Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Working away can weaken corporate culture

Published 24 January 2013 01:28, Updated 26 November 2013 18:35

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Working away can weaken corporate culture

Home and away: Working remotely can weaken connections between employees Photo: Michele Mossop

Rosemary stopped going in to the office at IBM three years ago. So many people in her team had taken up the work-from-home options that it was no longer worth the trek in. “There was no one there any more,” she says.

“It didn’t happen suddenly. It was over a period of years and I started working from home one day a week and then more. At IBM, it does depend on your manager and what they like but my manager works from home and so does everyone else in the team,” says Rosemary (not her real name), an IT specialist.

Working from home is a godsend to those who want to avoid commuting, spend more time with family, or have peace and quiet to focus on what they need to do. But what happens to a company culture when nobody comes in to the office any more?

Rosemary isn’t sure: “I don’t know if I am an IBMer any more. Maybe I’m not.”

After about eight years with the company, she raises an interesting issue. She’s not even sure if it matters. The benefits of being able to balance work and family are so immense that a dwindling lack of connection to a place or an employer doesn’t bother her.

“IBM is in everything I do. Every time I log on, it is to an IBM website. All the calls I make are to IBM numbers,” she shrugs.

Former IBM chief executive Louis Gerstner, explaining how he turned around the fortunes of the company, once said: “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything.”

IBMers were once famous for having their own lingo and dress code that immediately separated them from any other large company – but now they could as equally be working in their pyjamas as a blue suit.

The director of strategy, organisational culture and change, and gender diversity (Australia), IBM, Megan Dalla-Camina, says working from home is not killing the IBM culture, it is transforming it.

“Video conferencing, teleconferencing ensure you are connected and engaged – it is just that it is in a different way.”

“IBM has been on this global integrated enterprise path for many, many years. We work with people all over the world, in different time zones and different countries. People work from their homes and from cafes,” she says. “They say it has a positive effect on their productivity”.

In this country, 78 per cent of people at IBM work flexibly to some extent.

The rising cost of office space, the need to cut costs and people’s desire to work from wherever, means that – like it or not – this is an unstoppable trend.

“The workforce is only going to become more distributed,” says Dalla-Camina. “This is the future of work. This is the future of the world. We just adapt and grow in different ways.”

She says culture (the way we do things around here) is still important because people have a need to belong and employers need to make sure their people represent the values of the company. But it is no longer about a place, or even face-to-face contact.

Culture is about a unifying set of values: “That drives behaviour,” says Dalla-Camina. At IBM, those values are dedication to every client’s success, innovation that matters for the company and the world, and trust and personal responsibility in all relationships.

“I think that when you look at IBM culture . . . the values are so core, and the behaviour those values drive are so deeply ingrained in the DNA in who we are and what we do.

“The mode of working, whether you are physically sitting next to someone or not, doesn’t seem to be an important factor for us.”

Importantly, at IBM, those values were created by an all-employee program. They came from the “bottom up”, rather than being imposed from above.

The company maintains that culture by recruiting people who fit and making sure people are connected through technology.

Says Dalla-Camina: “Social connections, fuelled by technology, are just as strong.”

As far as making sure that people are productive when they are not in the office, IBM requires managers to set clear timelines and outcomes.

Rosemary says she was distracted at first when she started working from home. “Then I realised I wasn’t getting the work done. I think everybody has to go through that transition,” she says.

According to the Australian managing partner at consultancy Veldhoen + Company, Luc Kamperman, the problem is not staff goofing off at home but not knowing when to stop working.

“The bigger challenge is: Where do you stop your working day? In most cases, people are overworking,” he says.

Netherlands-based Veldhoen is a pioneer of activity-based working (ABW), encouraging remote working by abolishing the concept of people having their own desks. It introduced the concept to Macquarie Bank in Sydney.

While many overseas companies use ABW to give employees freedom to choose when and how to work, in Australia most employers see the potential to cut real estate costs.

“This is the wrong way to do it,” says Kamperman. “In Australia, so far, what I have encountered is that [work] is still very much based on a management style of being seen and seeing what others are doing.”

“It is about being physically connected, face-to-face. The whole idea of working from home . . . has been treated with some scepticism and not really as a business opportunity.”

Kamperman says that working away from the office means it inevitably takes up a smaller proportion of people’s social lives. People instead make closer connections in the communities in which they live in if they work from home or in local cafes or shared working spaces.

Cutting connections to workmates may not suit everybody but the point of ABW is that people can make choices about how they work. “It’s a freedom within boundaries,” says Kamperman.

In most cases, without face-to-face contact, there will be a loss of team cohesion and the organisation has to find ways to counteract that. In some companies there is an agreement about the minimum time colleagues should spend in each others’ presence.

There can be arrangements made to celebrate birthdays as an opportunity to get people together.

Kamperman says that rather than weakening company culture, the loose physical bonds make it even more important.

“It is the job of a manager to create a fantastic community culture,” he says. “To become more of a network.”

“By letting go and giving freedom, you get a different kind of connection back – one that is stronger because it is given freely.”

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