It’s 6 a.m., Pacific U.S. time. No sign of sunshine yet.
The product team manager clears her eyes, logs on and dials in. Team members log in to their Office Communicator, one by one, from two Pacific Rim countries, four states and one in the Euro zone. Enter ID, password, meeting code.
The meeting moves forward with shared slides and pictures towards a preset agenda. For sure half of them are working from home or some non-standard office environment. For sure most of them have never met face-to-face. For sure they’re still “online” and distracted by other means of contact — IMs, e-mails, text, and so forth.
Welcome to the dispersed world of 21st-century work.
We’re all more productive, aren’t we? Short commutes, no commutes. We can live where we want. We can avoid the distracting visits and chitchat from cube mates more interested in discussing last Sunday’s football or next Sunday’s wine-tasting trip.
Any manager would go for this, right? Let people work where they want. Find the best people wherever they are. After all, it’s the 21st century. Technology has made the world flat and distances small. We can connect with one another any time, anywhere, on any platform. Decentralized organizations are more flexible, empower people, and can make the best divisions of labor.
Wait a minute. So what would Steve Jobs think about decentralized, teleconnected work groups? Steve Jobs, the man who brought us personal computing and many ideas that eventually evolved into the Internet? Steve was hip to technology, and a pretty hip guy altogether, so don’t you think Steve Jobs would have us all working from our back decks in a pair of jeans and a black turtleneck?
Workers everywhere, networked together? What would Steve Jobs say? Borrowing from one of his standard no-go phrases, “That’s shit” probably comes pretty close.
Shortly before he passed, Steve Jobs presented plans to the Cupertino City Council for a singular, three million-square-foot building on old Hewlett-Packard property about a mile from the current Apple headquarters. A round, “spaceship”-like building designed to house about 13,000 workers.
Among the leading reasons were the thousands of workers who were housed in different sites because Apple’s current headquarters wasn’t large enough. Different sites? Yes, most in a five-mile radius. But different sites. Too different for Steve Jobs.
Many say Steve Jobs wanted the control of having everyone in one place. That would fit the conventional rationale. But Steve was not a control freak. He was an achievement freak. And he simply saw it to be easier to achieve, and to build teams that would achieve, and share in that achievement, if everyone was together.
Steve probably saw at least three benefits of keeping a team together:
- “White space” interaction. Steve no doubt saw the advantages of collective chat to solve problems, off the record, off the org chart. As he said himself: ” … innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.”
- Sharing vision.Steve Jobs was a firm believer in a clear vision fully grasped and shared by every employee up and down the line. When people don’t get the vision, too much time is spent hashing out differences in vision and opinions of team members, diverting focus from design and achievement. Teams working together are easier to evangelize a vision to, and work to a common vision more effectively. Additionally, they share common ownership for a result.
- Getting the facts. Steve was a firm believer in staying involved in a project, keeping his fingers on the pulse and getting the “metadata” about what was going on at all levels and all times. This helped immensely, not only in creating the products but also in evangelizing them to the world afterwards. Imagine how much easier the product launch speech goes when the speaker/CEO is involved from the beginning, rather than from a corner office 2,000 miles away.
Steve Jobs saw work teams as community. He valued the camaraderie of the group, the ability of the group to mingle with each other and fill in that small detail, that new idea, that collective energy that really served as the glue that held things together. He also saw the more tangible benefits of people working together, face to face, in the same time zone, with none of the frictions of voice mail, e-mail, or other back-and-forth impeding their cohesive performance. Maybe most of all, he wanted his people to share the celebratory pizza in person when a milestone was met.
So much so that he was willing to make one of the largest real estate investments in history.
Something to think about.
Peter Sander is a researcher, business consultant, and former marketing program manager for a major Silicon Valley tech firm. He is the author of 33 business books on innovation, marketing, economics and investing. He has an MBA from Indiana University and lives in Granite Bay, Calif. Find his book What Would Steve Jobs Do? or e-mail him at email@example.com.