There’s this huge momentum towards fluidity at work – to remote working, to portfolio careers, job sharing, the rise of ronin / freelancing, work life balance, Skype, yammer and the Cloud and so on.
For us as individuals, as workers, there’s lots to like in all of this. We are unleashed! I can work from anywhere! When I want, how I want, with who I want (and so the dreamy hype goes).
And there are – of course – tons of benefits for organisations and businesses too who have been keen to capitalise on these.
But in this working world, if we are all remote and virtual and part of loosely formed networks around projects that quickly form and then dissolve, then where is home?
Where is the centre of gravity that binds and anchors and provides that sense of HQ, of the mothership?
We know what we gain with fluidity, but what do we lose when this base goes, both as workers and business owners?
This all occurred to me after a week where I spoke with two different Managing Directors of consulting firms, both much more fluid than NixonMcInnes.
One firm was entirely geographically distributed across the States, with 20 people peppered across the whole country. Their consultants were mid- to late-career, so pretty grown up, experienced business people and the consultancy operated a reasonably traditional ‘eat what you kill’ mode of rewards. No central staff, no support or admin people not earning fees, no geographical centre of operations. Certainly makes sense from a financial bottom-line point of view.
But not everything about the consultancy was traditional – like us they do some more radical stuff in how they work together. Their MD told me that they tried to get everyone together three times a year. THREE TIMES, I thought, as I thought of how frustrated I get when we struggle to get a decent turn out for weekly team meetings, given all of the important, useful stuff there is to relay and the constant challenge to satisfy people’s desire to know what’s going on.
The other MD runs a consulting firm also in Europe that does have a centre of gravity, an office with a small central staff and then consultants distributed in different countries, all working from wherever they want to work from. But we were talking about how that might not always be a good idea commercially.
The third thing rattling round in the same tumble-dryer of background thinking was the 37 Signals case study of distributed team, connected by digital tools, and their Meetings are Toxic mantra. They are world class in what they do, they seem to do ok without lots of face to face meetings – theoretically one of the key benefits of a central HQ.
And these conversations and thoughts made me think about what we’ve been doing with NixonMcInnes.
We’ve been deliberately developing a real physical heart, and so have invested our office space, in having administrative and marketing support, and in developing a cohort of people living and working in the same county, and almost entirely in the same city.
It’s like we are walking directly against the tide. And that’s confusing (although not unusual for us).
I wonder what organisational benefits we derive by having a home. Or are we just doing it because of the preferences of the people in the organisation, and if so what does that cost us and do we acknowledge that?
Also, do we gain competitive advantage? If we compete with a distributed firm, are we more likely to win or is the playing field level apart from the extra financial resources they have saved from central costs?
In theory, I would expect benefits to show up in areas like these:
– in trust, resilience and therefore quality under pressure in the relationships between team members leading to client retention, referrals and project profitability
– in people’s happiness and engagement at work (even as I write this one, I’m starting to question it) leading to talent acquisition and retention
– in communication between team members which then drives quality to clients and profits for the company through saved time (again, I can quickly think of counter arguments…)
– in pitching for clients business, and them having the comfort of the physical tangible sense of a team and a business (having seen the networked agency model many times I am actually more confident of this point for the time being though I think it will change over time)
Are there others?
Are these flawed, am I drinking my own Kool-aid?
The thing is, I know I want to be part of something and to me personally I like the physical part of that, the offline, the home. And I believe others do too.
But there is a tidal force here. And a string of benefits as well as costs that we are only beginning to understand.
Given all of this, I do wonder with some interest how the traditional physical centre of gravity at the heart of an organisation will change in this next generation of work.