(Note: I intend to make this post is the first of a five-part series, every Thursday, on accountability as the missing link in new-world, new-millennium, post-downturn management. Tim.)
I’m wondering where, and how far, this goes: The virtual world (meaning cyberspace, and working at home, working on the web, and online applications) merging with the real world (meaning people working together, having physical presence, at the business location). I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings on this issue. Let me explain.
On one hand, the world needs virtual workplaces.
Flashback: Tokyo, 1993. I was stuck in traffic on one of the many elevated highways, in a bus, on a weekday morning, looking out at cars with drivers, some with passengers, buses, trucks, all stopped on the road. The city spread out below us all.
“What a waste,” I thought. “What a waste of humanity.” People in cities routinely spend an hour or more just getting from home to work and back again, and, in many cases, for no good reason. Sure, taxi drivers and retail sales clerks and cable repairmen need to be physically present, where they work; but not middle managers, knowledge workers, and maybe half, maybe even two-thirds of the work force.
Not that Tokyo is any different from most cities; it’s actually a bit better organized. I spent a week per month in Tokyo for about four years, ending in 1994, so that’s what I think of first. But I lived in Mexico City for nine years, and that traffic was way worse. And I had a few days in San Paulo a few years ago, and that’s worse than Mexico City. We moved from Palo Alto to Eugene in small part because we were tired of traffic in Silicon Valley (that was just one of many reasons).
On the other hand, teams, infrastructure, and real world.
I spent most of the last 20 years running a software company. As I write this, my office door opens to an area full of cubicles. People are talking to each other. I see programmers talking to programmers, marketers talking to marketers, and — wow — marketers talking to programmers. The people who answer the sales phones are 10 feet from the people who offer tech support. The other day we got news of a surprising sales spurt in one of the retail channels. Five people were standing among the cubes, talking about it.
All of which makes me a hypocrite. Or confused. Because I believe spreading work into the virtual workplace is good for people, reduces the commuting problem for many, is generally a good idea, an advance of civilization. But not in my company. We’re a team. We work together when we’re together.
And, (oh no), I don’t have a third hand
Things are neater when we can take the two hands and synthesize. But we can’t always.
Maybe, just maybe, the answer to this dilemma is in the tools and the technology. That makes sense. In the spirit of synthesis, I asked Jason Gallic about this via instant message. Jason, product manager for Email Center Pro, is very up on all this. Here’s the IM:
jgallic: i’m in it now…so you’re looking or applications that aide the single-person office, or the aide the virtual community at large?
Tim Berry: good question. I think my angle is more the small but growing group, the team, because that’s the front lines of the conflict between virtual and real. Things that would help a company like us do more remote work …
jgallic: ok…working on it
jgallic: here’s a list of tools that would fit the bill:
jgallic: Start of course with Email Center Pro, for managed collaborative email with shared addresses.
jgallic: basecamp: project management
jgallic: zoho, google docs, box.net: shared documents
jgallic: webex, gotomeeting: meetings, shared screen
jgallic: gotomypc: remote terminal access
jgallic: wetpaint: easy to create wiki community (a wiki intranet)
jgallic: Instant Messenger (any application)
jgallic: shared RSS
jgallic: Skype: for free voice to voice and face to face
jgallic: Yammer: for a non-intrusive IM application that provides overall updates
jgallic: that should give you some things to work with…
Yes, it sure does. If only we could bring these together, somehow. But then, if we did, would we still miss those hallway meetings and the sense of the team together? I think so.
And I suppose another answer to this dilemma is the one-person business. I should know that, since I was that for about 10 years. After all, I consulted with Apple Japan from Eugene Oregon, for more than four years, with a combination of email, fax, phone, and one week a month over there. I did a whole lot of work from a one-person home office; and that was almost 20 years ago, when email was magic and we had not a hint of shared web meetings or shared applications.
But then I get back to the problem of growth. In my case, that one-person business started to grow, and it deserved a few more people to start building it (it’s 40+ people now). And poof, there goes the magic of working at home. Back to the dilemma.
The trick to it, I think, is related to tools, but, ultimately, it’s accountability. Hence, the name of my series. Which I intend to continue next Thursday. But please, don’t hold me accountable for that.
* * * * *
About the Author: Tim Berry is president and founder of Palo Alto Software, founder of bplans.com, and co-founder of Borland International. He is also the author of books and software on business planning including Business Plan Pro and The Plan-as-You-Go Business Plan; and a Stanford MBA. His main blog is Planning Startups Stories. He twitters as Timberry.