Do organisations always need a ‘place’?

Steve Gale looks at the tension between ‘place’ and remote working.

Remote working holds so much promise, especially working at home, but the tide seems to have receded a bit. Workers embrace it and hail the benefits of choice and time-saving, but organisations are not so sure and, while technology gallops ahead, many firms have had second thoughts.
But our transport infrastructure deserves a break, commuting costs real time and money and office space is an intractable burden. At a time when fast internet is literally a human right, where is remote working today?
10 years ago organisations were exploiting the happy fact that connectivity allowed people to work flexibly – until in 2013 when Marissa Mayer asked Yahoo! remote workers to return to the office. Her reasons were clear and they reignited a debate that divided workers and their employers. The leaked email was interestingly succinct. ‘Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with physically being together. People are more collaborative, more inventive when people come together. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.’ It captures the dogma that business thrives on direct human interaction.
Mayer’s words were well timed and the trickle soon became a torrent with a raft of well-known firms calling staff back in. Has remote working been put back in the drawer?
Firms now are more likely to emphasise the social side of work, the need for support networks and the idea of community, usually around ‘hubs’. Organisations believe that a ‘place’ is key to maintaining interest and commitment, even purpose.
But it’s not the only way. There are employers that recognise the value of remote working to their staff – and allow it to be woven into their routines. They balance the options and permit choice and control.
Let’s look at an organisation that has taken this idea and turbo-charged it, one that sees a localised community as unhelpful and which finds power in diffusion – and invests in ways to protect its culture from fragmenting. My example is a burgeoning international organisation called Family for Every Child (or simply Family), which campaigns for the rights of children globally.
For Family, the diffused organisation has always been a reality because of its scattered membership and clientele, but it is becoming more so as it grows. For this business there are strong reasons to dilute the bonds of a core community in one place, in order to give its scattered members and partners an equal voice. By downplaying the presence of the centre, outliers are more included and have a greater say. The vital sources of wisdom and expertise in distant places are more equal and contribute more willingly.
To achieve this, Family redesigned their operation. Their London HQ building was sold and employees now work at home or occasionally in serviced offices. Experts from around the world are easier to employ now that the epicentre is not in London. The aim is to extinguish any vestige of a command and control clique and place all members on an equal footing.
This anti-hub environment means no commuting to London, no physical core anywhere in the world, but a connected network of people working at home. The limited face-to-face interactions are actively redressed with a raft of protocols to encourage personal and professional relationships to blossom.
The culture relies on ‘philosophical congruence’ according to Amanda Griffith, the CEO, which means it flourishes because of a general agreement that this working model is fair to people and is visibly consistent with their mission. The danger of being seen as a centrally controlled northern hemisphere bastion of good practice has all but gone.
Family is a virtual organisation with occasional real symposiums, conventional meetings and get-togethers, which is the hub trend turned upside down. It shows that the alternative to ‘place’ can be a deliberately decentralised community looking outwards, with its people being part of their home town or village – and no commuting!

Steve Gale is Head of Business Intelligence at M Moser Associates.