When I listen to the unified communications (UC) vendors articulate the value of UC solutions, one of the main points they assert is that UC allows users to work from anywhere, over any device, which is great. In fact, this is one of the fundamental tenets of Yankee Group's vision of an Anywhere Enterprise. This has many obvious value propositions, one of which is being able to support an increasingly mobile workforce. The ability to be mobile, in turn, has given rise to more people working from home more often; in fact, a growing strategy for many organizations is to have a minimal amount of office space and have the majority of employees work from home. So UC allows seamless communications that can be delivered anywhere -- so we have more users working remotely, which means higher productivity at a lower cost. Sounds great, doesn't it?
There is a downside as well as a benefit, however, if things are not managed correctly. I've interviewed a number of workers who went from being traditional in-office employees to working from home. Initially, it seemed great. Wake up later, no commute, answer a bunch of emails in your pajamas before you take a shower or even have breakfast. What many of these people find over time, though, is that working alone at home and using email as the primary communications mode leaves them feeling disconnected and isolated from the rest of the company. Collaboration is more than just technology and tools. Many workers, myself included, draw much of their inspiration and energy from those around them, and isolating them in their homes can have a long-term detrimental effect.
Solving this problem isn't hard but does require some change of the status quo. UC gives users a robust set of collaboration tools, but if we just go about our days working exactly the same way, this feeling of being "socially disconnected" can set in. To avoid this, I recommend the following:
- Use a broader range of UC tools to create different types of interactions. I think email may be the single most overused tool we have today. It's not a good conversational tool, does nothing to help build relationships, and most people get so many messages they can't keep up. Instead, encourage the use of more "personal" tools such as instant messaging and even videoconferencing as a way for workers to have "ad hoc" conversations. These can replace the water cooler meetings that would happen in an office environment.
- Use tradeshows, company meetings and other venues where employees will be in the same location to get together. Often (and I can be guilty of this), workers will attend a tradeshow, local conference or training session with other co-workers and never see them. It's easy to get wrapped up in work, but it's important to take the time to get together with co-workers if you're a remote employee.
- Support the use of social networking tools such as LinkedIn or even consumer sites such as Facebook and MySpace. They personalize an individual, and many consumers use them to build relationships. There's no reason these sites can't be used for professionals to build relationships. Some corporate standards will be put in place because you'll want to make sure workers leave out anything that may publicly embarrass your firm.
Zeus Kerravala manages Yankee Group's infrastructure research and consulting, working with customers to solve business problems through the deployment of infrastructure technology solutions, including switching, routing, network management, voice solutions and VPNs. Before joining Yankee Group, Kerravala was a senior engineer and technical project manager for Greenwich Technology Partners; a vice president of IT for Ferris, Baker Watts; and technical project manager for Alex Brown & Sons. Kerravala obtained a B.S. degree in physics and mathematics from the University of Victoria, Canada.