In the virtual organisation, where is home?

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.

5 comments

  1. Lorne

    I agree with the half of you that feels like it needs a home Will.

    My ideal of an agency/company (based on my previous biz) involves a woodburning esse for heating, desks sourced from local timber and made ourselves, food that we cook and eat together (sannys that we ban) and meetings/drinks/experiences as often as possible to ensure that we are more friends than colleagues…it makes business sense but more importantly it makes human sense.

    Compare the happiness of an impoverished worker in any slum community anywhere in the world with the remote ‘hotel based’, ‘wireless singularity’ of a rich consultant.

    Stick with your heart and fight to be a family. Of course this can extend beyond Brighton but is essentially held together by it.

    (See my tweet of oak desks in construction today for new Lewes office :))

  2. Hanne Klintoe

    I think the main thing not taken into consideration above is, that people are different. We have different temperaments, different needs, different ways of working, and different functions in any workplace – virtual or physical. Virginia Woods needed ‘a room of her own’ to work. Bruce Chatwin had the ‘homing instinct of a migrating bird – a compulsion to travel and a compulsion to return’ and therefore only wanted ‘a place to hang his hat’. And always wrote the main part of each new book in a new location nowhere near the hat hook. And much like remote workers you describe above. Fair enough, these were writers and I, who share their sentiments, am too – perhaps writers are just loners. But that still proves the point that workers are not all the same. I think the main part of the world’s professional work force need a place to belong, just like Lorne describes. Need a team, a physical identity, a professional home. But not all. And for the latter, the new possibilities are excellent, as are the savings that companies who employ them experience.

    I think the possibilities of the virtual workplace (a load of nonsense seeing as the individual still has his/her butt planted on a chair *somewhere*(!) but the term will have to do for now) are fantastic if used in the right way. I love that we can reduce the number of physical meetings, and that businesses can save XX amount of transatlantic flights a year – not least for environmental reasons. And I love that I can have a close working relationship with someone in San Francisco without leaving my office – as a foreigner’s input can only broaden my perspective.

    But I think the virtual organisation is the story of the space shuttle all over again. We’re living in a time where we need to realize, that just because we keep inventing stuff that enables us to do what we earlier thought was impossible, doesn’t mean that we *should* do it. So just like the fact that we can travel to the moon doesn’t mean that we all should (are you listening Branson?), I don’t think our possibility of making all organisations virtual with the costsavings you describe means that we should convert all businesses to virtual organisations. I think it means that we should be aware of the possibilities and use the elements available where necessary or beneficial. Generally people need people. Not to talk to. Not to sniff each other’s sandwiches. Just to be around and recognize. People need to belong. And to belong most need a steady point of reference in terms of human relations and physical surroundings. Then they feel safe. A sound feeling to invest in, however cheap the cloud.

  3. Simon Mustoe

    Hi Will,

    Maybe it depends on the type of work a business does or, even more granular, the nature of a particular task.

    Knowledge can be transferred relatively effectively through a distributed model, but it’s harder to foster creativity and ideas this way (I would argue).

    I found myself wondering what type of work the consulting firm that you spoke to does, and whether it naturally lends itself well to distributed working.

    Being in the same game as you, I can’t really imagine working entirely remotely. Most of the time I quite like other people, and the best work definitely seems to emerge through collaboration. That said, for certain specific tasks, working in isolation also has its benefits.

  4. Victoria Richardson (@victoriajane)

    Hi Will,
    I’ve spent a fair chunk of my career in the ” remote ‘hotel based’, ‘wireless singularity’ ” model (to borrow the useful polarisation from Lorne) so wanted to answer some of your questions about trust and communication.

    I trust people I work with based on whether they do what they have said they will do, to at least the agreed standard, within the agreed time frame. This may sound cold and a bit one dimensional – but I don’t really need to trust them to do anything else. I have worked on projects with people I know better and trust in a broader sense (like I’d let them look after my children) and I don’t think the project deliverable has ever been better for it.

    I use Skype and screen share in place of a white board for collaboration and it works really well. Those tingly “wow we just had a really cool idea that the client will love” moments happen with those tools as well as in a room. I am starting to feel that the packaged remote communications around projects help with focus and transparency too – because they force discipline and structure.

    From Australia I have just finished working on a project for a UK consultancy. I worked with a consultant in Japan (whom I have never met) and one in the UK (whom I have). The client loved the project and the location of our distributed team was a plus – because the project required primary research in different countries. I know this won’t be the case for the vast majority of projects that many people work on – but my main point is that the project was no poorer because of our physical location.

    A last note on my happiness as a worker – I am very happy : ) I get to work on really interesting projects, with some really smart people in other countries, fitting my work hours around the care for my primary school aged children. It feels like a privilege to be able to do this.

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