Colleagues who telecommute from northern California and Oregon are in town for a two-day visit starting today. I only see them in person two or three times a year now, though through technology, I can interact with them every day.  Their visit reminds me of how the IT organization I work for has grown significantly since 1996 when there were about 6 of us to about 50+ today. The way we work has also been transformed significantly as well.   Their visit also reminds me of several things:

  • When two of my colleagues needed to move out of Santa Barbara maybe four or five years ago, human resources told me we had no policy regarding full-time telecommuting and I was further told there was not a single employee in the entire University of California system who had this work arrangement. My department had to create our own telecommuting agreement which was then approved by HR. This leads me to thinking that just because there is no policy or that something has never been done before does not mean that will always be the case. Organizations need to evolve to meet the changing business demands and using the absence of policy or lack of precedence to hinder progress does not make sense.
  • Dependence on technology in how student affairs conduct business is evident by the investment and commitment our senior management towards our IT department. There is not a single unit in our student affairs organization that does not rely on technology as evident by the number of systems we have implemented the last decade and a half.  The emergence of social media, cloud, and mobile computing has introduced new opportunities for the organization to further utilize technology in how we serve and communicate with students, parents, other customers as well as with our colleagues.  However, consumer technologies have also brought challenges to IT.
  • Telecommuting and working in distributed environment has become an accepted arrangement and this became possible because of technology, an indication of the future of work. We are no longer located in the same physical building and the way we communicate changed from just telephones and face-to-face visits to now using video conferencing tools, emails, and other forms of social media. I remember how I had to drive to campus at night to work because technology to access my workstation and servers did not exist when I started working in my department in late 1990’s.
  • Approach to leadership, management  and community-building needed to evolve to accommodate the distributed nature of work and teams. Communicating via instant messaging, email and even through videos have led to misinterpretations and physical/emotional reactions do not often get communicated as clearly compared to face-to-face conversations. While tasks and schedules can easily be communicated, building relationships and communities take more effort. When we hire new employees, they may not meet their colleagues whom they work with remotely for months and so even setting up a wiki profile page with personal information and outside interests can start the introduction and build connections based on common interests. Soft skills, including emotional intelligence, is more than ever required for leadership and management. Even for someone like me who is relationship-oriented, I sometimes fail to think about how my emails or what I communicate electronically may be received by my teams because I don’t see immediate reactions from my staff.

The importance of these visits go beyond work as these are the only few times a year when we can socialize in person. Those few hours when we go to a local restaurant and just catch up are what I certainly look forward to and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels the same way.