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David Ducheyne pleads for a remote collaboration approach that adopts customer orientation as leitmotiv.

The effect of Telework on Collaboration

Last week, an important article appeared in Nature about the effect of telework on cooperation.

Although it is a study with only one company, Microsoft in the US, it does provide a lot of data. So we need to be a bit careful with the interpretation and generalization of the results. But to me, it’s a landmark study.

The results confirm what previous studies have already shown and what many executives cite as reasons to be cautious about exaggerating the implementation of telework:

Excessive telework seems to hamper collaboration:

  • There are more silos in the organization, the interaction between teams is reduced
  • There are also fewer new connections, which can be problematic for new people, or for new projects. This is also problematic for the transfer of knowledge and for the quality of output.
  • Communication becomes more asynchronous, making direct response less easy. This is especially a problem for people who need to get to work and may not be able to reach their colleagues who work at home as easily.
  • Less rich communication channels are used, making it harder to process difficult information

These are the reasons why, in the past, before the pandemic, organizations such as Yahoo and IBM had cut back on teleworking long before COVID.

So Why then Telework?

This article may be food for the anti-telework lobby, but my approach is to be cautious about both the radical rejection of flexible working and the ill-considered implementation of it.

There are at least two reasons to continue offering telework:

  • Companies that do not offer telework today may be at a competitive disadvantage in the labour market.
  • Teleworking may make collaboration more difficult, but there are many other benefits that make balanced teleworking interesting, such as well-being, productivity for some tasks, mobility, etc.

Organization is a Matter of Relationships

My plea has always been to be very careful with flexible working and to carefully consider its effects on the organization. Organizations are a mishmash of relationships of people who want or need to achieve something together. Every form of structure can support this cooperation or make it more difficult. And that also applies to telework.

We, therefore, know that distance work makes cooperation more difficult and so, regardless of all the fashionable thinking about hybrid work, we must look for a constellation that does work. This is different for every organization, every team, and every employee. This means that every form of telework policy will have undesirable effects. For some, it will go too far or and for others not far enough.

But it might help if we could talk about remote collaboration.

Magnetic and Inspiring Workplaces

I expect that people will want to come to the office because of the collaboration, the informal contacts, the atmosphere. Everyone needs that, even the more introverted people. But if people think they have to come, but don’t really want to, there’s a problem.

So if you want people to work together and meet each other, invest in magnetic workplaces that support collaboration and creativity. This has to do with leadership, culture, climate, … And remote work can also be part of such a magnetic workplace.

Allow people to organize their work, as a team.

Make it easy for people. And, above all, make sure that everything is and remains reversible and discussable, without turning it into a carrot-and-stick story.

Customer Focus as a Leitmotiv?

The principle is that the customer, the other teams, and individual colleagues should not experience any disadvantage from any organizational solution. Internal and external customer focus can thus be a leitmotiv for empowering everyone (although other research also shows that managers should not get away with the “do what you want as long as the customer doesn’t complain” witticism).

Especially if your organization sees collaboration as an important (cultural) element of success, it is appropriate to focus on the impact telework has on collaboration when implementing, evaluating, or adjusting a telework approach. So, use remote collaboration instead of teleworking.


Use Customer Orientation as Leitmotiv to design your Remote Collaboration Approach

David DucheyneFounder of Otolith

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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