Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Distance Working

I had an interesting discussion today with someone planning to make a TV documentary about people working from a distance. In particular they were looking at the trend towards living in France and Spain whilst still working in the UK.

Because air fares are so cheap (at least if you book well in advance) it is economical to live in the south of France and work in London, or other parts of the UK. With an increasing number of jobs involving electronic communications and a minimum of face-to-face contact it seems entirely reasonable to take advantage of better weather and a cheaper cost of living somewhere around the Mediterranean and commute back two or three times a month to the UK for meetings.

However it seems that most of the people who do this are self-employed or running their own business so they don't have a boss to answer to. Once management gets involved there are all sorts of reasons produced as to why this mode of working is totally impractical. When will organisations realise that they are only going to keep their talent if they have a broader view of how work gets done?

There is an argument that we are living in a temporary period of low air fares and they will have to rise with increasing costs of fuel and environmental taxes. But even so, the cost of traveling from France to the UK is likely to be less than 5 times more than the cost of commuting to working the UK (particularly in London). So if people only come to the office once a week instead of 5 times, they are still better off even if air prices do take off (excuse the pun!!).

But we would need to organise work so people are not expected to attend meetings at short notice. Is it just lazy management that we expect people to be available at short notice for meetings or is work so unpredictable that we cannot be organised in advance?


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Video Meetings

Just had a fascinating workshop at Henley entitled 'Tools to support the virtual team' where we looked at various ways that people are communicating in distributed teams. We covered Instant Messaging and other text-based media and then went on to video conferencing. Our discussion was around how these technologies can make teams/meetings more effective and contribute to the business bottom line.

There was common agreement that a lot of wasted travel time and cost could be saved in cutting back on the number of face-to-face meetings and using video instead. However there seems to be a reluctance to adopt the technologies. Is this just technophobia, which will disappear with a new generation of managers/employees coming in, or is it that the technology is just too poor a substitute for the 'real thing'? Since the technology has not been tried on a widespread basis it looks like there must be some significant inertia built into our current working habits.

With environmental pressures increasing and the cost of travel rising there will be an increasing need to look at the need for so many meetings. Why do we need to travel for one or two hours to get to meet someone in person who we can see them on a screen with out the travel?

There is a lack of good case studies and cost-benefit analyses to show why businesses need video technologies. It is often assumed that you have to invest in thousands of pounds of kit in order to use videoconferencing and then have dedicated ISDN lines. However, today I've seen a demonstration of a video meeting using broadband/internet connections with four people happily participating. This was based on Microsoft's Livemeeting so it had whiteboarding and application sharing and it was combined with Arel anywhere video software. The clever thing about this setup was that the user just needs a PC, webcam and to download two small pieces of software. They can then log in to the servers (one button operation from Outlook) and use the meeting room. As with a physical meeting room it has to be booked and costs £50 per hour which is comparable to the cost of renting meeting space for a face to face meeting. Or for £6k per year you can have your own meeting room available whenever you wish.

I think this is the future! We will all think twice aboutravelingng to meet people if we can have a virtual meeting instead. But back to the present; we need to find ways of helping people to see the potential of virtual meetings and to try working differentlyUnfortunatelyey IT suppliers are often too busexplainingng the features of the product and thedon'tnt get to talk about the benefits for the user. Also IT departments can get in the way, refusing to let video traffic through the firewall and only allowing a standard package oapplicationsns on PC's. Then there are managers who don't want to let their people work remotely and HR people putting policies in the way of progress.

Despite the inertia I reckon we will all be using video calls/meetings in 5 years time.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Age Discrimination

It seems that Age Discrimination has hit the headlines in the UK recently with the introduction of legislation. Suddenly people are aware that older workers may still have something to contribute to the economy and need not be put out to graze in their 50's and 60's.

I think the emphasis is still too much on the 'fairness' issue, giving individual rights to be treated without discrimination. Employers shouldn't need to be forced by legislation to consider older workers, they should be encouraged to recognise that there is a pool of highly talented and able people who would like to work and who would be highly productive.

The problem is that older workers are often seen as more expensive than their younger colleagues. This comes from the hierarchical way we look at jobs in organisations. The longer you've been around, the more you get paid until you are eventually too expensive. There is very little opportunity to 'downshift' within organisations so people have to leave and find a 'lower level' job elsewhere.

Why can't employers encourage older employees to stay on and transition slowly to retirement over a number of years? It is ridiculous to say that one day before someone's 60th or 65th birthday they are fully employed and one day after they are no longer of any use. It is only because we have a rigid view of work that this happens.

With the demise of many pension schemes people will need to work longer to be able to maintain their standard of living in retirement. Why not have people working one or two day a week into their 80's? If they are going to live well into their 90's they will still have plenty of time for retirement! In 1948 we introduced retirement for males at 65 and females at 60. A man of 65 then would live on average for a further 12 years and now will live for 16; so to keep the length of retirement constant the state pension age should already be 69 for men. To meet our current drive for equality and have identical lengths of retirement, women should now be retiring at 72!

This is not just a financial issue. It also doesn’t make sense from a life cycle point of view. It is ridiculous that people work flat out during their 20s 30s and 40s at the same time as bringing up a family and then continue to work hard during their 40s and 50s at a time their own parents may need more care and attention. Then, just as these responsibilities disappear, they leave the workforce and enter a life of full-time leisure. Wouldn’t it make more sense if people enjoyed more time with their families during the earlier years and spread their working lives out a bit thinner. So instead of cramming work into 30 years why not spread it out over 50 or 60 and take life at a more leisurely pace?