Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How offices work: buzzwords, expectations, realities

Applying for work, and being turned down because I travel or am not local already, reminds me of some of the frustrations arising from mismatches between what we all talk about as cool and trendy, what management expects and what actually happens.


Read any article, anywhere, about the new (or maybe coming) state of business and collaboration and you'd think we're all mobile workers. We work from home, we can live anywhere we want with universal connectivity, we can go for an afternoon bike ride and answer important business messages, or draw diagrams while waiting in line for their coffee. We're miles past paperless, and are all globally-connected, digitally-collaborating all the time.

I am calling these buzzwords, but they do exist here and there. I know people who have wormholes in the conference room, or where the entire office doesn't exist, and they all meet at a coffeeshop (or share space) weekly or monthly, and otherwise work from home.


But that's rare.

I routinely do not get jobs (or am not considered for them) as I am not a local. Air travel is cheap and plentiful, and for three years I have been traveling up to 100% for work. I'll go where you want me to, no problem. But no, the expectation for far too many organizations, is that everyone is local.

And not just in the office, but a local. Even the committment of relocation makes them antsy, for what amount to the reasons that the digital remote office make sense. It takes time, and it's a distraction. The expectation is that offices exist, everyone has a desk and issued computer and it docks in right next to the office phone and we all work together every day.

Yes, even for freelance jobs. I've seen people posting, say, a mobile IxD in London for 6 months that will not consider someone in another country because they want to meet face to face. How often? Not clear, but locals-only please.


This is actually two different things. Two very, very different things.

Much of my favorite and most well-known work is with clients I have never met. Ever. Some are on entirely other continents. We get along very well with email, sometimes SMS, lots of Google spreadsheets, and other collaboration tools (bug trackers, task lists, etc.). I even use my normal processes of collaboration and send out partially completed files, show off halfassed prototypes others can look at on handsets, and so on.

But I usually have what I call a "day job." It's usually also the bulk of my income (not always) but is the one place that insists I be available 9-5, and generally gives me a desk which I have to be at, either more or less always, or on some other very strict schedule. Which is, just to start with, insane. I am routinely the only guy in the office, as everyone local gets to wander off for the kids' soccer game, or just decides to work from home on Friday.

In fact, I have flown to another city several thousand miles away, dressed appropriately for work and gone to my desk (or folding table in an abandoned floor), worked 5 days and never once had a meeting or important (business-related) face-to-face interaction with another human. I have also come to sit in a cube farm full of co-workers, but because there is not enough conference rooms and half the team is in another location, I spend the whole week when I do have meetings on the phone. There is no point to being in the office, except that it is expected.

For large corporate clients, I won't even get too far into collaboration tools. Google Docs and Bugzilla are not even considered. And the enterprise tools are buggy and awful, so no one uses them unless actually required to. Collaboration is email. Or the corporate IM, which only works over the corporate network, so people working from home often cannot be reached at all.

If you think this is about you, it's not. I wrote something similar as a private email over a year ago, and it keeps being true based not on any one case, but on trends with dozens of different organizations.

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