In 2013 the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Meyer, told workers they could no longer work at home.
She said that communication and collaboration was important, and that speed and quality was often sacrificed when working at home, to be the best Yahoo! meant being physically together.
Marissa’s reasoning was sound, her solution was flawed. It is neither wise nor effective to turn our backs on the benefits that a virtual work force brings. But it is also true that in this increasingly digital age we have lost something that is needed to make organizations both humane and effective places to work. What has been lost are the relationships and sense of purpose that can only be built by having in-depth conversations about issues that matter. I call it collective sensemaking, based largely on the work of Karl Weick.
Perhaps the most common misconception about adopting virtual work is that it is an all-or-nothing proposition; such that once we have networking tools in place there is no need to come together, or conversely, we have to be “at work” all the time. But knowledge workers have two strong drives, 1) the need for autonomy, that is, “knowledge workers have to manage themselves.” and 2) the need for a purpose that inspires and unites them.
The way to satisfy both needs is to blend sophisticated virtual tools with periodic, in-depth, face-to-face collective sensemaking. I refer to this as the “oscillation principle” and I have studied how organizations implement the principle.
My research shows there are several elements needed to achieve the benefits of oscillation:
- Scheduled, rather than ad hoc, oscillation between autonomous work and units coming together face-to-face
- Holding knowledge workers responsible for making collective sense of the problems and issues they are mutually facing when convened in face-to-face meetings
- The frequent use of sophisticated, mediated interaction to stay connected in between face-to-face meetings
- A change in the role of manager from “problem solver” to “conversation architect,” e.g. convening knowledge workers about tough issues
One of my case studies is Proquest, an information company that connects people with vetted, reliable information. The 30 strong Research Solutions Division come together for a three-day Summit every four months to plan the work they will be carrying out virtually. In between Summits, team members are in daily communication with each other using multiple forms of social media. Taco Ekkel, the division manager, of the Research Solutions Division says, “We would need four scheduled calls to accomplish what we get solved around a white board in an hour. Without the Summits it would definitely slow things down.”
Olsen and Olsen note that, “Effective communication between people requires that the communicative exchange take place with respect to some level of common ground. Common ground refers to that knowledge which the participants have in common, and they are aware that they have it in common.”
Ekkel views social time as essential to building common ground so makes sure work sessions end at 5, “We’re in the bar by 5:30.”
Ekkel exemplifies the shift from manager as problem solver to conversation architect. He creates the culture for collective sensemaking to take place by:
- Actively seeking members’ input into the agenda
- Giving decision-making power to the group
- Summits show little or no hierarchy
- Whiteboarding to build group ownership of ideas and to get ideas from everyone
- Almost daily, virtual meetings to keeps everyone aware of what everyone else is doing
- A visually rich medium used for virtual meetings
- Holding sacrosanct social time to foster building the all important relationships between members
The benefits of the oscillation principle result from combining the best attributes of virtual work and face-to-face convening:
- Commitment to jointly made decisions
- Shared understanding of goals/purpose
- Components, developed independently, that smoothly come together into meaningful wholes
- Innovative solutions to complex issues as a result of drawing on the cognitive diversity of those convened
- A sense of community, cohesion, and belongingness
- The ability to draw on the global talent pool
- Reduction in the cost of office space
- Autonomy that provides knowledge workers greater opportunity to experiment and try out new ideas
- Being able to respond quickly to local customers
- More satisfying integration of work and family life.
This diagram from Maznevski & Chudoba illustrates the regular oscillation between high intensity periods of collective sensemaking (the tallest peaks) and periods of virtual work in which the group interacts through virtual media with varying levels of richness. Groups learn to select the appropriate media based on the task. Ekkel acknowledges,” We often delay discussions around features of a certain magnitude until the next Summit, knowing we’d never really effectively get them conceptualized without the richness of face-to-face contact coupled with sketching.”
In the Proquest example workers are both virtual and remote. But the oscillation principle is equally applicable to organizations with workers that spend much of their time in a client office or other remote site, working from home one or more days a week, or work at “hot desks” when they come to the office. Without a way to periodically, fully connect around issues that matter, these workers, as well as their more remote colleagues, too often find themselves disconnected from their colleagues and the mission of their unit.
The frequency of oscillation varies based on two critical factors 1) the interdependencies within the task that the unit is responsible for, and 2) the complexity of the issues. For example, a virtual team that is designing a product for an emerging market might need to come together for 2 days every two months. A team with less complex issues might come together every 3 months for one day.
The more virtual organizations become, the greater the need for oscillating back together on a regularly scheduled basis. I can conceive of a time when employees will conduct their individual work where it is most convenient to do so. They will come together to coordinate, innovate, share new experiences, gain in-depth understanding of an issue they are all are facing, solve problems, and develop strategy. There will be an understanding that when they convene it is to make use of all the knowledge and analytical ability that is in the room. Everything else will be effectively conveyed virtually. The normal way of working will be: Isolate to concentrate, Convene to collaborate!
About the author:
Nancy Dixon’s company, Common Knowledge Associates, helps managers create a conversation environment to make the oscillation principle work in addressing difficult organizational issues.