Notes on the future of distributed work and organizations

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I am sitting in the lounge at Sydney airport, about to fly to San Francisco. It is the ease of the iPad that allows me to put up this post on the fly.

I came straight to the airport from a media panel organized by Cisco to follow up on their Connected World research study. Below are the notes I managed to catch on my iPad as we spoke..

The panellists were:
Senator Kate Lundy, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister
Jacob Murray-White, Head of Salmat’s Customer Solutions at Home Programme
Fernanda Afonso, National Chair of Australian Psychological Society and Specialist, Freehills.
Ross Dawson, Futurist

Les Williamson, Managing Director of Cisco Australia, told the story of how Cisco was born from love. Two academics at Stanford University were in a relationship, but worked on opposite sides of the campus. They created a multi-protocol router to communicate, started building them commercially in a garage, got funded, and grown spectacularly since then.

Below are live notes from the panel. I haven’t attributed them as they sometimes bring together comments from several people or my interpretation. It was a fascinating discussion.

The context is an extraordinary fast-paced and increasingly competitive

Some of the biggest challenges we face are in valuing diversity in how people think. Education in differences will take us a long way.

Connectivity provides a fundamental opportunity for organizations and nations. Closing the digital divide will give people choice in where they work. The National Broadband Network initiative makes Australia a fascinating test-bed for how this could work.

When you can offer work anywhere in the country, it attracts incredibly well qualified people. Any organization that does that has an advantage over those that do not.

Distributed work enables a nation’s talent and expertise to be tapped as never before. Once people’s expertise and talent can be better matched to where it has value, there are enormous benefits. It can build national competitiveness and social well-being to a massive degree.

Australia’s multicultural nature is one of its greatest strengths. In a connected world this enables us to bring together our talents, and link to global expertise and clients.

We need a sense of being connected to community. The reality is that as social animals, humans do need face-to-face meetings and communication.

At Salmat remote staff work on average 12 hours a week, so work is not their primary social expression. They have an internal discussion forum called Campfire which is used for both work and social purposes. People share what they are watching on TV and many other personal issues.

It’s not just about working from home, it’s also about creating co-working spaces in suburbs or regional centers, which will provide a social space for remote work. This will reduce commuting times, save resources, and give a better balance between ease of work and the socialization that drives successful work and business.

Business needs to seize the opportunity.

Government needs to lead by example in the use of social networks as well as create the infrastructure.

Many small businesses are concerned about remote work. However they need to be aware that giving flexibility attracts and retains staff, and that the real focus needs to be on outcomes achieved rather than hours worked. Some companies are beginning to use tools to monitor that their staff are actually working at their computer, and finding ways to overcome the sensitivities associated with that.

Industries that are well suited to distributed work include professional services (as long as there are opportunities to build strong relationships) and financial services. Health care is beginning to shift online. Physical retail, for example, is of course far harder to do remotely.

Work-life balance is a real issue for which there are no easy, neat solutions. Individuals need to set boundaries and stick to them. Organizations that try to take flexibility from their staff without giving it back will find it ever-harder to hire people.

We still don’t know whether a world of distributed work will lead to a reversal of the massive trend to urbanization. There is the potential for that, but if it happens it will probably be primarily based around regional centers that provide a genuine social and cultural hub.

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