Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Post That's Actually About Telecommuting (Sort Of)

Did you know that Zoe's Mom is my colleague? Ms. Musing's husband also works with me. You didn't? Well, I wouldn't, either, if there didn't happen to be this organization chart on our company's intranet site that includes their names on it. You see, I never run into either one of them in the hallway. We don't chat with each other in the kitchen while heating up our lunches. We don't join each other at after-work happy hours, and when we attend meetings together, I never see them. In fact, I have absolutely no idea they are there, because none of us ever speaks up in company-wide meetings.

I am, these days, most definitely finding myself in a telecommuting slump, which has me thinking about the whole nature of telecommuting and what it is doing in terms of company loyalty. The job is great. I'm still enjoying what I am doing, but I am feeling completely disconnected. This is an odd feeling. Telecommuting is not new for me. I've been doing this now for nearly five years. It's just that, in the old days, I worked for a company where we telecommuters were a small minority. I went up to the office about once a month. We had departmental meetings on a regular basis, and I traveled to conferences and sales meetings with my colleagues.

Now that I work for a company that is probably somewhere around 50/50 onsite/telecommuters, I have done none of that. I have not even met everyone in my own department, let alone met people in other departments. In fact, I haven't seen my boss since I began this job. Fortunately, I knew a lot of my colleagues before I started here (including my boss). I can't imagine how disconnected I'd be feeling if I didn't. Still, I was speaking with one of these colleagues the other day (I feel myself practically leaping at the phone when it rings and the caller i.d. announces it's one of my colleagues. Those of you who know how much I hate to talk on the phone know how bizarre that is), and I said, "It's weird. I have absolutely no clue what the culture at this company is like."

It's an interesting situation companies that have embraced telecommuting are in right now. I am sure it saves them a bundle not to have to house all these people in one place (especially since many companies tend to be located in places where real estate ain't cheap). However, the costs of bringing everyone together when they are all scattered all over the country could end up outweighing those savings if companies aren't careful. It makes sense not to do that too often. Still, it doesn't do much to encourage company loyalty if companies make no effort to get to know their employees and to have their employees get to know them.

Of course, we've been shying away from the notion of "company loyalty" for years. No one expects to stay with any one company for very long anymore. Long gone are the days when people retired from companies or other places of employment (as both Bob's and my fathers did) proudly proclaiming 25+ years of service to the place. People gawk at you now if you've been somewhere for ten years.

I happen to think that's a huge mistake places of employment have made. Yes, I can see the benefits of bringing in new, fresh faces from other places every so often, keeping a company from remaining stagnant, but I can also see the benefits of having those around who have a little historical knowledge. Ideally, a company would have plenty of both sorts of employees, and they would all learn from each other. Employers don't bother to get to know their employees at all anymore, and employees all seem to have the attitude of "This sucks, but I can stand it, until it starts to suck even more, and then I'll just go somewhere else." How can you expect to build a good customer base when you can't even build a good employee base, if your employees don't care enough to help out with that old "word-of-mouth" piece of the business? But in this new telecommuting age, it seems, we've gone beyond not caring about company loyalty. We don't even care anymore whether or not employees are getting to know each other.

I don't claim to be someone who has much business sense. However, I have often thought that running a business takes more common sense than anything else. It makes common sense to me that if a business wants to succeed it first needs to create a work place that people love, a place where they make friends and develop loyalty, a place where they want to put their best creative energies. It makes common sense not to merely give lip service to "our employees being our greatest assets" (which translates for most companies into, "we spend more money on you than on any other part of the business"), but also to treat employees as such. That means caps on CEO's salaries and bonuses. It means shared bonuses for everyone when the company does well. It means being thrilled if you are making a profit and not expecting that profit to be obscene. It means doing everything within a company's power not to lay off those who work hard and bring energy to the company and making sure people who deserve them get raises every year (even in tough financial times. People want to feel wanted and appreciated, and if they aren't, a company suffers, which isn't a good thing for a company during bad financial times). And yes, it means letting those who want to telecommute, do so, but it also means making sure they feel a part of the company. What is it that keeps companies from doing all this? Greed, of course. Those with the power and money want more money and power for themselves, and the easiest way to get that is to treat their employees badly.

However, I like to think that running businesses the greedy way ultimately runs them into the ground. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure it's why so many businesses are faltering now. (I know. I know. Unfortunately, there are plenty of businesses that are succeeding with the greedy model -- did someone say Walmart? -- to prove me wrong, but I do wonder how long they will last in the long run.) I am convinced that companies that treat their employees well and whose executives don't get too greedy translate into companies that grow their customer bases. I happen to be someone who, despite the fact I'm not real big on those kinds of places (because they overwhelm me) decided she wanted to support Costco when she found out how well they treat their employees. Likewise, Wegman's Grocery Store. And, you know, I was a fan of Ben and Jerry's before I heard how great it is to work for them, but I became even more of a fan once I heard that.

I am not lumping my own company in with the Walmarts of the world. I am a very happy employee thus far. However, working here has made me wonder a lot about a future world of businesses whose majority of employees are telecommuters. I mean, why shouldn't that future happen? There is really not much need anymore for big buildings to which people commute long distances merely to sit at desks and do something on a computer that they could just as easily do from home. I just hope that it doesn't lead to even more greed and a "I've got mine, who cares about you, buddy?" mentality as people become more and more disconnected from their places of employment and their colleagues.


litlove said...

Mister Litlove's grandfather was an entrepreneurial type and he wrote a management book promoting the ethical company - one that made sure its employees were treated with fairness, understanding and reassurance. He was a terrible old showoff in person, but I liked him for that book alone. I also think that the better the workplace is, the more secure and recognised employees feel, the better that business will do. It's human nature - loyalty is a superpower.

mandarine said...

There's no reason why a telecommuting company could not set up some sort of 'second-life' virtual workplace that represents the kind of spirit they want to encourage. With virtual offices and desks we could customize, and virtual coffee machines and patios you'd connect to when you have your pause and make your cup of tea, just - you know - to hang out with colleagues (or their avatars - how about having tea with a big red furry cat ?)

Bob said...

Loved this post, Emily, knowing, between the lines, you were referencing some of the good years we shared at the same publishing company, the one I ran for more than 25 years, my being one of those people from the “long gone days” of dedication to one job. Of course, that was an individual choice as throughout my working career I suffered with some people who were eager to find fault with the employer, blaming their own shortcomings (like being just downright lazy) on something other than themselves. I reference that in one of my early blog entries:

Nonetheless, I agree, and tried to put into action when I ran our publishing company that the employee was REALLY our most important asset. I always felt I worked as much for my colleagues as I did for the company’s shareholders and our customers as well. We shared in our success or failures so we all felt we could not tolerate failures. Having never been a telecommuter, I imagine some dynamics have changed but not the basic principle of working together towards a common goal, fostering a sense of community, and sharing in the financial success of the business as well. Those businesses that fail to engage and reward their employees should be doomed to failure.

Courtney said...

Goodness, we are channeling one another again. Sam and I were having a very similar conversation over the weekend - I work for a company that really doesn't care, on an individual basis, for its employees much at all while he works for an organization so astounding and compassionate we are both incredibly loyal to it. We've been discussing the different qualities of each, as well as what I consider some inherent discrimination in my company. Great post!

Stefanie said...

Great post Emily! I agree with on all that you've said. I'm with Mandarine in thinking that a Second Life sort of scenario could be set up for companies that have a large number of telecomuters like yours. We are actually discussing computer mediated communication in school this week and a study in an article that I am currently reading has found that groups can work together at a distance sometimes even better than ones face-to-face but there has to be an element of trust established first by getting to know each other through socializing and being able to connect a face and a person to the text in the email.

ZoesMom said...

I've had a lot of these thoughts myself and I hate the fact that we work for the same company and NEVER interact. I feel like I'm missing out sometimes. However, there are so many aspects of telecommuting that I have come to really appreciate. It is a trade-off.

BTW, I'm always available at the Instant Messenger watercooler!

See you soon!