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4527076994_c60f0a900a_m.jpgThe UK has become a quieter place this last week, with the eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland. (What is it with Iceland? First it declares bankruptcy, then it catches fire … sounds like the mother of all insurance frauds to me!) All plane flights have been cancelled, giving the long-suffering residents of Heathrow and Gatwick the ability to hear each other speak. Tens of thousands of people are stranded – both visitors to the UK, who are unable to leave, and Brits abroad unable to get home (like my sister and her family, enjoying an extended holiday in the Mediterranean at some airline’s expense). For many, life is temporarily better.

But for others, it will have got more complicated. One of my team is currently in Naples (that’s Italy, not Florida) – he can’t fly home, it’s a little far to drive (and most European car hire places don’t do one-way rentals), and the only ways of getting across the English Channel – ferries and the Eurostar train – are overbooked. But that’s OK; he’s currently logged in, using the PC in his office here in Cambridge (UK, not Massachusetts, although that would be no harder), talking to us on MS Communicator, and working more or less normally. He’ll be joining in our meetings using conference calling and some of our company’s own products, and he’ll be drinking better coffee than we will. In fact, I’m beginning to wish it were me in Naples and him here.

However, all this would be infeasible without the right technological support, and without helpful company policies. I suppose I could insist that my missing team member used any means of travel whatsoever to get back to the office and continue work, but this would be churlish of me, and would probably waste resources all round, not to mention creating ill-will quite unnecessarily. And because all our team elect to work at home now and again, we are all used to working remotely, and working with others who are working remotely. And those of us who work in virtual teams – which may be spread worldwide – accept this model of working almost as natural.

What I find strange is the organisation that requires its staff to work in virtual teams, but then refuses to allow them to work at home. In this situation, the thing that’s stopping them can only be the notion of working at home (a place traditionally associated with leisure, although again I know people whose home lives are so busy they come into work for a rest). I can only marvel at the tortuous logic that gets used to justify such practices, arising largely from fear of loss of control, and from a lack of trust. I think the moral of the story is not to work for organisations which, whilst trusting staff with trade secrets and corporate plans, simultaneously refuse to credit them with the integrity to work whilst out of sight of their boss.
It needn’t take a volcanic eruption to jolt organisations into the modern age; but every such disruption helps in bringing about a seismic shift in the way people work.

What are your thoughts?

Photo Credit: Plasmastik

  • http://ajleon.me AJ Leon

    Just wanted to stop by to say this is a great post, Hugh. And I’m with you, if you can’t trust your employees to work while out of your sight, you either have trust issues or the wrong people working for you. :)

  • johnsn

    Teleworking has in recent decades been an increasingly successful technique for mitigation of transportation disruptions caused by earthquakes and blizzards, and prospectively, for flu epidemics. Add volcanoes to the list!
    John Niles, Seattle

  • http://www.latest.live24news.com/icelands-volcano-ash-from-space-raw-video/ Jemima Maroney

    It’s a bad point in time for the air line industry, and yet our prayers – even when the images of the eruption are really impressive – really have to be with the men and women trapped far from home.Many thanks regarding your current write-up.

  • http://www.wanderwomanbook.com Marcia Reynolds

    My colleagues and I are looking into how to use Skype to give presentations. With a good Ethernet connection, camera and microphone, we can show slides and answer questions as if we were in the room. I agree, it’s time to progress into the new age of technology and work together with less stress.

  • http://www.twitter.com/virtualtal Tal Klein

    I actually had some pretty important business with some folks from my office who were trapped in Europe. Fortunately they managed to get a conference room at Gatwick and we used GoToMeeting to get some super critical work done that would otherwise have set my team back by weeks.
    I think teleworking is now officially a part of my life. I’m even teleworking when I’m *in* the office because I have meetings with people all over the world and I honestly don’t care if they’re at home or in an office as long as they’re getting their work done.

  • Hugh Tonks

    Tal, you’ve hit on an interesting point which I’ll be blogging on in future posts: remoteness in the context of communication means “remote from each other”, not just “remote from HQ”. This reciprocity is often completely ignored, so you end up with situations like the remote worker who is fully equipped with the means to stay in touch – phone, computer, webcam, headset – but can’t use it because her co-workers back at the ranch don’t have the same kit.