Meg Whitman announced that she is ending “Working at Home for HP Employees” “http://www.marketplace.org/topics/business/no-more-working-home-hewlett-packard-employees#!”.
While I can applaud her efforts to re-energize HP and turn the ship around, this effort really sends the wrong message to businesses for a company committed to new technologies. I also understand that HP sold off its struggling Videoconferencing business to Polycom before Ms. Whitman arrived on the scene. But, let’s examine the move.
I will have to admit, I have never visited HP’s offices in Palo Alto. However, I have spent many hours toiling in offices in Silicon Valley. There is a not a lot of creativity there. Low buildings with lovely landscaping and imposing lobbies that lead to floors with rows and rows of drab grey cubicles where employees do their level best to hide behind their computer monitor on email to avoid any suspicion that they are actually there. Has Meg Whitman ever read Dilbert?
Silicon Valley office environments do not lead to creative or constructive discussion. There are multiple studies of office productivity and how to design an office that promotes intelligent intercourse. Large Silicon Valley companies, evidently never read them.
I once had a vice-president (from a distant office) come out and tell me that I am in the same building with a co-worker and that I needed to go see him regularly and “talk” with him. Interestingly, I was never sure he actually worked there. One, he was never at his desk in his cubicle. I would walk over there 3 or 4 times a day, across a courtyard and 2 floors away, only to see an empty chair. Two, he would never answer the phone or return a voice mail. The phone had consistent red led’s blinking indicating unanswered voicemail. Three, he did not answer my emails, or meeting requests. Four, he never made any attempt to visit my cubicle. So, how do you find the guy? The truth is, with the current infrastructure, you don’t.
So, let’s talk about the “water-cooler”. I will also admit that I have an aversion to email, whereas most office workers these days are addicted to it. I liked the “water-cooler” (or, in my case the coffee service), because there was always someone there I really needed to talk to. They could help with my problem, or I could help with theirs. But, it was located in a far corner of the large cubicle room and hidden by a wall. You never knew who you would run into there until you got there. In modern office design, there needs to be a balance of “caves and commons” where individuals can congregate formally and informally to work out important business matters and then retreat to undisturbed areas where they can act upon them.
So, that brings us to the modern world of technology. How do we get to the ideal world of business interaction within the context of dealing with large business concerns over large distances?
- · First, HD Videoconferencing has now made it possible to create virtual meeting rooms that are the next best thing to being in the same physical room. Equipment is cheap and accessible. Nowadays, all that it requires is a laptop with an internet connection, webcam, mic and speakers, something most employees already have available to them. Is it simple to connect to a meeting? – absolutely! Almost all employees already have the skill to click and connect and that is all that it takes. The days of Maxwell Smart’s “Dome of Silence” technology are long gone. Meetings are natural experiences, just like being there with low-latency, full-duplex HD Videoconferencing that actually make it easier for people to participate. They may even be better, because everyone has the ability to share and collaborate. I can’t tell you how many live meetings I have been in where there have been delays and miscues while presenters try to get their PowerPoint presentation up on the projector and it takes a call down to IT to send someone up to figure out how to use the Crestron program. Geico made a famous commercial out of that, showing a CEO trying to switch a presentation and after fiddling and fiddling, ending up with words only over flashing disco lights and loud music. It was funny, because we all have had that experience.
People may complain about high latency systems, because they are used to telephone conferences and free system delays and dropped calls. System delay means that people start talking over one another and then end up with an embarrassing silence while they figure out who can talk. But, choosing the right simple system can eliminate all of that. Today’s systems allow for almost instant response, just like talking in the same room and they are resilient to network fluctuations. Yes, 2 or 3 or more people can all end up talking at once. But, the meeting facilitator can control that, either verbally or with a mute button. Hey, that is something you cannot do in a face to face meeting.
- · Second, there is the concept of “presence”. I would not suggest that you put a GPS locator on all your employees, but when you are at your desk and open for discussion, modern systems allow your presence information to be visible on the system. A picture here is probably worth a thousand words.
Figure 1 Videoconference “Presence”
Here you can see that I am available, but I can also see Alex, Jared, Lloyd and Shanna. If I have something important to discuss with one of them or all of them. I can have an impromptu meeting. I do not have to go 2 floors up and across a courtyard (or across the country) to see if they are there. If Joy needs some time to do something, or is away from her desk, then I know I cannot contact her until she is back. Many telephone systems have “presence capability. But, look closely, you can see that I am not limited to the telephone handset sitting on my desk. If I am getting coffee or at the water cooler, I have a DaveD-mobile presence! I can be video conferenced on my smartphone or tablet device with the same HD capability and audio quality I have on my computer.
- · Third, just like a larger meeting, I can share anything on my desktop. I can collaborate with others, ask them for a value judgment, or show a problem. Just think what a benefit this would be to support groups. If I were an IT helpdesk, I would want to have this simple access to the desktop. Let’s say IT support is in the list of contacts. I contact them with a problem and they answer, see my computer, take over the desktop and fix it.
- · Fourth, there is a cost factor. Remarkably, Videoconferencing costs have come down exponentially. The costs can be less than voice phone calls over the public telephone lines and significantly less per minute than cell phone rates. When you look at the value of the functionality, employee satisfaction and higher productivity levels, it makes a great deal of sense.
Certainly, there are times and some office experiences that make sense to be on site. And, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that some people just do not like being on Videoconference. They have the opportunity to deny their “presence”. However, I would encourage them to try it and experience the benefits, especially when they need something important.
So Meg, take a longer look at what your executive decision means. Employees will have more frustration with longer commute times, meetings may actually be less productive, communication is less likely and more important work gets delayed at HP. Just do a survey of now much voicemail and unnecessary email goes on at HP.
Dave Desmarais formerly was in charge of a multimillion dollar Network Operations Center for customer support. It was 24 X 7, virtual operation. Having highly skilled technical representatives working from home offices was essential to the quality of support that was required for 24 X 7.