Just 10 or 15 years ago, companies typically frowned upon telecommuting. Managers had a hard time telling if their subordinates were really on-task because there was no unobtrusive way to supervise them remotely. Executives worried about losing the “water cooler effect” – the name given to the productivity boost that occurs when workers unintentionally bump into each other throughout the day and happen to exchange progress reports and remind each other about deadlines and deliverables.
As someone who telecommutes from somewhere in the U.S. every day, most often from right here in Peoria, I can attest that when an entire company embraces unified communications technology the way that Sprint has, the concerns of yesteryear are moot. Modern UC technologies not only increase the productivity of today’s remote workers, I believe that the productivity of some teleworkers today is actually higher than that of office workers. I call it the “presence effect.”
At any given time, 24 hours a day, I can see who around the globe is “in their office,” whether their “door” is open or closed, or if they are on the phone or in a meeting. They can see that about me too. The more insight an employee has to the availability of their peers, the more productive they can be.
The water cooler effect expands with UC as well. My boss is in London and I have peers across America, Europe, and Asia. Today, I can stand at scores of water coolers all around the world simultaneously – not only those at my company – but those of any trading partner, supplier or customer that I am working with as well. The decorum of these virtual water coolers demands directness and succinctness, unlike the physical water coolers of yesteryear which often required pleasantries and small talk at both ends of every conversation. Not only does UC allow you to forego the “hellos” and “goodbyes,” but it can be seen as poor etiquette at times, especially when you are interrupting people who are in a meeting.
My latest innovation is “?”. When someone’s presence indicator shows “in a meeting”, they may be still be open to receiving an instant message or “chat” inquiry on their laptop. Rather than type “I know you are in a meeting, do you have a moment?” or ask them if they can multitask, I merely send a question mark. People who work with me know what that means – and they know it does not require a response if they actually don’t have time to take my question.
My Dad worked on a plant floor and the closest he ever came to telecommuting was explaining over the phone where to whack a machine with a sledge hammer to get it working again. My work is a little different. The raw materials are ideas and the outputs are bits and bytes. Thanks to seamless communications, in this brave new world of telecommuting, I can be updating a report on the Web, participating in a conference call, and whacking a few virtual machines with virtual sledge hammers …and I still have time for a couple of simultaneous water cooler conversations with people from Poughkeepsie to Prague.