenges so that the clear benefits can still be achieved.

The nonprofit sector has an opportunity to offer talented individuals chances to work flexibly and make a difference using the technology available today. The success to be found for the nonprofit or for-profit organization with this model is not in how or whether the model works, but whether people are motivated to achieve their highest good in their work. And that probably will not be changed if employees have to register their attendance in the office in order to prove the value of their work.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2013/03/18/130318ta_talk_surowiecki