A Case For Remote Workers

Remote working is a trending topic with Google Founders talking about how it will end the 40-hour work weekMarissa Mayer’s no work-from-home edict, and Tony Shae’s focus on increasing collisions by having workers live/work in a company community. I think remote working presents a huge opportunity for companies. 

Caveat, this post focuses on work that does not require in-person collaboration as a necessity (e.g. home construction). Also, as context, I’ve managed remote workers for many years and I’ve experienced a proliferation of tools coming to market to help facilitate this practice. I currently work at Oracle where more than half my team is remote and where I work remotely quite often.

Working from home with 5-month old laptop-holder :-)

Working from home with 5-month old laptop-holder 🙂

This post does not focus on how to manage remote teams rather it makes a case for how optimizing for remote work can be a competitive advantage. From where I stand (as a partial-remote worker) I see the biggest benefit as a quality of life improvement. As the father of a 5-month old, working from home allows me to have lunch with my little boy once in a while. That’s priceless. The benefit for my employer -or for any employer for that matter- is a bit more complicated.

Before spelling out this benefit, I’ll address a common fear that’s associated with remote work that should not be. It basically boils down to managers feeling like they cannot measure work product if the employee is not within sight. In my opinion this has absolutely nothing to do with remote workers. In my experience, I’ve seen non-remote workers squander time effortlessly while in the workplace (e.g. Facebook, shopping, etc). You’re deluding yourself if you think you can “see” work being done by watching workers.

Having a great system to measure productivity is a pre-requisite for management regardless of where workers are in my opinion. For my wife’s business, we use Asana to manage projects, productivity, and collaboration. I think it’s a great solution for supporting remote teams.

There are a couple of key benefits for the company including an increased pool of potential employees and the ability to acquire talent affordably. Though I don’t have great data to support this claim, My own experience is that I work a bit longer and with less interruptions when I’m at home. ConnectSolutions shares some data on this based on surveying. I’d also suggest that remote workers may be even more loyal due to the quality of life benefit. Either way, something’s working here because 40% more workers are doing so from home in the last 10 years.

On the topic of productivity, I have a nuanced perspective. I agree that when I’m at home working uninterrupted I get more of a certain type of work done. I’d suggest that this is most pronounced with work that I can do on my own (e.g. tasks I own, email correspondence, solo-creative work, etc). However, I think remote workers miss out on the most productive interactions with other workers that often occur spontaneously at the water cooler. This is what Tony Shae is optimizing for.

Companies can address this in-part by bringing employees together on a regular basis. At Oracle, my entire team comes together at least twice a year for highly productive “onsite” meetings. Even with the cost of travel this does not come close to offsetting the cost benefit of remote workers. Granted this will never produce the kind of gains as a system optimized for collisions but it will offset some of the gains. Companies that are optimized for remote work make up the difference by affording more workers on the same budget.

In conclusion, I think happy employees working within a disciplined system for measuring productivity can be a competitive advantage for many companies. I do think that it requires a unique approach to management and the application of solutions to manage productivity but more and more managers are gaining that experience today. I hope this is a useful framework for exploring if remote work is appropriate for your company.

Pick Your North Star

I’m writing to share a simple tactic that can help drive alignment, communicate a common sense of direction, validate decisions on a daily basis, and even inspire your team. I started thinking about this tactic years ago at Adaptive Path but it came back into focus in a book that I recently read called The Power of Habit Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. I found this book to be a great read and recommend it.

I think this is a good follow up to my last post about leadership and setting expectations as well. So here it is. Picking your north star is really about setting a mid/long-term direction for your company or group. It must meet four basic characteristics:

  1. You must be able to see it from just about anywhere
  2. It must stay in the same place
  3. It must be far enough away that you’re not going to get all the way there anytime soon
  4. It must be aspirational

An Example From Manufacturing

The first example comes from the book I mentioned above and is based on the story of Paul O’Neill who picked “worker safety” as the north star for Alcoa when he joined the company. Here’s a short excerpt from a Business Week book review:

When Alcoa (AA) introduced Paul O’Neill as its Chief Executive Officer in 1987, investors thought the new boss was pulling a prank on them. Standing on a stage, O’Neill did not speak about increasing market share or earnings forecasts. Instead, he pointed out the nearest emergency exits. “In the unlikely event of a fire or other emergency,” he said, “you should calmly walk out, go down the stairs to the lobby, and leave the building.” O’Neill’s sole focus that day was on how to make a habit of worker safety.

What O’Neill knew was that in the process of eliminating injuries in his factories -which incidentally make aluminium in a process that is not exactly low risk- he would drive many other positive changes. In fact he improved  plant efficiency, employee morale, union relations, and the bottom line. This is because his north star had a surrounding constellation of  business goals that would also be met if he headed towards it.

An Example From Development

For the past year and a half I’ve been using an application called Asana to manage my team. It’s a simple task management tool comparable to MindJet Tasks, Pivotal Tracker, Trello and others. Though I don’t know if this is an “official” north star, I’ve heard and read that Asana is focused on “speed” …. and I see it represented in their service. When I say “speed” I mean it in a couple of contexts.

In the first case the user experience in Asana is very fast which means that you can enter tasks into the system faster than any other solution I’ve seen. The’ve also made the user experience visually light but information rich which means it’s quick to parse a large amount of information on the screen whether you’re in a browser or their mobile app.

The other context has to do with development. Before starting development on the service the team at Asana created a development framework called Luna which was designed to make product development faster (among other things). And, if you look at the rate of development compared to the size of the team working on Asana it’s pretty impressive how much they’ve built in a short time.

When you orient around a north star it has the potential to impact all aspect of your business from the front-end to the back-end. Again, lots of associated benefits cascade down from a single north star.

Finding Inspiration

Finding your north star may not be easy but it has huge potential for your team because it simplifies the process of validating choices on a daily basis. It also serves as a single guiding principle that every one can align to, communicate about, and celebrate. I think of a north star as being surrounded by a constellation of supporting stars that compliment it. I realize that I’m pushing the metaphor here, but the gravity that holds constellations together tends to look a lot like a unique differentiator.

Asana’s focus on speed has allowed them to make inroads with consumers (Asana has avoided industry specialization). On the other hand, Pivotal Tracker’s focus on Agile has lead to significant traction in the development arena. And, MindJet’s solution with a unique integration to their planning tool is well suited to business management. In short, there is no shortage of north stars to choose from and in addition to all the other benefits I’ve outlined above you’ll get a differentiated product or service.

Can you think of other companies that are aligning around a north star? What are they? is it working? Any skeptics out there?

The Nokia Ideas Camp & Thoughts On Innovation

I recently had the pleasure of attending Nokia’s annual Ideas Camp in Santa Cruz California where I spent almost three days rubbing shoulders with some super smart, fun, and inspiring people. Besides making some great connections, getting feedback on QuickRak, and playing quite a bit of ping pong, I learned a ton about Nokia. In fact, almost a third of the people at the event were from Nokia and the event was intended to expose the Nokia team to leading thinkers in the technology space.

To be clear, there was not a specific or clearly articulated goal of the Ideas Camp. Instead it was focused on creating a space where ideas could cross-pollinate. That said, key folks on the Nokia leadership team (such as Marco Argenti VP, Media, MS Services and Tero Ojanpera EVP, Services,Group Executive Board) were on hand to share their perspective about what opportunities are open to Nokia, how they’ve been approaching innovation, what challenges they’re facing, and to solicit feedback.

Keep in mind that Nokia is the largest manufacturer of mobile devices in the world and that they’ve taken a very sensible and diversified approach to innovation. They run camps like this one, participate in many industry events, and spend more than four times what Apple does on research and development. But as is often the case, being the biggest can actually be an impediment to being the most innovative. I heard the following question many times at the event, “why is the experience of using a Nokia so far behind that of using an iPhone?”

I’d like to try and address this question based on what I learned at the event and share some of my thinking since then. Here are some of my assumptions going into the exploration:

About Innovation

  • Structure Enables Innovation – Innovation works best as a practice that produces lots of ideas through dialogue. There are lots of innovation techniques to choose from, but the best innovation environments balance a portfolio of techniques against the culture of an organization.
  • Diversify Innovation – A solid set of innovation techniques includes a diverse set of approaches. Diversity can also be applied to your specific techniques but also on a higher level with in an organization such that teams of people approach design challenges from different perspectives. Investing broadly is one way of stabilizing the flow of innovation while increasing the likelihood of long-term results.
  • Enculturate Innovation – Innovation practice must be baked into a culture or an organization because it is a “way of thinking”. In short, innovation cannot just be “turned on” because it is a cultural practice that reliably spins off new idea-combinations.

About Nokia

  • Nokia’s Focus – Nokia is still ramping up it’s focus on mobile computing devices. (i.e. what many refer to as smartphones … though Nokia rightly dislikes this term). The fact is that while they’ve produced the most reliable and affordable phones in the world, these phones do not offer the most advanced technology or user experience.
  • Nokia’s Legacy – A significant portion of Nokia’s research and development goes to maintaining existing products and services rather than on developing new offerings.
  • Nokia’s Fragmentation – Nokia is a large organization with research and development taking place at three or more separate facilities around the world.

So Nokia is a unique organization with some significant challenges. To be successful, they  must shift some of their focus towards innovation, away from legacy products and services, and look for opportunities to drive alignment across the organization. In terms of the opportunity, I think it was Tero that said “Nokia is like a friend you’d have over for dinner.” In other words, Nokia hasn’t done anything bad. Maybe they haven’t blown people away, but most people would be very open to giving Nokia a chance if they came to the table with something they were really proud of.

Which brings us to the topic of how to structure innovation at an organization like Nokia. At the event I heard that the research and development efforts at Nokia were extensive but fragmented, that there may be good ideas inside Nokia that are not being surfaced, that Nokia doesn’t have the internal culture to create a rival to the iPhone, and finally that setting up a skunk works would threaten the internal research and development organization. It’s this last point that struck me as a problem if it is in fact true.

In the diagram above, I’ve tried to demonstrate that internal teams should NOT be afraid of skunk works or of crowd sourcing as these are two approaches that may be essential to getting unstuck (if Nokia is in fact stuck). Clearly, they are different but they do have some things in common besides their ultimate goal. They both tend to sit behind a firewall of sorts that provides the cultural autonomy to think outside the box. They both have the ability to move fast and tend to employ smaller agile teams.

I suppose on defining factor in choosing one of these approaches is whether or not the project in question benefits from being public. If it doesn’t (even with legal protections) skunk works may be the only option. I won’t get into the pros/cons of each approach further, but I didn’t hear from Nokia that they’re whole heatedly trying either. One thing I did hear from a former Apple designer, however, was that Apple’s iOS development team was quite small and that this played a significant part in it’s ability to deliver a delightful experience. So, why hasn’t Nokia delivered anything close to the iPhone, I’d say it has something to do with the way they’ve optimized/structured their innovation practices.

In conclusion, I should emphasize that internal teams should manage these approaches because they understand the constraints best. Managing also means there are clear measures of success in place and a structured means of reviewing performance. And these approaches are not JUST for getting unstuck, like any discipline they take practice before you’ll get the most value from them. Finally, Nokia should not try to reinvent the iPhone, they should try and come up with something uniquely Nokia. I think that something will have a less stylized experience that feel more transparent as compared to the iPhone. One benefit of this is that could appeal to the much broader market that Nokia has been serving for years.