Thursday, February 28, 2013

The limits of Virtuality

The management edict to ban telecommuting a Yahoo has stirred up quite a controversy. It seems a bit ironic for an Internet company to admit that telecommuting isn't working for them. Kind of like an oil company saying that the industrial revolution was all a big mistake and we should go back to animal & slave power.

But on second thought maybe things are not as black and white. I have spent quite a few years working on systems to make communication and collaboration easier and more frictionless, often collaborating with people 6-12 timezones away. And my social network is equally spread-out across the world. One should think that I should have figured out remote interaction by now.

The reality is that despite high-speed networks, cloud-based collaboration tools and high-quality video-conferencing, remote collaboration still is surprisingly hard and (co-)location still matters. Without any obvious reason, the workers of the post-industrial knowledge economy, seem to physically cluster even stronger than when the natural location of steel, coal, farmland natural harbors or waterways dictated the location of industries: computer engineers are disproportionally in Silicon Valley, musicians in Nashville, advertising agencies, fashion designers or investment bankers in New York or film and TV people in Los Angeles. If creative/knowledge workers could work from anywhere in the world, why don't we?

For one, timezones are a killer. We still tend to be awake during the natural day-time, wherever in the world we are physically located, even if that means that the people at the other end of the world we are trying collaborate are asleep. Trying to find a few hours of overlap may require sacrifices and unnatural behavior, like working during the night.

It is true that networked communication and collaboration tools have become amazingly powerful and effective of the last few decades, specially with the explosive development of the Internet. But even with these sophisticated tools, we can only collaborate well, once we know and trust each other and we know what we want to accomplish together. Establishing a close, trusting relationship remotely is still rather challenging.

Even video-conferences, the most immersive and sensual form of remote interaction, are typically scheduled, limited time interaction that are purposeful and problem oriented. The participants on a video-conference tend to be there with a mission and agenda to solve some stated problem at head and the mode of interaction is often formal if not a bit confrontational. Such video meetings maybe be a good setting to resolve a small, tactical problem, but not for getting to know each other, building trust or coming up with a broad common vision.

Geographically split teams inevitably form cliques, due to the uneven flow of information and the very different intensity of the daily interactions that are possible locally and remotely. It takes a conscious and non-trivial effort to keep "the other side" in the loop on decisions that have been made locally in informal discussions and inevitably we tend to sometimes underestimate the contributions of the other, remote participants. The only way this can be avoided is if no two people in a team a physically collocated  but depending on the nature of the project, this could come at a tremendous loss of efficiency. The sense of under-appreciation is probably the worst for single remote workers attached to an otherwise centralized team.

The irony of modern telecommunication is that while it allows us to work (somewhat haphazardly) across great distances, it has not reduced the need to travel and meet each other in person - maybe it has even increased that need.

While I daily use email, IM video conferencing and all kinds of distributed collaborative tools to work with people across continents, I still have to travel several times per year to meet some of them in person. I don't typically travel to get work done, but to build and maintain personal relationships, exchange ideas and establish a common culture on the basis of which we can then again get some stuff done for a while. For the sake of productivity it also helps to structure and partition projects in away to minimize the need tight coordination across locations and allow teams in each location to work as much as possible as an isolated unit.

At least for some types of innovative and creative projects, the best ideas and inspirations often come from completely unplanned and informal interactions. From chance encounters, hanging out, having a drink and chat about god and the world. It almost seems that the effectiveness of a creative cluster can be measured by its ability to efficiently spread gossip. A campus buzzing with bright and energetic students is one of the reasons why top-class universities still offer a great advantage, even in day where courses could as well be taken online.

The key to better remove collaboration would not be even more effective communication and collaboration tools, but a virtual water-cooler to emulate the daily intra-office gossip. Social networks and their frictionless sharing of seemingly irrelevant information, maybe be a step in this direction. But having our centers of life far apart in different continents, cultures and languages also makes it harder to have a social rapport as we might not have much in common to gossip about.

From my work experience on large, complex projects, I value the flexibility of being theoretically able to work from anywhere, even though I hardly ever do. As well as working for an organization which measures performance based on results and not based on physical presence behind a desk from 9-5. But I also feel that I benefit a lot from the daily opportunity of direct human interaction within the immediate project team as well as less regular but often stimulating chance encounters across a campus with lots of interesting people. I am lucky to have a very short commute (15min on foot), which helps with flexibility and is a big plus in terms of quality of life. I don't think, I would want to work from home entirely  but a mixed-use, small scale neighborhood, which offers close proximity between work and home and plenty of opportunities for chance encounters in between seems to be an optimal compromise.