Thomas Edison once said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." There's an IT version that goes something like this: "Effective technology deployment is 1% technology and 99% process."
That's never been more true than when it comes to the tools and technologies that enable organizations to manage an increasingly virtual, always-on workforce. Nemertes sometimes likes to call this the "anywhere office," and that's really the case. Employees today work from home offices, taxicabs, and customer sites. They're out in the field, on top of equipment, and in scientific laboratories.
And communications technologies are allowing them, more than ever before, to be at the beck and call of their colleagues.
Presence protocol and process issues
But workplaces are still grappling with the challenges of managing this "anywhere office." Protocol and process issues abound:
- Is it OK to email an employee after hours for work matters if you see him or her on Facebook or AIM?
- What is a reasonable turnaround time for response to an email request in the BlackBerry age?
- Whose responsibility is it to set and maintain boundaries?
And there's the related but distinct issue of how to manage individuals too far away to convey nuances of emotion via body language. How can you tell that Steve is feeling down, or that Susan needs some help, if all you can see is a few words of text on a computer screen?
Finally, there's the question of how to manage the emerging "millennial workforce" (sometimes called "digital natives") -- employees born after 1985, who have literally never lived in a disconnected world. Although young people seem to be predictably different (every new generation thinks it's discovered passion, idealism and friendship), there are indications that this generation really is different, in ways that are more significant than in previous generations.
Dealing with presence protocol and process issues
Strictly speaking, none of this is an IT problem. But since IT has contributed to the problem (by delivering the technologies that create it), it's wise to prepare some guidance on the solution. Here are some recommendations:
- Encourage managers and employees to discuss the issues and lay ground rules. If there's an expectation that emails will be answered within, say, one business day, employees won't feel obliged to respond at night or over the weekend. If, on the other hand, emails are sent only when something's urgent and requires immediate response, then make that explicit (and make sure the "only urgent" rule is adhered to).
- Recognize virtual boundaries. Just because an employee chooses to be available on a social networking site doesn't mean he or she is signaling "I'm working late tonight." Just as you wouldn't discuss work with a colleague you happened to run into at a supermarket or bar, don't assume that a colleague is available for work purposes if he or she is online.
- Encourage employees to set their own boundaries (and respect them). If an employee is unavailable (whether out for dinner with friends or working on a deadline), he or she should use presence to indicate that lack of availability.
When it comes to reading moods remotely, there are some effective guidelines. Emoticons are often helpful, but don't read too much into them (a colleague who relentlessly uses smiley faces may be trying to cover something up). When communicating electronically (particularly via text or IM), keep communications short and pithy, and pay attention to how well a colleague appears to be listening. (Many times, the inability to listen effectively signals some degree of inner turmoil.) And when in doubt, pick up the phone (or launch a video conference).
That's true for proactive communications, as well. It's fine to convey good news or emotionally neutral information electronically. But for anything that's emotionally charged (or potentially so), it's better to connect live. A good rule of thumb: The higher the emotional content of an interaction, the more real-time it needs to be. Something trivial can be conveyed via email; if it's a bit more contentious, instant messaging is a better option. And if it's controversial (such as concerns about performance), the phone (or even an in-person meeting) is preferable.
Handling the millennial generation
As for the millennial generation, Fortune writer Nadira Hira makes an excellent point: This is the first group of people on earth whose socialization has been primarily electronic, and as a result, they're often surprisingly backward when it comes to dealing with conflict (even something as mundane as feedback on a project). Recognize they're likely to react inappropriately -- and don't take it personally. And this group, more than any other, will appreciate being provided with guidelines and protocols (such as the ones noted above). Where a Gen-Xer or Baby Boomer might resent the apparent micromanagement, a Millennial will appreciate the guidance.
The bottom line? Upgrading communications technologies means upgrading communications processes and protocols. Fortunately, that takes mostly commonsense -- no genius required.
This was first published in October 2009