"Leadership Mantra #1: It all depends." Tom Peters
Cynthia Froggatt, principal of Froggatt Consulting (New York City), advises Fortune 500 companies on leveraging the value of the virtual workplace. She is frequently quoted on the topics of leading from a distance, distributed teams, and cultural change in a variety of media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, Stern Business Journal, and National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
tompeters.com asks ...
What is Work Naked about?
CF: Work Naked is really about freedom, about the most basic freedom of deciding where to work, when to work, and how to work.
Why the need for this book?
CF: I had been doing consulting work in this area for quite a while and had become fairly familiar with the standard obstacles to allowing employees more freedom to work from different places—more mobility. And a lot of the obstacles seemed to me to be ones that were addressed well when people understood what other companies were doing.
So I set out to write a book that was full of stories of all kinds of different companies, and there are nearly 50 companies profiled in a significant way in the book, all the way from government agencies to small virtual companies, large companies, and free agents who benefit from the freedom to set their own schedules.
Who needs most to hear this message?
CF: Business leaders. And that's actually who the book is written to. It doesn't mean everybody else can't benefit from it. But I really wrote it to the business leaders, to say, if you are concerned about innovation, about disaster recovery—which is now a very timely subject—
Disaster recovery? What do you mean by that?
CF: Well, you know, if you have everybody commuting to one place, eight hours a day, and let's say something other than a terrorist action happens. Let's say there's a lot of snow one day and people can't get to work. You're really shut down.
So if people understand how to work from a distance—that means distant from their colleagues, distant from their manager, and in many cases distant from the sort of fully equipped corporate office—then when something happens like an earthquake, a snow storm, a terrorist action, they can still get up and working pretty quickly.
So no more snow days for people. Bummer.
CF: (Laughs.) That's right.
So I've tried to say to business leaders, in their language, "If you're interested in being more innovative, in being more global, in getting your products to market faster, then you really should be freeing up people to work in a different way than the way they're working now." I tried not to come at people with a solution.
For instance, that's why I stay away from the word "telecommuting," because a lot of the books that were already out there on this topic were clearly labeled "telecommuting." You had to already know what that was and already be somewhat interested in that solution to even open the book. I tried to get people to read this book who hadn't already come to the conclusion that they needed to leverage the virtual workplace better.
What is it going to take to get us out of the model where 30,000 people are working in one place, a leftover from when you were making the cars there, so you had to go where the tools were. And now, as Dan Pink points out, I think, in Free Agent Nation, we have all the tools. The knowledge worker has all the tools she needs on her laptop.
And yet even though we have all the tools, culturally we haven't embraced the idea that we can then work anywhere. And what's going to get us through that shift?
CF: Actually, in some cases, what big companies do will get us through that shift. But let me step back one point. You're right, the default is for everybody to go to an office eight hours a day, five days a week. The equally dangerous default that often happens with free agents, for instance, is that if they're not in an office, then they necessarily should be working at home.
Working at home isn't for everyone. There's a woman I interviewed for the book who left a big company. She was in San Francisco, so she said, "Well, the thing to do is work from home. That's what everybody does now if you're a free agent." And after a year, she said, "You know what? This isn't working for me." And at first thought, her only option was to go back to the corporate world with a corporate, centralized office.
And luckily, she actually said, "Well, wait a minute. Maybe there are some other options." And she started exploring other options where she worked outside of her house for most of the time, but not in big companies. She stayed on her own and finally ended up in a situation where she is in an office building with a lot of other small or solo companies, and she shares an office with another woman who is in a completely unrelated business, but they chat and they bounce ideas off each other.
So she gets out of her house, one, and she's around other people, which is the best part. The way I do this is to relate it to how you studied when you were in college, and then extrapolate that to where you should be working now.
One is the dorm-room studier, the person who studied wherever she was living at the time. Then there is the library studier, and the third type is the student who would go to the Student Union or the cafe or sit outside on the lawn or some public setting that had a lot more background noise than a library would.
The dorm-room studier actually intentionally blurs their work and their personal life. So they like the fact they can work for about an hour and then get up and make a personal phone call or do the laundry or wash some dirty dishes.
I was a dorm-room studier. I see it now. Now I get it.
CF: So was I. I have great affection for dorm-room studiers. But the blurring of work and personal life is an important characteristic of that. The other is that they usually like to have a high degree of control over their environment. So they'll say they want to play the music that they like, they want to open the window when they want to open the window, and change the temperature in the room, they want to set the lighting just the way they want it and they like to be able to work at odd times. So if they get up really early in the morning and want to start working, you know, it's not feasible to go out to a library or some other place at that time.
The non-dorm-room studiers are differentiated from them because they have to actually physically segregate their work and their personal life. So even today, they would be the kind of person who tries really hard to not take work home in the evening. They try to do everything at the office. And then when they leave, that's it. Work is over. Now their family life, their home life, picks up.
And they don't really like to do work on the weekend. They keep things in very neat blocks of time. And they find it very distracting to be around all the things that are in the purview of somebody who's working from home.
Now, the major, major difference between that group and the Student Union/public-settings studier—
The people who are now at Starbucks?
CF: Yes, they're the people now at Starbucks. And by the way, you can blend the two of these. Like, I'm a dorm-room/public-setting studier, but I wouldn't be caught dead in a library. (Laughs.) See, I can't concentrate in a library because it's too quiet. And that's what a public-setting studier will tell you. They say the background noise actually keeps them focused. It keeps them motivated and stimulated. It's also like white noise. It's enough to keep them alert.
But what they have in common with the library studiers is that they like to be around other people just to be around other people. Not because they need to talk with them, not because they need to collaborate in some way. They actually get a lot of energy from being around people who are doing somewhat the same thing. Although in a public setting, you know, people are doing lots of different things. So it's not really a collaboration issue.
And that's why when those two groups of people try to work from home for any significant amount of time—and here I'm only talking about solo work, not situations where they really do need collaboration, and they need face-to-face collaboration—but when they try to do their solo work from home, two things usually happen: They overwork and they feel very isolated. They overwork because there's no physical boundary any more between work and home, and they can't mentally create that boundary.
And this is true even for people who had a little building or studio in the backyard, so technically it's physically separate from their home. It's still hard for them to not go out there and work too many hours. And they feel isolated, not because they're not emailing people or phone calling people, but because they're sitting alone.
They're not getting that energy just from the ...
CF: ... presence of other people. So the mistake that some companies make when they're drawing up these checklists of who should be allowed to work from other places—which I hate; I hate the whole checklist idea anyway—but they'll put on there, "You need to be a self-motivated person." And I always say, "Okay. So who actually says, 'No, I need somebody else to be constantly monitoring me.'"
I mean, really, what knowledge worker would actually say, "I need to go to the office so my manager can look over my shoulder for a whole day"?
Only in a Dilbert cartoon, I guess.
CF: Right. But it's not that they need that. And they often don't realize what the issue is. For instance, it took Michelle Foyer—the woman I was talking about before—a whole year to figure it out. It wasn't that she wasn't getting enough face-to-face interaction with the client. It was that she liked to be around other people. And she actually also liked the trip to and from work. It gave her time to think and to clear her head.
But isolation and overwork are probably the two most significant problems that people point to in the virtual workplace. And I don't disagree that they exist. My explanation is that they exist because people have mismatched the environments. And their personal characteristics are what encourages high performance from them. Their overwork is a result of their own personalities, not where they're working.
So, for instance, the library studier sees a sinkful of dirty dishes as a huge distraction calling out to them. You know, if they were trying to work at home—
So they hear this "must be washed, must be washed"?
CF: They had a dinner party the night before and they can't focus on their work because of that. Whereas I think of that as a real convenience; washing dishes is one of the times when I get some really good thinking done, where these big ideas occur to me, and I have to run, dry my hands and write something down on a piece of paper.
But also because if I feel stuck, like an article I'm writing or a report I'm working on isn't going anywhere in the next two hours, I can set it aside and actually do something useful.
Confine me to an office environment again, though, and you know what I would do? I'd still have the same work pattern. I'm going to work for about an hour, hour-and-a-half, and then I need some kind of break. I would go and bother the person next door. So now I have a break, and they're getting an interruption. This is the number one complaint I hear from people about the traditional workplace, that there are too many interruptions.
So it's the sort of mixing of these three types of people inappropriately that causes problems, both in the virtual workplace and in the traditional workplace, too.
But how do you know which of these types you are? It seems to me the biggest challenge is for people to honestly assess what kind of worker they are. But I think it also has to take some kind of an experimentation.
And is corporate America willing to let workers experiment with what works best for them? Because you might think, "Oh, I'd love to work at home," and you go home and, "Ooh, guess what? I was actually a library studier at college."
CF: Most corporate programs do have a way out. Somebody could come back to the office. And when they don't, that's actually not a very good program. But I'm hoping that this really simple analogy about how you studied in school helps people. And it's actually what I speak about most and I get the most reaction to when I do speak to audiences about it.
There's always somebody in the audience who says, "Well, I didn't study in college. So which group should I go with?"
But, generally, I find these college-era categories work for most people. In fact, I've gotten two reactions that I really feel great about, after speaking to a group. One is, when a manager comes up to me and says, "You know, some of my employees have been asking me to be able to work from other places"—whether it's home or a tele-work center or the Starbucks down the street—"but I can't really imagine that they would ever get any work done there."
What they realize is that one solution doesn't work for everyone and that there are these differences. And there are, I'm sure, even finer grain differences than just the three categories. But they say, "Now I realize I was a library studier when I was in school. So when someone asks me if they can work from home, I think, 'Oh yeah, you're going to be about as productive as my roommate was, who stayed back in the room and had a beer while I was in the library slaving away.'"
Because you have to admit, library studiers did think that they had the right study habit and everybody else was just goofing off.
I think a lot of managers are former library studiers, actually. And they say, "You know, now I see that I just think my employees will goof off at home, because that's what I would do if I were at home. So it's all right for me to say I still need to come to the office for X, Y, and Z reasons, but I can see that you would be productive at home."
And the other one that's really rewarding to hear is when parents say to me, "I've been trying to impose a particular kind of studying style on my son or my daughter. I can't understand how they can work with headphones on or with a certain kind of music. And now I see it's really just all a personal choice issue of what motivates somebody versus what distracts somebody, and it's all different."
You can imagine parents, if their kid is listening to loud rock and roll, saying, "You can't possibly be learning anything" just because it doesn't work for them. Which raises the issue of managers; if they're the ones helping to make these decisions, they need to understand that other people can function in a way that they can't—which isn't a small step either—right?
CF: Right. But they are sort of used to that line of thinking, because the whole point of the Myers-Briggs personality assessments is that people have different work styles and you have to learn to relate to their style.
But managers aren't sitting there thinking about these issues until someone decides to call you in saying, "We need help around this." So they do need education around these ideas.
CF: Yes. And I find that education, which is really the whole point of writing a book and having it distributed, and starting a conversation about it, is really all that most people need to get over those hurdles. All they need to release those old mindsets is to have a conversation about it, read something about it that strikes a chord, read about a company that's pretty similar to theirs.
What's interesting to me, though, is that a lot of people have picked up on the whole discussion about open plan versus enclosed offices. But very few people have really thought about what I call the physical context for creativity, where I put three things together: place, activity, and time of day. People need to think about all three of those in terms of peak performance and where you get your best thinking done.
When you have people think about those three things, which is what I like to take groups through in an interactive way, they realize that most of their creative thinking is done in a place that doesn't really look or feel at all like a corporate office, doesn't happen during nine to five, Monday through Friday. Knowledge work happens everywhere all the time. So let's not only acknowledge it, but actually exploit it!
I find that a lot of my good ideas or those solutions to some pesky problem come to me while I'm driving or while I'm showering. And yet we don't really seem to acknowledge those places as work places. Though you do mention Dan Pink, author of Free Agent Nation, who keeps a digital tape recorder in his car for those times when he gets hit with a good idea while driving.
CF: I'm still refining an article that's due soon, but the opening line is something like "Some of the biggest ideas occur in the smallest room in the house"—and it's the bathroom. You mentioned the shower, so instead of some kind of big corporate campus, should we be putting money into really elaborate bathrooms?
It's not just the shower that people mention; when they're brushing their teeth these ideas occur to them. Or while they're putting on make-up, drying their hair—all kinds of activities that happen in the bathroom.
Likewise, not only the car, but also trains, subways. Lots of people said they get some really clear thinking done then. And it is something that happens twice a day for people who are commuting. So I said, "Maybe we should just have people driving around or traveling, but they never get to their destination." (Laughs.)
But the real point is to use the existing infrastructure in ways that work for each kind of individual worker. So instead of turning the car into a work space, just accept that people get work done there. Or at least I should say they do thinking tasks. They sort through ideas there. And just build that in as part of where work gets done. Acknowledge that work gets done there, because thinking is legitimate work time.
I think being prepared for it is very important. And that's why I like your story about Dan Pink, because he has the tape recorder in his car and it's there whenever he wants to record a thought.
So providing tools that assist people in recording ideas, I think, is a great, great idea.
Dan Pink told me about somebody in Washington, D.C. who had set up what he calls an "Elks' Lodge," which is like a Starbucks with a purpose. You can rent office space and they even have a bar. So you don't have to go far at the end of the day to get to your watering hole.
CF: Well, there's certainly room for other types of places in the network. All of the right places do not exist today. And some of the efforts, for instance, to put the infrastructure into place, for instance, so that you can have a wireless connection from outdoor settings—which is actually the case in Washington Square Park right now in Manhattan, which is also surrounded by NYU, so I think it's kind of a student-driven effort—you can get full wireless connectivity there.
And I think that kind of infrastructure is great because it makes public places much more populated and it makes people more willing to use them. So that kind of thing, and Dan's example of some of the places that free agents can share, like a club house, those are some of the things that are missing from the whole network right now.
Is corporate America going to be willing to invest in alternative work spaces if they know they have an office near there?
CF: There's an intermediate step that's happening first, and that is the whole tele-work center movement. Some people call them satellite offices. But the gist of it is that companies provide a work setting that is not in every case run by them, but at least it is a single employer work-site. Once this form is established and working, I think companies will be more willing to enter into public/private partnerships to set up different kinds of work places.
These centers or satellite offices are closer to employees' homes. It's usually a suburban versus urban kind of thing. You're still remote from your manager; you could be remote from your team members if they happen not to live in your neighborhood. But it's a great alternative for someone like a library studier or a public setting studier who shouldn't work from home, but who doesn't want to be doomed to that long commute into a downtown area every single day.
For instance, Morgan Stanley is doing this in the New York area, experimenting with office locations in New Jersey, where they know a high concentration of their employees live. Employees will go to that site three to four days a week, and it's really thought of as their full-time office. Then they go to their previously assigned work-site in Manhattan or Brooklyn for one or two days a week so they have some face time with their group. As a result, they save an enormous amount of commuting time.
That model is being experimented with by both the public and private sectors in New York and Washington and San Francisco. And it's working.
It not only benefits the company to get people out and working in different places, but to me it's about the benefit to the communities. I have to admit I put this in the last chapter of the book knowing it wasn't going to be a big deal for business leaders; I hoped it would be for some of them and they would pick up on it. And it really all comes from the fact that I grew up in an urban area where everybody knew everybody else.
My mother had lived there her whole life. And I had the kind of situation where you could go out and easily find somebody to play with, and you had a great sense of independence. But you knew that there were eyes in all the houses watching you. So there was a sense of security. Sometimes it was annoying, because my mother always knew we had done something we weren't supposed to do before we got home.
That's exactly Jane Jacobs' whole point in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—
CF: Right. And, you know, I live in a city now where I have friends who walk their fifth graders to school and walk them home again. And I think, you know, this is absurd. I'm a great advocate for the independence of children. The more independent they can be, the better, with a certain sense of security.
And my feeling is that part of the lack of security now that people feel in urban neighborhoods, but really more so in suburban areas, is that they're devoid of adults for a lot of hours during the day. They're devoid of a significant number of adults. And if you let people work at the times that are most appropriate for them, let them work in the places that are most appropriate for them, there will be this great shifting of where all of the people are at different times of day so that every place will become safer.
It seems to me since the dot-com meltdown, some companies think they got too carried away with the casual wear thing. Companies are re-instituting dress codes. It seems to me there may be a relationship between requiring a dress code and not really thinking enough of your workers that you would want to let them figure out how to work on their own. Do you see any correlation there? Is this tendency going to make it more difficult for people to find the freedom to work in their own best productive way?
CF: Well, I have to say, I never felt this one coming, the re-emergence of formal business dress code. Because what I always say when I am doing a readiness check with a company is, "If you haven't been able to give up a formal business dress code yet you are eons away from having your people thrive in the virtual workplace."
Because if you can't let people decide what to wear, imagine what it does to a manager's head to think about letting them decide where to work, when to work. It's really just too much. So it's very disappointing to me to hear about it. I get this sense of this emanating from the White House. They equate a dress code with being more disciplined. It's this "we're getting back to business" type of attitude. The party is over.
And more disciplined, to many people, means more productive. And I'm sorry, you just can't prove to me that somebody is more productive in a suit than in their pajamas, you know? So I think it's one of those funny corporate things where it's clear that people did it for the wrong reason in the first place.
Meaning people in corporate America realized nobody was going to work anywhere where you had to wear a coat and tie if you could go down the street and work in your shorts and sandals?
CF: Right. But they missed the point. It was an issue of personal control, but it was also an issue of the message it sent about the people in the organization.
As you may recall, I told a story in the book about how when I went to work at IBM for a summer internship, the first time I was ever in a corporate environment, somebody took me aside and said, "You know what? You don't have to go out and buy a bunch of suits. I know you're a poor graduate student. But just make sure you wear a suit jacket every day. You know, wear it over a dress, whatever." Right? I said, "Why?" And they said, "Because then you won't look like a secretary."
There is a whole status thing that goes with the formal dress code. You know, who wears the more serious suit? And there's even—in some companies, people can tell who wears the more expensive suit than another. So there was a whole status system that went with it. And the main reason to undo that dress code was to make your company less hierarchical.
Usually the dress code changed at the same time that companies did away with different sized offices based on your title, the same time they did away with titles. It was an effort to diminish the hierarchy—which I think is a really important part of the virtual workplace. You can't try to maintain a strong hierarchy and have people working from anywhere.
So to me, the companies who now say, "Oh good. Nobody's doing that casual thing anymore. We can go back to the dress code," they miss the whole point of the symbolic, damaging aspect of the old dress code. So, yes, it's a disappointing development, and we'll see what effect it has on people.
CF: You're welcome.
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