Leading Empty Desks

Yesterday afternoon I took part in a panel discussion on “Leading Empty Desks” at Knowledge Peers Exchange 2013 Event.

The discussion was led by Giri Tharmananthar of Microsoft who started the discussion with an engaging talk based around Dave Coplin‘s book – “Business Reimagined” and talk – “Re-imagining work”.

@dcoplin: "Nearly 80% of UK workers think a productive day in the office is clearing email :-( "

I found the discussion interesting and hope the attendees found it useful too.

The key take-aways for me were:


If you are considering allowing employees complete flexibility in how, where and when they work, then you need to do so in an environment of complete openness and trust. You might think that the most important element is employer’s trusting employees to do the work. Actually that’s not as big an issue as employee to employee trust. We want people to work collaboratively and to do that they need to trust each other and know they can rely on their colleagues to get things done, even when they can’t see them working. Openness is really important – knowing who’s working on what and how to get hold of them and when to get hold of them.

In order for this to work productivity and performance need to be outcome based, not process based.

I think the goal has to be to have a policy which treats all employees equally. The challenge is that some employees will abuse that trust and how you deal with that? Dealing with it by changing the policies and bringing everyone back to the office as Yahoo! have publically done recently is one answer. Another approach is to have a very active policy of getting rid of the people who aren’t performing. This can be difficult to achieve without creating a culture of fear. We do need to have the right policies in place to ensure that those that don’t deliver are dealt with so that others don’t feel they are carrying team members who aren’t pulling their own weight. This isn’t really any different to what should happen in an office based team, but is likely to be a more acute need in a virtual team.

I came across the concept of “Working Out Loud” as a way of being open and doing social to ensure the virtual team stay in touch and connected.

Amorphous Boundaries

We used to be able to easily define the edges of our IT networks and the edges of our organisations. Typically they extended only as far as the office walls and the leased lines we used to interconnect our offices. We extended the edges through VPNs to people’s homes but in today’s hyper-connected world with smart phones, tablets, BYOD and cloud services like DropBox, Sky drive and Google docs who can honestly say they know where all their company’s information resides?

I think it is important for us to grapple with these issues and give our employees the best tools so that they can collaborate and be productive without raising the hackles of our compliance and risk teams.

If we don’t enable our employees to work productively with the best tools they will work around the corporate policies and create a “shadow IT” where we have no control or visibility.

Do Offices Still Make Sense?

I think there are a lot of places where offices still make sense. I love using my tablet and my smartphone when I’m out and about, but when I have a lengthy report to compile or need to analyse our IT budget in excel I need a desk with a computer with a keyboard and mouse – and the best environment for that is an office. I do have an office and a desk at home and I do sometimes work from there, but I have 4 children ranging in age from 1 to 9 so my home office is rarely distraction free. Sometimes it works, but I often get more done when I am working alongside other people who have also gone to sit at a desk to get their heads down and do some work – in the office.

It is nice to have the flexibility to work anytime, anywhere and with any device. But, I suspect I am far from alone in being someone who is most productive when in the office.

Is Email Broken?

Email itself isn’t broken, but we are using it in ways where it isn’t the best tool for the job and this is leading to email overload. We are still using email to send attachments to one another rather than using collaboration tools. We are still using email to send announcements and gather information which can be done better with more open social platforms – like Yammer, SharePoint, Twitter and huddle.

About Sam Meldrum

Sam Meldrum is a Partner at Barnett Waddingham LLP where he leads the IT team. I have an interest in leadership, business, economics, technology, Christianity, running, cycling​ and photography. You can find my other stuff on the web by visiting about.me/SamMeldrum​ or follow me on Twitter: @SamMeldrum.
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