Project Management Institute

Invisible idiots?

Middle Ground

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by John Sullivan, Contributing Editor

“Off site, out of mind” is today's translation of the old expression. To keep your remote-office team members on the home team, follow these guidelines.

DURING THE COLD WAR, American scientists were trying to develop a machine to instantly translate between English and Russian. During testing, someone entered the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” and the machine returned “invisible idiot.” As in many projects, their best efforts produced disastrous results.

“Invisible idiot” can also mean “off-site worker.” Flattened organizations have scattered employees to offices across town and in distant lands. All are at risk of becoming “invisible idiots.” I speak from experience.

About 50 of us were sent to work on a multicompany project at a “remote” site 10 miles away. After a few weeks I returned to the regional office and discovered someone else had my cubicle ... It got worse.

Over the next three years communications with our own company deteriorated. Our distance from the office meant multiple calls to get an answer versus a trip down the hallway. Staff reductions aggravated the situation. Some job duties were not reassigned when people departed.

Most problems concerned benefits and careers. As time passed, our training requests went unanswered, promises of salary increases were broken, and accountability for these issues became a mystery. After a series of these “lapses,” one of my co-workers said, “I feel like they've forgotten us.” We had become “invisible idiots.”

There exists an implicit contract between employer and mobile employee, according to Dr. Franklin Becker, who directs the International Workplace Studies Program at Cornell university. The contract recognizes the assumption that “the employee will do whatever is necessary to get the job done and ... the employer will provide the tools, training, and support necessary to do it. These questions of trust [are what] make mobile work succeed or fail.”

Becker's first suggestion is for mobile workers and their employers to communicate. “Engage in a candid dialogue,” he says. “This is best started sooner than later, when what might have been a minor but fundamental misunderstanding has become a chronic problem that eventually erodes communication, morale, and productivity.”

So what happens if you start becoming an “invisible idiot”? “The problem is not just management's,” says Becker. “The employee has to let management know the problem is occurring.” Try to make your employer acknowledge you by helping them realize a problem exists.

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Having a candid dialogue without creating the proper framework could get you fired. Try to use the existing system, if one exists, to become visible again. For communication to take place, both parties must recognize the needs of the mobile worker (working away from the corporate “home”) and of the employer. But be sensitive to how you raise issues for discussion. Anything resembling an “organizing of workers” can look like unionizing to management.

Build a case by documenting your problems. Then request a meeting with management to discuss the issues. Try to emerge with a list of actions to resolve them—even if one of the actions is to have another meeting. Then follow up relentlessly.

Taking action helps remove the feeling you are “throwing your time, energy, and ideas into a huge black hole,” says Becker. “Don't wait to be invited to the party,” he says. “Throw one yourself.”

Regrettably, most of our parties were the going-away kind, including mine. To be fair, some departures were due to market conditions—there just wasn't any more work for us. But some resignations were due to frustration. It's one thing to be going out of business, another to be going nowhere.

To help prevent your off-site staff from disappearing (figuratively and literally), consider these suggestions:

img Provide the off-site staff with a “communications infrastructure.” Designate someone on-site as the contact person for corporate issues. Make it part of their job and give them the training they need to do it.

img Provide a contact in Human Resources. Human Resource management is a career, not another duty to hand the on-site technical project manager. Assign responsibility for the off-site staff to someone in HR who will answer their questions and look out for their needs.

img Set up a regular time and place to communicate. Keep the off-site staff in touch when there is “extraordinary” news—a merger or a big sale is news; let the off-site staff know as soon as the home office staff knows.

img Tell the truth. It's hard to create a climate of mutual trust without it.

WORK TO EXTEND the “home office” culture beyond the walls of your building. This will become increasingly important as more virtual and cross-functional teams are dispatched to run projects. Remember, the off-site people belong to several teams, but there's no team like home. ■

John Sullivan is manager of the Project Support Office for the Automotive Division of Reynolds and Reynolds in Dayton, Ohio, and an active member of PMI's Central Ohio Chapter.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • November 1997

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