man working in a cafe on phone and laptop
Before you end telecommuting privileges, ask yourself: what behavior am I trying to change? PHOTO: Muhammad Raufan Yusup

Daisy Hernandez's official title is global VP of product management for SAP Jam Collaboration — in other words, her job ultimately is to sell software. But ask Hernandez about the struggle companies experience trying to foster collaborative environments in a distributed workforce, and she barely mentions technology.

Instead, she'll ask this: What behavior are you trying to change? 

Companies need to make sure they explain the bigger picture to their employees to address what really bothers the corporate heads about distributed workforces — that is, the lack of sharing of information and the existence of knowledge silos within the company.

That, she says, is the heart of the issue when companies end remote working privileges and bring employees back into the office. “That is the core issue to that particular debate — are people actually working together or are they just off on their own and not working towards the same common goals, common objectives, common purposes,” she told CMSWire.

The kicker is this, she said: You can still be all together in a physical office and the employees still won't collaborate.

Collocation Doesn't Equal Collaboration

Daisy Hernandez
Daisy Hernandez
Consider two separate scenarios, Hernandez said. One is an office where the employees all work within its walls. The workers share a healthy dynamic and you get the strong sense that everyone is working towards the same goals. “You have these off-the-cuff conversations with your co-workers about what you are doing. You learn things that are relevant to your job even if it isn’t directly related.” This is usually the scene that company execs have in their heads when they roll back telecommuting privileges.

Now consider this scene. Everyone is sitting at their desk, their heads down involved in their own work. The cubicles are claustrophobia-inducing and the first chance people get, they bolt for outside. Morale is low so no one really expends much energy talking about their work unless they absolutely have to.

Telecommuting May Not Be the Answer Either

Allowing employees to work at home won't necessarily solve the issue in the latter case — which is that no one wants to communicate or share ideas or insights. And Hernandez makes clear some executives are right to worry about the productivity loss that may occur with telecommuting. 

Sometimes it gets to the point, she says, where you realize that “wow, everyone is working so remotely that I can’t even tell if anyone is working together at all.”

Unfortunately some companies have swung the pendulum too far to the other side, Hernandez said, by clamping down on flexibility and refusing to allow for the occasional work-at-home day — strategies that have proven to be very effective for productivity and morale.

Communication Tips for Collaboration Woes

To help companies resolve their telecommuter qualms, Hernandez makes some suggestions.

Keep your eye on what’s important — It’s not necessarily about who is sitting at their desk. Ultimately what the company wants is to naturally capture the — for lack of a better word — intellectual property that exists in employees’ heads. “There needs to be some way to capture knowledge in story form for others to use,” she said.

Don’t get overhyped about the technology — “A lot of the time people think that is the only part of the solution,” she said. “When I talk to customers I don’t discuss the technology at first. Instead I ask them ‘what behavior is it that you are trying to change or create?’ ‘What is it that you want to achieve?’” It is only after she gets those answers that she turns to the tools and technology that can support those goals.

Incentivize collaboration — Once you have identified the problems, identify the incentives that can move the needle. Spell out, she said, the benefit of engaging and collaborating with each other to employees. “There are career development opportunities, for example, or there are learning opportunities.”

That piece often gets lost in translation when a company brings back employees who work at home, or refuses to allow any telecommuting privileges, Hernandez said. “Then it becomes, ‘well, the employer just wants to see me physically in the office’ and no one talks about why.”