Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us.”
As a teleworking manager looking in on a traditional office environment, the dangers of the office often seem frighteningly similar to those faced by the crew of the Starship Enterprise when they encountered the Borg in Star Trek, First Contact. For those unfamiliar, the Borg is a fictitious cyber genetic race that strives to achieve perfection by assimilating all biological and technological material into itself. It basically floats around in space and sucks up everything it encounters. Once an individual is “assimilated,” they become part of “the hive.” They think with one mind called “the hive mind,” and act as a single unit.
In my line of work, original thinking was a requirement. Our formal government mission was to “transform” the way the Department of Defense makes investment decisions – specifically around what the government viewed as discretionary and often wasteful spending, Information Technology . The government knew long ago that it was facing financial ruin and stood up organizations like the one I was a part of to work on spending machines like the Defense Department. We were asked to build a system of processes that would enable the Defense Department to spend it’s investment money more efficiently.
Obviously, the actual spending is happening in organizations throughout the DoD. If we were to have an impact, we had to get to know them – in some respects, better than they knew themselves. We had to study how they related to one another and how the various echelons supported or hindered one another. Spending time away from the office and focusing on other Defense organizations and relationships was, in my opinion, a good idea. I had almost 20 years of experience with various levels of the Defense Department when I started. After some study, my hunting party was well equipped and we had a plan.
Some of my staff worked in the classic office setting. Others were deliberately encouraged to stay away from the office and do two things: 1. watch what the office (our office) was becoming 2. dig deeper into the fabric of the rest of the DoD – specifically as it pertained to Defense investment spending and Transformation as defined by the 2005 version of 10USC2222. We spent a lot of time looking at and talking about decision making behavior patterns, politics, and results.
It became clear that the organization I worked for had a tough mission. We were supposed to help make course corrections in a Department that had more than 200 years of cultural tradition. Our organization’s mission was not well received by DoD. We became isolated. To my frustration, we (the organization I worked for) exacerbated the problem by closing doors, splashing lot’s of stuff on white boards and essentially designing “the solution” for the DoD without communicating with the DoD. Many staffs had minimal (if any) time in “the field,” and the solutions they developed were a bridge to far for most Defense organizations to embrace – or even understand. When my organization encountered resistance to their ideas, they went back to “the office,” closed the doors again, and engineered something even more outrageous. Before long, the already strained relationship between my organization and the rest of the DoD was insurmountable. The agency was closed in 2011.
While all of this was going on, my teleworking staff and I were sort of floating in the space between traditional “office” organizations. We were kinda like citizens without a country. The perspective that gave us was remarkable. We saw the decline and fall of that organization long before the announcement was made. We watched an organizational implosion as one might watch the death of a star from the Hubble.
“The perspective that gave us was remarkable.”
From a management perspective, I had the greatest difficulty with staff who were embedded in the traditional office setting. They seemed to get caught up in local office politics, local crises, poor morale, and crippling organizational group think. These were good and talented people who wanted to be helpful, but their desire to help and be part of a group often worked against them. They helped others at the expense of more important, mission critical work. My traditional office workers clearly got caught up in “the hive” mentality. As conditions got worse, they became even more embattled – as if they were genetically programmed to protect the queen. Meanwhile, my teleworking employees seemed more resistant, if not immune to the mess. My teleworking employees produced more results – results that I am still proud of more than a year later.
My frustrations as a manager were weekly with my traditional office staffs. They were off doing this or that instead of what they were supposed to be working on (it’s ironic in my mind that many “office-based managers” often say they worry about this with their telework staff). Work in the office got done at a notably slower pace. Critical follow up was interrupted by one local crisis after another. Morale was low in the office – that was obvious and understandable. But the traditional office setting seemed to suck anyone who lingered too long into it’s tarry black depths.
New employees who came in full of enthusiasm and open to new ideas were, in some case, consumed by the office Borg. They seemed to lose their individuality and creative energy. They were absorbed by the erroneous and disconnected thinking that infected the place.
Instead of working on the real problems, I too often found myself having to deconflict the office setting. The world outside the agency went on while the agency consumed itself.
Every trip to the office seemed to me like an adventure in educating. I literally spent most of my time trying to educate my staffs (and others) about the importance of communication, understanding our customers, getting outside the office mentally, and focusing on the mission. As one who believed strongly that our mission was to serve the world outside our building, I found it increasingly difficult over time to keep employees plugged in. I “lost” more than a few to that place.
What’s more is I discovered this same phenomenon in other organizations. Sure, my own agency was an extreme and malignant case that was eventually shut down, but every organization I encountered had some element of this Borg-like condition. In some ways, government organizations behave like a cluster of Borg hives. Each organization attempting to build it’s empire and assimilate as many resources as it can. It’s one of the things that is preventing the Defense Department from getting it’s financial house in order.
For me, the discussion on teleworkers vs traditional office workers has to include a discussion of individual focus and mission focus. Those who work in a traditional office environment speak often about the mission of the organization – meaning the building or individual department they work in (like accounting or human resources). People feel good about helping office mates with X,Y and Z (I do too); but this sometimes comes at the expense of critical tasks we need to get done to support customers outside the organization. Note: “customers,” in this context means the people who use or consume the products or services created by the organization.
In my experience, a properly prepared teleworking employee has the edge over an employee working in a traditional office environment in terms of being able to focus on the things the government needs us to focus on. Teleworking employees are not as easily sucked into local office politics or drama. Teleworking efficiency can exceed that of a traditional office environment. Teleworking employees have the ability (and often the occasion) to see beyond the four walls of their parent organization, and they can bring tremendous value and perspective.
Please share your thoughts on the pros and cons of the traditional office workplace vs the telework, distributed or virtual office environment.
I’d love to hear from you either way.