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How can a virtual office work?? December 5, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Green Business, Resourcing, Virtual Office.
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I am a very adament proponent of the virtual office/remote employee/telecommuting model of business.  I think that it is the next logical office environment for many businesses and business people.  In today’s environment where expense reductions are a huge priority, energy costs are high (or will be high again), the green movement is charging, and technology is vastly improving the virtual office has not only become feasible but even sensible.  I believe that soon for many people it will become a no brainer and then it will become a standard.  Now, those days are still a little ways away and some businesses won’t work in that model.

Problems

Now, I have heard many positives and from other people many negatives.  I think that the biggest thing that has to change to support the virtual environment is management style.  In today’s environment many managers manage using presence.  Their presence is supposed to be the reason that you are responsible and get your work done.  That is where the adage “The cat’s away the mice will play” came from.  The manager is there and he’ll be looking over your shoulder so you better get things done. 

As an offshoot of that many managers believe that they have to be able to walk out to your desk and sit down and watch you work in order to portray a sense of urgency.  Those same managers are usually the micromanagers that want to watch what time you “clock in” and “clock out”, how long your lunch was, your phone records, your internet logs, your conversations, your meetings, your bathroom breaks, how much coffee you drank, etc.  In this way they can not be as worried about the quality of the hire, they can just lord over you.

Now, I will say those models will not work in a virtual world.  They can’t.  You can’t be present in a virtual office.  You can’t stop by my desk if you’re in New York and I’m in Jackson Wyoming.  It will not work.  Many managers are very scared by this concept.  They don’t see how they can manage without having these “tools”. 

I have also heard that it’s too easy to just not do your work.  Also, it’s too easy for the workers to get distracted.  I agree to some extent and for some people.  That is why hiring the right people and proper management is so important.

Change in management

I just read an article in Entrepreneur magazine that describes some of the techniques that will work well in that environment.   The underlying concept was quite simple … Proper Communication.  Virtual offices require communication.

In the IT development world we have a concept that is called Agile Development.  Within that school of thought there is model called the Scrum model.   Scrum has a few concepts that would help in a virtual environment: sprints, burn down sheets, and Scrum meetings.

First, the sprint.  What is a sprint?  It is a timeframe (typically a month) in which a pre-designated and agreed to amount of work will get done by the team.  This sets the timeframe and amount of work and it is agreed to by all parties.  It is NOT allowed to be extended.

Second, burn down charts.  This is the list of items that will be completed during the sprint.  This list is updated on a daily basis as a running tally of what is left.  If an issue arises, items are removed from the burn down but the sprint is not extended.

Third, scrum meetings.  Scrum meetings are sometimes called the daily standup.  They are standup meetings that happen everyday but are limited in timeframe.  They have very specific guidelines.  They start on time, they are limited to 15 minutes, only stakeholders can speak, and the meetings are the same time and place every day.

So now you have a list of todo’s, a timeframe, and a daily checkpoint.  You have built an accountability structure.  It is very quick to see parts that are sliding.  You have limited your exposure by using daily checkpoints and monthly sprints.  You have a designated amount of work so you have a defined goal.

The Scrum concept is a development concept that was designed based on samples and principles from the manufacturing world.  So the core ideas can be utilized anywhere.  The basic model of accountability seems to be an excellent model for virtual offices.

Accountability

The one other huge issue that has to be corrected is to encourage managers to hold their staff accountable.  In an office it’s easier to get away with underperforming employees because they can be micromanaged.  In a virtual world, you can’t do that.  You need to be quick and decisive.  You need to setup a quick method to reprimand.  There needs to be a distinct set of criteria and a equally distinct set of steps for accountability.  Companies can not afford to allow dead weight in a virtual office.  They need to be decisive when someone is not pulling their weight.

As part of the accountability process, the manager has to hire the right people.  You must hire people who can do the job and can follow the rules of the road.  They need to understand the rules and how the team accountability works.  The resource will need to be open to that.  Also, you are going to look for people who strive for success.

This process is eased by using the Scrum-type structure.  It sets measurable goals.  The resources agree to the goals.  It measures the goals.  All you have to add is an accountability process. 

The Wrapping

Well this became a long post.  I am very passionate about this topic.  I believe that the key to the transition to a virtual office is the change of mindset in management.  It must be structured better and more decisive.  If those things are put in place, the virtual world can be very successful.  It is where the world is headed.  We need to embrace it.  In the global economy luddites are not going to succeed.

What are your thoughts?

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A Post about Attitude December 3, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Business Solutions.
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Alright, I’ll admit that I am not certain that this post is completely about efficiency or technology but go with me here.  I just read an article that, while simple, points out what is needed to get the economy rolling and building business and jobs again.

http://blogs.openforum.com/2008/12/03/sell/

In this article Seth Godin outlines a very simple perspective:

The best way to deal with the economy, at least right now, today, is to sell.

I think that he hits the nail on the head.  Instead of simply sitting back and waiting for things to get better, make them better.  This to me is all about attitude.  If you keep your mindset on success that is the direction that you will be headed no matter what the weather.  That is why I think that Seth’s blog is so powerful in it’s simplicity.  What do all businesses do to succeed?  Sell.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily just mean go sell products/services to clients.  It also means sell your visions, your goals, your plan, etc to your partners, your employees, and your investors.  This means sell the idea of making your business better and more successful to everyone.  As Seth says in his article ‘Sell your optimism”.  I think that is extremely important that you keep your focus and keep driving.  If you do others will follow.

It’s easy to get caught on defense. Easy to spend your time reacting to incoming alerts, getting angry about unfair cutbacks, putting out fires here and there. If you do that, you’ll keep doing it, because things just get worse… they usually do.

It is way to easy to take a defensive posture in this type of market.  It is hard to step out and drive your business.  It’s scary. 

The alternative is to take a posture of growth. To realize that great small businesspeople are always selling something to someone. It’s a key part of being a leader and a critical component in running your company.

This is very difficult and it goes against the grain.  But, that is exactly how you grow that business.  If it were easy why would anyone have a job? 

So, with all that said, I would encourage everyone to drive their visions.  Make your businesses more efficient, position your business to explode when things pick up, and sell those visions to everyone around you.

I read this post and honestly kind of view it as a call to arms for small business owners.  Now is the time to get your businesses ready and prepared to boom.  Go for it!

Interesting Einstein Articles October 22, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business Solutions, Efficiency Process.
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Today I was reading the posts from Entrepreneur magazine and there were two that dealt with Albert Einstein.  Now I think that some entrepreneurs really have genius ideas but didn’t really think about some of this before.

10 Traits Entrepreneurs and Einstein Share

Unleash Your Inner Einstein

I bring these articles up not because I am trying to compare myself to Einstein (BE NICE!).  There were a couple of points that I really thought hit some of the things that I have been trying to point out on my blog for the last couple of months.

That’s the way we’ve always done it

Both articles discuss how Einstein always questioned everything.  Einstein was well known for always asking why or why not.  Even when he was told that something worked a specific way he always questioned the “facts” behind what he was told.  In the second article there is a good story about how he questioned the make up of light.  It outlines his thought process and his questioning of the accepted knowledge.

I point this specific point out because in many businesses we don’t question the reasons or the facts behind why we do things the way we do.  The common answer is ‘That’s how it’s always been done’.  This is something that Einstein did not accept and my honest opinion is that it is something that we should not accept either.  I would encourage people to ask ‘Why?’.  In some cases you learn that it is correct and necessary but in other cases you will find that it is something that can be altered to be better.

This really is a core foundation of the theory of constant improvement.  You must question what you are doing in order to improve the process.

New Ways of Thinking

Another characteristic that they describe goes along with the previous one and it is described as “Old problems, new ways of thinking”.  The next comment from the article I feel is a terrific point:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

This is such an important point.  First we have to question “why” and second we have to look at it from a new standpoint.  Probably many things have changed since the original process has been put in place.  You have quite a bit more knowledge, technology, and experience than you probably did when the process was created.  So we must focus on solving the problems using today’s resources.

Be Like Einstein

When Einstein was alive and pondering all of the amazing topics that he did, he was always asking why.  He would come up with what some people would call a “crazy idea” and then think it through to see if he could figure out whether it would work or not.  He was not limited by what everyone else told him were the way things were.  Einstein always wanted to understand why the limits were set as they were. 

I think that it is extremely important for entrepreneurs, business owners, managers, and employees to all look at their businesses from this viewpoint.  This is how innovation happens.  This is how efficiency happens.  This is how greatness happens.

I challenge everyone to at least once this week to really look at something that you do everyday and ask “Why do we do this and why do we do it this way?”.  You may be surprised what you learn.

As always, feel free to contact me if I can help you in any way.

Efficiency/Green Example: Apple Store October 6, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business Solutions, Efficiency Process, Efficient Technologies, Green Business.
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So about a week ago my wife got the new iPod Touch.  Today she wanted to get a protector for it, so we went to the Apple store.  I can honestly say that I have never been in the Apple Store before but I felt like I walked into the future.  Anyway, we picked out the item that my wife wanted and then I saw a sample of efficiency in action.  The person who was helping us pulls out a handheld scanner and scans the item.  He tells me the price and says ‘How would you like to pay?’.  He takes my credit card right there in the middle of the store and swipes it.  Then he says ‘How would you like to receive your receipt?  Paper or email?’.  All I could think was finally someone realizes that I don’t want all of this paper just to throw it away.

I thought that this was a great example of how you can utilize technology to make your business more efficient, customer-friendly, and green at the same time.  It was much more efficient because that salesperson didn’t have to direct me to someone else to take the payment.  More green because they gave me the option of deleting a receipt email over pitching a paper receipt.  Definitely more customer-friendly because I took care of everything in one place and was out of the store and didn’t have to keep a receipt.

Using this as an example, what types of efficiencies could your business utilize to be efficient, green, and customer friendly?

I welcome your comments and please feel free to contact me if you need help with any efficiencies that you come up with.

Technical People vs. Business People September 11, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business Solutions, Development Process.
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The Issue

I have heard and seen so many stories that say “the IS department at our company can never get anything done” or “the users don’t know what they need”.  It is at epidemic stage at many businesses.  At many companies it is an us vs. them idea.  This is extremely sad due to the promise that technology can hold for optimizing the work and business environment.

Typical Scenarios

Why does this happen?  I would say the biggest reasons are: communication, time, and understanding.  Those three items are a triangle.  In many businesses the timeline is set long before anyone spends any time fully outlining the problem.  So by the time that the business unit and IT get together they are already behind the “eight-ball”.  So they limit the communications to a few meetings to describe what the business is looking for.  Many times the business unit doesn’t have the time or the training to create specifications so they leave that to the IT staff.   The IT staff doesn’t have the business training to fully understand what they are being told and what the business unit is trying to do.  So by intermixing lack of time, lack of communication, and lack of understanding the specifications are not complete and quite possibly not correct.  Since the business unit does not completely understand specifications they may think that it is complete and correct.

Once into the project, the business users are now able to see what is coming together and find that it is not what they need or requested.  At this point, there are discussions of what needs to be changed. 

When that happens, there are two routes that are usually pursued.  First, the technical people will have a problem with the change because their solution is “to spec” meaning that it meets the written specifications.  This causes there to be discussions of the specifications being incorrect and many times finger-pointing ensues.  The second possibility is that somebody will just say “fine, we’ll change it” without altering the specifications or understanding the complete scope of the change.  In this scenario, many times changes start to be made without control which causes more issues and more fixes.  This can turn into the “black hole” project.

So what do we do?

Both sides of the equation need to understand that there is a knowledge gap.  The business unit will not typically understand what the technical people are asking/meaning because they are not trained how to develop solutions or even how to do analysis.  The IT staff will not typically understand what the business is asking for and why they are asking for it.  You really need to have one or more people that really understand both sides of the game.  There are a few solutions that I can think of

Business Analyst

In some cases, the solution is a business analyst.  This is a good solution as long as the person understands both sides.  This is a good solution as long as they can understand both sides.  This can be difficult because if you bring an outside analyst who understands analysis they may not understand the business or IT.  If you use and internal business user who really understands the business may have a tough time communicating it to technical people and may not understand how to do the analysis.  If you use a technical person, some of them may not be good with the business and/or analysis.

Education of resources

Some companies will have both sets of resources to spend time with each other to understand what each other does.  They may also spend the time and money to help both sides understand how to do analysis.  The developers will spend time learning how the business runs and the business will spend time learning how the systems will operate.  This can be a great solution.  It can also be time and money intensive.

Solution Architect

This is the term that I use for someone who has the education and ability to do analysis, design and development of the system.  The advantage to someone like this is that they have the ability to work with the business users to do the analysis.  The same person has the ability to architect and design the solution that will solve the problem.  They may even be involved in the development effort.  The advantage you get with someone like this is that less will get lost in translation.  The only thing that the solution architect will need to do is spend time to learn the business process.  This can be done by having that person spend time with business users or maybe even train and allow them to do the job.  This is a process called shadowing.

In many cases, the solution architect has the ability, knowledge, and experience that comes with doing this process many times so they know what they are looking for and really how to learn from what they are watching.  They then will have the ability to analyze and document the process.  From that they would come up with a proposed solution and design and architect it.  This will allow the developers to understand what is being built from a technical aspect.  This allows one person to translate between business and technical people.

Final Thoughts

As I said, it is sad to me that so many IT projects have issues due to timelines, miscommunication, and misunderstandings.  If companies and people will begin to put people in place that can be the “translator” between business and technical jargon, I think more companies will realize the vast improvements that technology can bring.  It really shouldn’t be “us vs. them” it should be “how do we solve this issue?”.  Honestly, in some cases they speak different languages so in turn they need a “translator”.