IBM's efforts to create a flexible work environment have been so successful that 40 percent of its 330,000 employees work from home, on the road, or at a client location on any given day. But a few years ago, the company realized that as its staff became more distributed, employee morale was weakening.
In the region Dan Pelino inherited in 2002, barely half of IBM workers surveyed by the company said they thought morale was good. Employees felt they lacked a strong connection to their peers, they were missing out on mentoring relationships, and institutional knowledge wasn't being passed down within the company, says Pelino, who today is general manager of IBM's global healthcare and life sciences business. Internally, employees joked that "IBM" stood for "I'm by myself," he recalls.
The predicament IBM faced is common among companies that strive to provide nontraditional work arrangements. How do you offer flexibility without sacrificing corporate culture?
Employees who work from home or in remote branch offices often feel disconnected from corporate life and worry they will be forgotten and bypassed for promotions. Managers and employees have to make a concerted effort to stay in touch, experts say.
It's a realization that typically comes after the technology hurdles have been crossed and IT departments have successfully outfitted employees with the gear and services they need to work from home or on the road. That's when many companies realize the alienation issue is lurking throughout corporate outposts.
At IBM, Pelino and others set out to improve corporate culture. The company sparked new life into an old tradition: IBM Club, which brings together employees for intramural sports, picnics, movies and other types of social, cultural and recreational activities.
IBM Clubs organize activities for employees in a geographic area, says Mary-Ann O'Connor, a work/life flexibility and mobility specialist at IBM who has traveled the world to revive the network of IBM Clubs. The clubs are run independently by local volunteers, and the common thread is that "they all allow people to come together, to network, to get to know each other," she says. Membership has grown to 90,000 today.
IBM also launched mentoring programs and set out to improve the way knowledge is transferred from longtime employees to more recent hires. Executives like Pelino began to rethink the way they acquired office space, taking into account a more transient population and including mobile-friendly options such as wireless access and unified messaging.
The company also began to rethink its management strategies. "We had to retrain ourselves" to move from a world of physical learning, leading and managing to a world of virtual learning, leading and managing, Pelino says.
Rita Mace Walston likewise had to retool her management tactics when the publishing company she worked for in 2002 announced it hadn't renewed its office lease and sent everyone home to work. While it wasn't easy resolving the IT requirements of the suddenly home-based staff, "the bigger challenge was trying to make everybody still feel connected," Mace Walston says.
Back then, Mace Walston was managing editor for Loudoun Magazine, a lifestyle magazine focused on the Leesburg, Va. community. The staff, which was used to working in a creative, collaborative office environment, suddenly found themselves isolated at home. To help reestablish ties, Mace Walston relied on collaboration software from Stockholm-based Marratech AB that combines audio, video, whiteboard, application sharing and messaging functions.
"I think the audio and visual capabilities are really key in developing that social aspect," Walston says. "You can get so many nonverbal queues when you see people. It helps keep that connection."
Among the ways the magazine used the Marratech technology was to create a virtual water cooler area where staff could share stories about their weekends, post comic strips or family photos, and rant about a recent sports event, Mace Walston recalls. She also organized a daily 10:00 a.m. coffee klatch -- an informal, voluntary meeting for staff to talk about what's going on in their lives.
It was a learning experience for Mace Walston, who now is general manager of the Telework Consortium, a nonprofit organization in Herndon, Va., that helps public agencies and private companies plan and implement telework and distributed work programs.
"There are plenty of books about how to effectively manage by walking the halls, talking and putting a hand on someone's shoulder. But this is new territory, and we have to learn how to effectively manage people who are not physically in the same space," Walston says.
Bridging the telework divide
Savvy employers are not only investing in tools to make remote workers productive, but also finding ways to keep far-flung staff from feeling alienated.
- Plan and budget for in-person company events during the year.
- Schedule regular conference calls to keep remote staff in the corporate loop.
- Use tools such as instant messaging and voice chat to facilitate informal conversations.
- Consider video-conferencing options.
- Recognize milestones in remote employees' lives, such as birthdays or weddings.
- Provide a means for employees to share personal news, such as a virtual whiteboard.
- Encourage staff who live near each other to meet in person when possible.
- Regularly ask for feedback from home-based employees about ways to improve socialization.
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