Distributed work: communication in an ‘officeless firm’

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Distributed work: communication in an ‘officeless firm’
  Distributed work:communication in an‘officeless firm’ Yi Lai and Brendan Burchell This paper describes and analyses an ‘officeless firm’, where allemployees work from their own homes. Drawing upon obser-vations and interviews, the modes of communication and thenature of the interpersonal relationships that have permittedthis organisation to succeed are described, along with the chal-lengesthatfacethisorganisationinthefutureasitattemptsto grow. Introduction and background New information and communication technologies (ICTs) have enabled new organ-isational forms to flourish. This paper is a case study of one particular type of organ-isation: a small firm without a central office, where each employee works from theirown home. We examine the types of communication used by this company, the advan-tages that have accrued, and the challenges inherent in this form of organisation. Tounderstand this case study we draw upon the work organisation literature, and inparticular the concepts of (1) distributed work and (2) virtual teams. Distributed work ThewidespreadandintensiveutilisationofICTsisoneoftheprominentcharacteristicsof distributed work. The defining characteristic of a distributed work team is that itincorporates members who are based at locations remote from one another and typi-cally make heavy use of ICTs such as e-mail, telephone and an intranet to facilitatecommunication and collaboration (Lipnake and Stamps, 2000; Cramton, 2002).Distributed work can take a number of forms, including: Yi Lai (yl282@cam.ac.uk) is a PhD student at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at theUniversity of Cambridge. Brendan Burchell ( bb101@cam.ac.uk) is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. His research interests include job insecu-rity, work intensification and the quality of working life.New Technology, Work and Employment 23:1-2ISSN 0268-1072 © 2008 The Authors Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main St,Malden, MA, 02148, USA Distributed work   61  •  Not having a permanent work location on company premises; •  Teams being formed with members located at two or more workplaces, possiblyeven in different countries; •  Working at sites intentionally located to be nearer the employees’ homes; and •  Work at least part of the time at home (Bélanger and Collins, 1998).According to Citera (1998), physical proximity plays an important role in collabora-tion and coordination of work teams.As the physical distance between team membersgrows, their contact may be less frequent and the cost of interacting may increase(Kraut  et al. , 1990). Physical separation along with geographic distance place increaseddemands on an organisation’s communication system (Citera, 1998). Virtual teams The second, related literature concerns virtual teams. Virtual teams are described asgroups of geographically, organisationally or temporally dispersed workers broughttogether by information and telecommunication technologies to accomplish one ormore organisational tasks (DeSanctis and Poole, 1994; Alavi and Yoo, 1997; Jarvenpaa andLeidner,1999).Drawingfromthevariousexistingdefinitionsofvirtualteams,theyshare common features such as the preponderant reliance on ICTs to communicatewith each other, the flexible composition and the ability to traverse traditional organ-isational boundaries and time constraints (Powell  et al. , 2004). According to Bélangerand Collins (1998), a virtual team is one form of distributed work, and the two termsare interchangeable under many circumstances.In order to take advantage of ‘team virtuality’ (Kirkman and Mathieu, 2007) in adistributed environment, companies need to exploit the potential of communicationand information technologies (Anderson  et al. , 2007).A central concern for distributed team members is the efficiency and efficacy of distant communication. Team coordination or team behaviours are usually consideredto be conducted more effectively in face-to-face environments than in distributedenvironments. Team members working from separate locations who communicate viatelephone, e-mail or instant messenger exchange less information during a givenperiod of time than their face-to-face counterparts because ICTs are less conducive toconveying information such as facial expressions or body gestures which are moreeasily noticed in face-to-face interactions (Stone and Posey, 2008). However, commu-nication media such as e-mail is argued to be a lean method in its written format butnot in its content which could also indicate power cues (Panteli, 2002) or function as a‘communication buffer’.The various advantages and disadvantages of ICTs and face-to-face communicationare well discussed by researchers and literature; however, the emphasis of this paperis not the exclusion of one for the other but how they are, in practice, combined inorder to facilitate distributed teamwork. The design of ‘media ecologies’ (Nardi andWhittaker, 2002) is a comprehensive proposal for the balancing of communicationdevices. Media ecologies refer to the process by which a particular mix of media isused depending on the nature of the work and contextual aspects of the workplace.Media ecologies are ‘information ecologies’—local habitations of people, practices,technologies and values (Nardi and O’Day, 1999).Lipnake and Stamps (2000) observed virtual teamwork in IBM, Sun Microsystemsand Motorola, and concluded that the success and failure of distributed teams wasprimarily contingent upon trust. Trust functions like the glue that holds and linksdistributedteammemberstogether(KanawattanachaiandYoo,2002)whentheycannotmonitor or control one another. However, trust ‘needs touch’ (Handy, 1995). Withlimited opportunities to ‘touch’ members, trust could become fragile and temporary( Jarvenpaa and Leidner, 1999).The aim of this case study of Puma Consulting is to investigate distributed work andthe communication processes through which distributed team members worktogether, learn from one another and create shared understandings and relationshipswhich are essential to their activities. © 2008 The Authors Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd 62  New Technology, Work and Employment  This paper starts with a description of the company we refer to as ‘Puma Consult-ing’, 1 and the research methods employed in this novel case study. Next, the mainmethods of communication among employees are described and evaluated. In section3 the particular advantages and the ways in which trust and identity have been devel-oped are described. Section 4 discusses some of the challenges facing the companyand disadvantages of the officeless firm, in particular the challenges of isolation andexpansion. The distributed team and the Puma case-study Puma Consulting is a software consulting company consisting of four members.During the fieldwork it was in a period of transition, having recently recruited a fourthmember of staff to compliment the three founding employees, who had the status of company directors. ‘Bill’ was the management director, ‘Peter’ technical director and‘Michael’, the development director. David joined them in July 2004 to promote mar-keting. The company does not possess a central office, mainly because of the cost of acquiring and maintaining commercial office space; all four work from their homes.The work involved team collaboration combining ICTs such as e-mails, intranet, tele-phone (including the voice-over-internet service, Skype; note research was conducted before Skype became widely used), fax and face-to-face meetings to communicate. Thethree founding members had known one another (but not well) before they started thecompany in 2001, as they had all been employed by the same previous employer. Theirwork for Puma involved both team collaboration and individual work.It is not possible to assess accurately the prevalence of this organisational form thatwerefertoasan‘officelessfirm’.Asmallnumberofotherfirmswithasimilarstructureof employees each working from home has been identified after extensive searches, forinstance, Bellwether Enterprises (www.bellwether.co.uk). So, although not unique, thisorganisational form seems to be rare in the UK, but likely to become more common asICT technology becomes ubiquitous. Methodology: the case study The main fieldwork was undertaken over a three-month period in the spring of 2005.Contact has been maintained, and the company has continued to thrive in the sameform up until the most recent contact in November 2006. Access to the company wasestablished through Bill. Our proposal to study the company was put to the otheremployees at a meeting, and was unanimously agreed.Studyinganofficelessorganisationraisedinterestingmethodologicalchallengesandrequired innovative research methods. Organisational ethnographers typically spendtimeonthepremisesofcompaniesthattheystudytoobservethecustomsandpracticesof the organisation and can opportunistically observe formal and informal interactions between employees (Neyland, 2007). The study of Puma provided no such oppor-tunities for such observation, and so had to rely on more explicitly negotiated access toindividuals in their own home-based offices and their meetings. In addition to this,interaction between members was investigated by asking them to keep diaries of theircommunications.During the research three of their lunchtime face-to-face meetings were observed atBill and Peter’s houses. Each meeting lasted for two to three hours depending on theagenda and members’ schedule afterwards. Interviews with Bill and Peter were con-ducted at their respective homes after the meetings and both interviews lasted for 1hour and 45 minutes. Michael’s one-hour interview was carried out on universitypremises. The longest interview was with David: it was arranged at one of his officesand it lasted more than two hours. Observation of Bill’s home office in the attic of hishouse was made after interviewing him: Bill placed one PC and one laptop in the atticand there were programming-related books and computer games in his book case.There were piles of documentation on his desk and attic floor. He told us that ‘as soonas I pull the ladder up and shut the hatch, I’m completely by myself’. © 2008 The Authors Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Distributed work   63  In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with all four members con-cerning their insights and feelings towards their work. An interview with one of Puma’s most important clients was also carried out in order to validate the viewsexpressed in the interviews with Puma workers. Each member of Puma was also askedto choose a typical working day and complete a diary detailing their work hours andmethods of communication. The diaries complemented and provided cross-validationfor observations and interview data. Findings Because Puma members spend most of their working time physically separated fromone another, they placed high demands on the use of ICT. With the consensus thatcommunicationcanbeacentralconcernfordistributedteams(Citera,1998),analysisof theirvariousmodesofcommunicationisacentralfocusofthisresearch.Telephonewasconsidered as ‘too commonplace’ (Peter) and ‘nothing special worth mentioning’ (Bill)so the following discussion does not include telephone usage among Puma members. E-mail Puma members reported that they were generally satisfied with the daily use of ICTsandreportedthate-mailwasthemostprevalentmethodofcommunication.Asidefromits convenience, the reasons for this preference were simple. On the one hand, allmembers except David had strong technological backgrounds so that they werefamiliar with this mode of communication; also, most of their clients were used toe-mail. Thus, e-mail became the most common and efficient means of communicationadopted by Puma members.As Walsh and Bayma (1996) state, e-mail is fast, cheap and allows easy transforma-tion of short messages and long documents, all of which make collaboration withdistant colleagues more feasible. E-mail increases distributed members’ contact withone another and access to the information, helping to make collaborations more effi-cient and effective (Walsh and Maloney, 2002). In the case of Puma, members usede-mails and other devices for daily business and personal contact. Without the feasi- bility of observing their daily communication, the working diaries highlighted theircommunication methods over the course of a single working day (Tables 1 and 2).When asked to give comments on the usage of e-mails during the interview, Billstated that: using e-mail is very convenient when I need to get some technical support from my colleagues. Itiseasytoattachthewholedocumentanditisfast. . . . Italsohelpstosavehugephonebillsespeciallywhen we need to contact clients abroad (Bill). However, as Bill noted, e-mail was not perfect for Puma members: ‘You can’t putemotional content in [an e-mail] very easily’. Interestingly, a commonly cited disadvan-tage of e-mail—the non-instant response—was in contrast regarded by Michael as anadvantage;forexample,heconsiderede-mailasa‘communicationbuffer’andsaidthatwhen he was busy and had to concentrate on his work, Table 1: Communication methods of Puma members in a day(source: Puma members’ working diaries) Name and date E-mails Phone calls Face-to-face meetingsBill, 17/05/05 7 2 2David, 11/05/05 23 7 4Peter, 12/05/05 9 4 2Michael, 17/05/05 13 2 1 © 2008 The Authors Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd 64  New Technology, Work and Employment  Icanqueuethem[e-mails]upandIcandealwiththeminthemorningortheevening,orevenleavethem to the next day and quickly check them, if they’re not urgent (Michael). Contrary to the criticism that e-mails may cause misunderstanding among distrib-uted members (Armstrong and Cole, 2002), Puma members did not appear to haveexperienced this problem. When confronting the ambiguity or confusion, Bill said hewould phone up or even meet people face-to-face to clarify any unclear points. Nev-ertheless, this only occurred on rare occasions.According to Daft and Lengel’s (1984) media richness theory, face-to-face communi-cation is the richest medium and follows the telephone, impersonal written documentsand numerical documents are the leanest. E-mail as a written and asynchronous formof communication does not meet the requirements for a rich medium. However, evenlean media can be ‘rich’ in many senses. Among Puma members, it was not themedium itself but the way in which members use the medium that was deemedthe most relevant predictor of their performance. Puma members regarded e-mail asthe most convenient and helpful form of communication to deal with daily businesscontacts, access support for programme documentation, and to keep in touch withfriends. They took full advantage of e-mail and thus made it a lean ‘rich’ method inaccordance with the communication richness theory (Ngwenyama and Lee, 1997). ‘Idea basket’—the intranet Telephone, instant messenger and intranet are also used by Puma members.Intranets—company web sites designed for internal use—are an important technologi-cal innovation that can assist management and communication within distributedworkforces. (Hollingshead  et al. , 2002). The introduction of intranets in terms of loca-ting, storing and retrieving the data, information and knowledge that distributedworkers’ need for their individual and collective work solves key problems for dis-tributed teams (DeSanctis and Monge, 1999).According to Hollingshead  et al.  (2002), intranets play an increasing part in indi-vidual and organisational activities, such as reading company news, using internalsearch engines and hyperlinks, accessing individual and group data, information andknowledge sharing and group interaction. During the participant observation, Billdemonstrated the  Wiki  system that they had adopted as Puma’s intranet. Pumamembers could edit the webpages on their intranet themselves. If there were sugges-tions, comments or information, members could put them on a Wiki page. Billdescribed the ‘Idea Basket’—a critical section of the intranet, and stated that it was veryuseful. This was a collection or list of members’ ideas. When a team member came upwith new ideas, they were able to type them into this ‘basket’, and when there was achance or when they had sufficient time, they could discuss the validity and feasibilityof these ideas and suggestions. Puma members logged on to their ‘basket’ from time totime to save some ‘unexpected inspirations’ or make notes of interesting ideas. Theintranet webpages also contained a clients’ information list in which old and newcustomers’ names and contact details were all located in case they needed to becontacted quickly from any location. Table 2: Number of e-mails sent in a day (source: Puma members’ working diaries) With PumamembersWith clients/customersFriends Family OthersBill 3 1 3 0 0David 9 3 2 2 7Peter 2 0 3 0 4Michael 6 4 3 0 0 © 2008 The Authors Journal compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Distributed work   65
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