Marissa is right! In order for Yahoo to have a culture of collaboration employees need to be face-to-face with each other to talk about the critical issues they collectively find themselves facing. But it is equally true that we can’t turn back the clock on virtual work nor on the growing distributed workforce that is serving us so well around the world. Virtual is here to stay.
Forcing people back to the workplace is not the solution because too often when they are in the workplace they are either sitting in a meeting listening to endless presentations, or in a cubicle sending emails to each other. Neither of those activities is worth the cost in time or travel. The only reason to come together face-to-face is for people to be in conversation with each other! And real conversation happens all too infrequently in workplaces, as my own research has shown.
The Oscillation Principle
What a distributed workforce needs, in order to work effectively, is a regularly scheduled oscillation between virtual work and collective sensemaking. Collective Sensemaking is an organized conversation, intentionally held to make sense of the circumstances in which organizational members collectively find themselves. Taylor and Van Every (2000) explain, “Sensemaking is a way station on the road to a consensually constructed, coordinated system of action.”
The deep rhythm of oscillation between face-to-face meetings for collective sensemaking and virtual work, addresses one of the greatest deficits of a virtual work force, that is, one part of the organization taking action without reference to how that action may impact other parts of the organization or impact the whole. Through collective sensemaking all perspectives on a topic are given voice so that an understanding of the whole emerges as well as clarity about the relationship between the parts. In such conversations organizational members often discover assets of which they were unaware.
As this diagram (Maznevski & Chudoba 2000) illustrates there are high intensity periods of collective sensemaking oscillating with periods of virtual work in which the group interacts through less rich media, such as, email, phone calls, SMS or teleconference. The periods of collective sensemaking renew the trust and relationships which are a precondition for the collaboration and information exchange that are limited to mediated interaction when organizational members are again at a distance. And understandably, those virtual interactions are more productive because critical relationships have been renewed during collective sensemaking.
The frequency of the oscillation and duration of the periods of collective sensemaking depend on two factors:
1. the interdependencies in the group's task, and
2. the complexity of the issues.
For example, a virtual team that is designing a product for an emerging market might need to come together for 2 days every two months. A team with less complex issues might come together every 3 months for one day. And a division engaged in a change initiative – one that requires employees to take into account the whole system so that changes planned for one part do not conflict with other parts - might bring everyone together to initiate the change and then come together as a whole every six months, with individual departments meeting for a day once a month.
If you were to observe collective sensemaking in a daylong meeting, you would see posted, a list of work issues that team members have identified for discussion. All day long people would be working in a series of small groups, some times homogenous and some times mixed. And periodically during the day you would see the whole group gathering to exchange the ideas they had been working on. If you listened in on the conversations you would hear people sharing information, asking for help from others, discussing unexpected outcomes, and working through differences. What you would not see would be motivational speeches or PowerPoint presentations.
Collective sensemaking allows a group to build shared understanding of what has happened since the last time they were together and what needs to happen going forward. “Organization members interpret their environment in and through interactions with others, constructing accounts that allow them to comprehend the world and act collectively.” (Maitlis 2005) That is what Marissa wants for Yahoo - employees interacting enough that they can act collectively. Oscillation between virtual work and collective sensemaking would achieve that end without having to eliminate the virtual work that is so productive.