Networked workers bring a lot of opportunities as well as challenges to their organization. One of the biggest advantages is that they always have access to information. In any organization in which I’ve worked over the past 15+ years, I don’t remember a day going by where I didn’t need to access some information via the Internet. It has become a way of life within organizations. We have access to so much information that we didn’t have years ago. In an article about networking, Jarche mentioned that connected individuals can now do what only large organizations once could do. If I want to compare my current organization with other organizations in the same industry, I can do that with a few key clicks and a search engine. Many years ago this required a trip to the library. Even if I did want to visit the library, I can visit it virtually through a web browser. Weinberger mentioned that the economics of sharing have changed. He gave an example that the Library of Congress has tens of millions of items in storage because it is very difficult to display and preserve, let alone share these physical objects.
One big advantage this also brings is that workers can work during off-hours, as needed. I can give my employees the flexibility to leave early and finish working from home, as an example. I can even allow them to telecommute the entire day or multiple days. This gives the worker the flexibility to take care of other things such as doctor’s appointments or school functions while still being able to make up their hours during a different part of the day. The downside of this is that the expectation sometimes becomes that we WILL work during off hours. Sometimes we work our entire normal day and then feel that we need to work additional hours during what previously would have been completely off time. This can lead to greater productivity, but also burnout. Another advantage is being able to work from multiple locations. I teach college classes both in the physical classroom as well as online. Especially for the online courses, I’m able to work from wherever I may be, as long as I have Internet access. I have graded papers and interacted with students from places as far away as Japan and Russia, without many problems. The disadvantage with this is that I sometimes feel that my trips are not as enjoyable, focused, or productive because I always have to check up on schoolwork during the evening. Years ago I would have not had the ability to be online and therefore would have just hired a substitute to take care of things while I was gone. So the increased productivity sometimes does take its toll.
One challenge with networked workers is that it is often hard for supervisors to know exactly what they are doing. This is especially the case for telecommuters. When I was an I.T. manager I used to think it would be extremely difficult to manage telecommuters because I really wouldn’t know for sure that they worked 40 hours in a particular week. I then asked a fellow manager who was responsible for some telecommuters in his department. He told me that he didn’t care if his telecommuters worked 40 hours. He managed by task or project instead. If he gave a telecommuter a project that should last three months, he expected that it would be done in three months. If the person had to work 50 hours per week in order to get it done, that is what should happen. If the person only had to work 30 hours per week to get the same project done, he didn’t mind, as long as it was done correctly. He went further to say that if a person could get the three-month project completed in two months, he didn’t mind if the telecommuter had a month off (excluding required meetings, status reports, etc.) That really opened up my mind to how work should be measured and how to manage telecommuters. Telecommuters are obviously not for everybody. Marissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo, decided a few years ago that telecommuters would not be allowed at her company. This was a controversial decision, as critics say morale will plummet, key people will quit, and efforts to enhance collaboration will backfire. But proponents for her decision point out that employees view work more positively when their bosses are physically present and tend to lie more when communicating virtually as opposed to face-to-face, just as a few examples.
One challenge I’ve seen in the military is with the security aspect of being connected. We are able to check email from outside of work as long as we have a physical reader attached to the computer so we can insert our smart-card and enter our credentials. Since most home computers don’t have a smart-card reader built-in, those of us who want or need this capability must purchase an external reader. That is only the first part of the challenge. There are a variety of smart-card readers and special software and drivers need to be installed, which have proven to be difficult to get to work in the past. Once it can be figured out, it works pretty well. But if a person travels, they must remember to bring their smart-card, their reader, and the computer they have the software and drivers installed. All of this has proven to be a hassle for military members, but the security it provides is definitely needed. Without this in place, the senior leaders would most likely not give people the opportunity and flexibility to do work from outside of the office due to the security risk. The risk of intercepting operational, logistical or personnel details via email is too great.
Another challenge is with portable devices. The White House has created specific guidelines for government agencies that choose to allow certain devices, to include mobile smart phones. In my most recent job in the military I was required to carry a Blackberry with me. That meant I not only had to carry my personal iPhone with me throughout the day, but also had to be tied to a second smartphone. Since then the Air Force base where I work has converted to using iPhones. For a long period of time, key personnel had to carry their work iPhone as well as their personal smartphone. It was funny to see a person sometimes carrying two iPhones at the same time. Since then I’ve noticed that some who are issued iPhones install personal apps on their work phones, so they don’t need to carry two devices. Even though it could be a hassle to carry two devices, it does give the senior leaders on the base the opportunity to more easily check their military email without having to carry around a card-reader and laptop. Many senior leaders work long hours and from several locations, and having this capability can greatly increase their productivity.