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This chapter is from the book

You Need Regular Team Contact

The need for regular team contact is a very specific, and although it can apply to almost any profession, I’ve witnessed it especially among creative people. Part of the creative process is brainstorming, throwing ideas around to see what works.

Working in isolation can lead down some very odd creative paths, and although sometimes those paths can be valuable, they can equally be very poorly thought through. I have no doubt that some of the major missteps that social media has borne witness to in recent years have come from people working in isolation and not having the opportunity to, at the very least, run an idea past a co-worker before hitting the Enter key.

Take, for example, the post on Twitter by Kenneth Cole, CEO of the Kenneth Cole fashion house. He took to Twitter during the early days of the Arab Spring uprisings and posted the following:

  • Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo -KC

Now, had he run that past someone, they might—and of course I say might because he is the CEO, and who knows whether anyone would tell him otherwise—have pointed out the gauche nature of the tweet and advised against it. Instead, it was posted and caused a huge backlash against Kenneth Cole, both the person and the brand on all its social media properties.

Sometimes even working in a traditional office environment can be isolating, especially if, as a senior executive, you closet yourself from co-workers who might just be more in touch with things than you are. So working in an Out of Office workplace where access to co-workers is even harder to achieve and sometimes may require scheduling appointments presents the opportunity for an even greater chance of these situations arising. One workaround is to simply not enable Out of Office employees to communicate publicly on behalf of the organization. That option is, in my opinion, not only short-sighted, but, in the world in which we now do business, not practical either. Whereas a decade ago corporate communications was limited to strictly those whose role specified that they communicate on behalf of the company, many more employees now find themselves being given the task of utilizing social channels as part of their job and becoming voices for the company. Some of these employees are working Out of Office because of the nature of their role—perhaps they are event organizers, sales support staff, or any one of a number of other roles that are now part of the social teams that have been created in recent years by companies. Silencing these employees not only limits the company but it is detrimental to the development of the individual.

I know many individuals who work in PR, marketing, and corporate communications for large corporates; they work in teams, and before publishing things, whether through social or more formal communication channels, they, at the very least, go through a peer-review process. Sometimes it is formal; other times it is simply a matter of leaning over a cube wall and throwing the idea out there to get a reaction. However, it is done, and getting feedback from team members is an integral part of many jobs, and without regular contact it can be hard to achieve this. Even making use of technology such as phone, email, and video conferencing it isn’t always possible to replace the instant nature of being in the same place as your team members—not to mention that without being with them, you can’t see what they are working on or whether they have the time to spare to provide the feedback you need. What’s more, you can’t be used as a sounding board yourself and therefore contribute to the overall team effort.

Working from your home, a coffee shop, or on an airplane, you are denied that peer feedback, or at least denied the instant nature of it, which is sometimes necessary, especially in our now, always-on business environment. Being part of a team is expected from most workers, and those who work in a creative or information-based workplace find this to be especially true. Of course, that is not to say it can’t be done, but it takes careful management and usually requires additional time and thought put into the process to ensure it can still be achieved effectively.

This additional time requirement can put an unfair burden on in-office team mates, which can lead to either resentment or the circumnavigating of the Out of Office co-worker. It’s important that those in charge and the Out of Office co-worker strive to ensure that this doesn’t happen by proving the added value of the team member who works remotely.

Certainly this can be a major reason why an organization doesn’t implement Out of Office working, especially for personnel that they consider to be key to a team or process. I’ll be discussing the technologies and other methods that can ease this issue, and how some organizations have overcome it, later in the book.

Another of the other issues that can be encountered by Out of Office workers who co-work with those in a more traditional office setting is that as the office culture develops, as shifts occur through either changes in personnel or simply as the team matures, they can miss out on that culture change. They can become trapped in a moment or style of work that the team has moved away from—and suddenly the Out of Office worker seems out of step with the rest of the team. This can be frustrating for both sides. The Out of Office employee feels disconnected with the rest of their team, and the in-office team members view their colleague as being out of touch. This dissonance can lead to a decline in the ability of the team to maintain cohesion, and projects and other work that depends on collaboration can suffer. Of course, this is an extreme example, and many organizations are more than able to head off this scenario before it becomes a serious problem.

In addition, in many organizations geography within the office environment implies status. If you are allocated to a cube rather than an office, you are probably not as “senior” as those in offices. If your office is on a certain floor, or is perhaps that much vaunted “corner office,” you are again more likely to be senior. Although these concepts may seem anachronistic to many, they still persist in the corporate world where the lines of hierarchy that were so clearly delineated a few decades ago have now become increasingly blurred. Where does the Out of Office worker fit into this geography? Perhaps they “hot desk” when visiting the corporate office and work from a spare desk, cube, or meeting room. But what does this imply about their standing within the organization? What does this say to the employees themselves about how the organization views them as part of the internal geography? Although it is often not practical to “reserve” dedicated space for Out of Office individuals, without a place of their own it is easy for Out of Office workers to feel undervalued by the office-based team members.

This confusion can sometimes lead to resistance to ideas, suggestions, and requests from members of staff who are in fact junior to the Out of Office worker but do not realize the role or place the Out of Office worker plays within the organization.

These obstacles can be overcome, but they take work on the part of organizational leaders, HR, and the co-workers involved. Sometimes the resolution is to simply abandon the practice of Out of Office workers or at least reduce the amount of time that a worker spends Out of Office. Although this isn’t necessarily the best solution, it is an understandable one—it is the path of least resistance. Certainly organizations have to think carefully before implementing or agreeing to Out of Office working and look to see where the benefits outweigh the burdens that will occur.

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