Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Now here's a giant step backward

My neck is sore from shaking my head at Jonathan Weber's essay: "Virtual Insanity: Why Telecommuting is Tough for Small Companies." Weber, who heads the New West media company, insists:
I firmly believe that you should expect employees to show up for work, whenever possible, no matter what kind of company.

The reasons for this have nothing to do with checking that people are actually working. It's about efficient communications, building company culture and camaraderie, and sharing the daily bits of work and personal experiences that create a shared sense of purpose.

Mr. Weber, all due respect, but what kind of rose-colored glasses are you wearing? Do you really think that the fact that Jack can smell the tuna sandwiches Joanie eats for lunch every single day is the glue that creates a positive, productive company culture?

He continues:

For starters, all the telecommunications tools and document-sharing systems in the world are no substitute for the simple act of walking over to someone's desk and pointing to something on a screen or asking a question. It's almost always quicker than any technological alternative, and there's little room for confusion.

Okay, fair enough. It can be a more rapid means of answering a question. That said, I know plenty of freelancers and consultants who make themselves available to field questions after hours and on weekends. Where are your nine-to-fivers then?

Weber asserts that in-person meetings are also more productive:

And conference calls are so far inferior to face-to-face meetings that I barely bother with them at all. Rather than the collective engagement of a good meeting, you end up with people half-listening while they catch up on e-mail. Plus lots of awkward silences.

Collective engagement? Weber must attend different meetings than I've attended in the past, where people are rolling their eyes, glancing out the window, doodling and barely containing their frustration. Meetings suck. I'm not the only person who will tell you that. Oh, and people half-listening while they catch up on e-mail? As opposed to people who text-message their way through in-person meetings?

Weber adds:

The little day-to-day stuff can matter more than you think.
Yeah, like the meaningless water-cooler conversations, the coffee breaks, the gossip and office politics? You're telling me this doesn't affect morale, not to mention productivity?

He ends with a slight concession ... and a twist on that concession.

Obviously there are plenty of situations where you just have to suck it up and deal with these complexities. ... But do not make such compromises lightly. And when you do, try to find as many reasons as possible to get people together. A company retreat can be very useful even if it accomplishes no other purpose. If someone has a deal to work from home, ask them to come by the office as often as possible. Bring the out-of-towners to the home office whenever you can afford to.

Why? My most successful freelance engagements are those that rarely require me to see or speak to the client. I'm loyal as hell to these people because they recognize that they're not paying me to kibbitz, do lunch, or make idiotic small talk. They're paying me for a job, and believe me, if they do me the honor of allowing me to work from my office of choice, they'll get even more than they expected.


robp said...

"Company culture" - his whole concept's built on an oxymoron.

It doesn't sound like his opinions are based on anything but his other opinions - no studies citing differences in productivity, etc.

But what's to be expected from someone who considers group meetings productive?

Allison Landa said...

Not to mention that he seems to assume what's (questionably) good for his company is good for all businesses. No statistics, no case studies, not even anything cited from his own experience other than "I didn't like flying to Europe to meet with the rest of the team" or whatever.

I don't think I'll be looking for a job at New West any time soon.