Sir Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group, is someone I pay attention to because of his commitment to the kind of business and human ideals I generally like (fun, trust, engagement, innovation, etc.). He posted a new blog post this morning on how working life isn’t 9-5 anymore. As he says, “The world is connected” and so he likes to give people the freedom to work where they want. I have explored this model, gently, in the Registrar’s Office at Trinity Western University, and have found some success with it. There are some issues he alludes to that I want to unpack a little from our experience.
Our work in the Registrar’s Office has made a dramatic shift over the past 6 years. So much of what we used to do has been made obsolete by the internet and our desire to empower the people we serve. For example, we used to require students and faculty members to sign paper Add/Drop forms when they wanted to make course changes, which were then submitted in person to a clerk in the Registrar’s Office who would enter the information into our student information system. This meant line-ups of people and pile-ups of paper. The clerks were primarily a human link between the paper form and the database. Since we moved our Add/Drop process online and empowered students and faculty to be able to make these changes electronically, it means we no longer need clerks to be the human link.
The dramatic shift we’ve experienced is a shift from a paper-pusher to a problem-solver/consultant. But that doesn’t mean our staff can work anywhere. We value face-to-face customer service as well as mediated (online, phone, etc) service and self-help service, so our consultant staff have to have office hours. But we have experimented with connected work for the staff who don’t have to be immediately available for face-to-face service. These staff can work from home and we have set expectations of connectivity and availability by email, phone, and other means and it’s working well. We tend to manage these staff through outcomes. For example, some of them must produce a classroom schedule a month before the start of next semester. They don’t have to be in the office to do this, but it must be completed on time. We trust our staff and they have responded with trust-worthy behaviour.
However, one issue has been obvious to us, which Sir Richard doesn’t address. We have a strong office culture of teamwork and support. There are very few tasks that don’t require input and collaboration. We have found it a challenge to maintain this apart from face-to-face work. Work that is mediated by a phone or email isn’t the same. It just isn’t.
It’s not really a matter of trust, although that is a factor. It’s mostly a matter of “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.” We’ve deliberately set up our office space to be an open-concept to help build a sense of teamwork. When a team member isn’t in that space, others fill it. Unless the person who is working elsewhere has a specific role that no-one else can do, it’s easier to turn to the person next to you to ask your question than it is to pick up the phone or type out an email or send a text message. The old leadership concept of “Management by Walking Around” carries the same message. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked past someone’s office or desk only to hear them say, “Oh, there you are, Grant! Can I talk to you about…?”
So we have some work to do to overcome this, especially in our media rich, overstimulated workplaces. If you are available and it’s easy to connect with you, I will. If not… “Squirrel!”
So as much as I like Sir Richard’s ideas, there are still some issues to be worked out that depend on our office culture, our service needs, and our expectations. For example, Branson says, “Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.” My response? It’s nice work, if you can get it…
How have you seen this work in your organization? Please leave a comment and let me know.