Communication limits remote staff

Can being out of the office even remotely work?

ELOISE GIBSON
Last updated 17:08 04/10/2012

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Andrew Whiteford is sunbathing on the deck, looking out at the glorious Tararua Range.

He is also at work, with a laptop on his knee and a phone to his ear, answering my questions in the middle of a busy morning. The only thing that mars our conversation is a slight crackle on the phone line, a sign of the less-than-perfect connectivity to his Wairarapa home.

Whiteford likes it there, but confesses that unless he is churning out solo reports, he gets less done at home than he does working with his team in Wellington.

He tries to put his finger on it: "You can have a piece of paper in front of you and scribble things and do diagrams which you can't really do over Skype," he says.

His work as a senior economist at research consultancy Infometrics is all about sharing knowledge and clever collaboration, and distance matters, he says.

"We're often discussing the construction of a model, and just being able to sit together over a spreadsheet or a piece of paper is that much better."

He points me to a talk by Waikato University researcher Philip McCann, whose ideas gel nicely with how Whiteford is feeling. Netherlands-based McCann has talked about the importance of agglomeration - the concentration of people in huge, dense urban areas - for producing inventions and business creativity.

Science communicator and MacDiarmid Institute nanotechnology specialist Shaun Hendy reached a similar conclusion after mapping the geographical locations of people named in patents.

Unfortunately for New Zealand, more populous cities tend to produce more inventions per capita, and it helps if the city has a diverse range of industries.

"Another way of thinking of it is that it takes fewer people in Auckland to make a patent than it does in Wellington," Hendy says.

"As the city size increases, the number of patents per person goes up."

Smart people bounce off each other like so many talented pinballs, it seems and, so far, technology has not quite nailed this, despite all those advertisements depicting busy people spending virtual quality time with their children.

"It will start to change, but right now there is still a premium on face-to-face communication," Hendy says.

"It is not just that big cities attract the brightest people; it is the social networks that big cities provide," he says. "They put you in touch with the other smart people who you need to talk to or who you might just bump into who give you that great idea."

Take a remote worker. They might know what their immediate team in Wellington is up to, but they are unlikely to learn much about the team next door, he says.

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"You don't just randomly Skype someone or bump into someone on Skype as you might in a big city."

Hendy chuckles at the suggestion that in this respect New Zealand might be the world's Wairarapa. "One of the reasons talented people come to live in New Zealand is the lifestyle and we don't want to risk that just for the benefits of trying to make some of these agglomeration effects work," he says.

"We have to look to new ways of putting people together and taking advantage of new technologies.

"I don't think we have a choice. We don't have the density of population that some of these other places have and we don't want to double or treble our population, because that would ruin the beauty of living [here]."

Companies such as IBM are trying new things. As a scattered outpost of a half-a-million-strong company, New Zealand IBM employees have to use technology to work with each other and colleagues around the world.

More than 90 per cent of staff members can log into IBM's network remotely, a fact which made life easier when the Christchurch office was red- stickered after the February 22 earthquake last year, IT manager Doug Stuart says.

People can talk in virtual team rooms using instant text messages and voice connections, and visit forums, wikis, blogs and central data repositories. Clients can be linked into virtual meetings too.

Stuart is in the middle of a virtual strategy meeting with his United States colleagues when we speak. "I'm looking at my screen and seeing their presentations and hearing their voices. I didn't need to dial them up," he says.

"You have the ability to raise your hand and send real-time text messaging to the chair of the meeting. Blogs are active during these sessions as well."

Asked how it compares with being in a room with people, he says: "If you had asked me that four years ago, I would have rolled my eyes and said it is never going to work."

But the likes of Facebook have changed his mind. People are getting better at interacting digitally. "Social networking and the concept of it makes us much more effective," he says.

"Writing a blog and asking a question and having not just one person respond, but this huge network of people who are interested in a topic is hugely powerful."

There are some basic challenges, though. The virtual meeting that Stuart has ducked out of does not include a video link, although video is available to people who need it, because video is used more sparingly than voice links. That's because it sucks up so much internet bandwidth, an expensive proposition in New Zealand, he says.

"We have all the services and all the technology, but you have to manage the costs carefully."

Like many people working in technology-reliant industries, Stuart says the failed proposal for New Zealand's second international internet link was a major missed opportunity.

"If we could provide cheaper bandwidth, we'd have higher speeds and a greater ability to use what's out there," he says.

Hendy has other ideas for what New Zealand could do to bring people virtually closer. He likes the idea of a government clearing- house collecting details of projects going on in different regions.

"You almost want a telephone directory of everything that's going on in the country, [which means] being a bit more open and sharing information about what initiatives are going on," he says.

He acknowledges this strays into delicate privacy territory, but it could benefit everyone if it was done correctly, he says. Mega- businesses such as Fonterra are already experimenting with being more open about innovation.

"Companies are realising they can't do it all themselves.

"Companies have a lot of intellectual property that they are not well positioned to take advantage of," he says.

Last year an Infometrics report predicted a rise in "urban refugees" who would eschew the fast pace of urban living and move to smaller, lifestyle centres.

But recruiters say remote working had not taken off the way that many predicted.

"It's plateaued," says Robert Half general manager Megan Alexander.

Whiteford, for one, finds the lack of infrastructure outside central business districts frustrating. Downloading reports is fine, but internet upload speeds are poor for sending documents back to Wellington.

Laptop connectivity is patchy when he makes the two-hour commute by train.

As a specialist in regional economies, he can't understand why potential lifestyle hubs don't do everything they can to make life easier for remote workers to attract more people like him.

"I generate all my income in Wellington, but I spend it in the Wairarapa, so it is such a huge windfall for them," he says.

Wi-fi on the train would be a good start. "They can't control how well the dairy industry does, but they can influence how attractive it is for Wellingtonians to come and live here."

The lifestyle is good, but not ideal for business productivity in a knowledge-intensive industry. Yet he says it is worth it. He has just dropped off his children at school and says he feels better connected with his family. In fact, he is about to make the move permanent. "My business will suffer, but I'm prepared to make that sacrifice," he says.

***

WANT TO WORK FROM HOME?

We asked recruiters at Madison Group what they would ask a potential home worker. Here's what they said.

The living arrangement, who they live with, whether they own or rent. We are looking for people who are settled. If they are in short-term or shared accommodation, it is probably not going to work, as the employer pays for the broadband and it is an expense to set this up. Who will be at home when they are there?

Will the room they will be working in be quiet? What will they do when they first get up in the morning? If the answer is that they are going to stay in their pyjamas, they are probably not going to get far. We want people who will treat it as a real job.

This means getting dressed for work and eliminating distractions around them.

Questions designed to test drive self-motivation, dependability and accountability.

 

***

FORCED EXPERIMENT

What happens to your daily workload when you leave the office for lunch and can never get back in? Since February 22 last year, many bosses who disliked the idea of allowing home working have had little choice but to give it a go, says Madison Group general manager Kristy Ward.

The results have mainly been positive, she says, with many companies reporting increased productivity. Call centres, administration, sales and anything related to IT appear to have been the most workable, she says, especially jobs with easily measurable workloads, such as customer service.

One company is recruiting for 10 positions in phone sales and customer service, all based at home, Ward says, while others are filling regional skills shortages by allowing people to fly in for two or three days a week from the North Island.

Recruiters for one client have been using psychological assessments to find suitable candidates. "We've looked to hire people within a certain profile, people who are self-motivated and driven," Ward says. "There are people who get their energy from other people, so they need to be surrounded by others to get that energy to get on with their day."

IBM's 20 Christchurch staff were set up to work remotely before the February earthquake, which made it easier when they were red-stickered out of their building, says technical project manager Kirk Abbott.

Restoring work was as simple as replacing two laptops that were left behind by people who were out at lunch, while those who lost internet access at home were supplied with mobile internet cards, Abbott says.

The biggest challenge was faced by staff with small children at home, who struggled to work amid the noise and distraction, he says. And staff missed being in the same building together.

"You do get so used to meeting everyone face to face, as we do, that it's a complication to be having to make a phone call every time you want to talk to anyone," Abbott says. "They were pleased when we could find an alternative site."

- The Press

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