In a previous life I worked for one of the biggest financial institutions in Canada. The job required a two hour commute each way using a bus, a train, the subway and a bit of shoe leather thrown in for good measure. When I ran into some personal problems and needed to spend more time at home, I approached my boss with a proposal to work from home one day a week. The answer was a resounding and unequivocal, NO. No discussion, No negotiation, No debate, just NO. The reasons given were immature technology and corporate culture. Since I was unable to find a work-life balance to accommodate my needs, I was forced to leave the company about two months later.

Fast forward 15 years, I’m working in downtown Dundas (pop. 21,000) and we’ve just hired a Director of Client Services based in Calgary and an Intermediate Project Manager based in Ottawa. It wasn’t too long ago that I would never have believed that these positions could be filled by people in remote locations but apparently location doesn’t matter anymore. The people we just hired are eminently capable and we would have been foolish not to snap up this kind of talent when we had the opportunity to do so. But the technology is now in place, their work ethic is beyond question and our culture is still evolving. Then Doug raised a concern that’s had me thinking ever since. How do remote workers absorb the culture that develops at an organization through birthday cakes, random doughnut days, the (virtual) cowbell, impromptu brainstorming sessions, support through difficult projects and those Friday lunches at the local pub? How do they get to understand the company philosophy that goes beyond what can be documented and stored on the intranet?

A couple of years ago I stumbled across an album (on vinyl) by Ahmad Jamal called Digital Works. It’s a collection of some of his most famous tunes recorded using state-of-art equipment and the best instruments available to create the ultimate listening experience. When I got home and put it on the sound stopped me dead in my tracks. Here’s a great artist playing great songs using the best technology available, and it works. I was also lucky enough to get to see him live at the old Bermuda Onion in Toronto with the same band playing the same songs and what a completely different experience. With the band feeding off the energy and immediate feedback of the crowd and each other, Poinciana never sounded so good.

Talent and technology can produce great work in isolation, like Digital Works, but having people to riff off of generates energy and can take us to unexpected places. Our challenge is to extend our culture to our remote locations and to give everyone the opportunity to jam when they need to. With the people we have I’m confident that we can and will make it happen. There’s no question in my mind that when employees are able to share a culture and buy into a common philosophy that companies develop a swagger and an attitude that comes from knowing that you are sharing something that everyone cares about. Exciting times.

1 Comment

  1. zoe

    Great post Kevin!

    Odd, how one of our teammates recently posted something on the same topic…does distance matter?

    It seems to be a constant, especially here at SMG, and IMP it’s working out. And while yes, there are some drawbacks to not being privy to every office joke we have the benefit of not being tied down to geography.

    I also have another great musical example of how distance doesn’t matter – the band, A Postal Service. The members lived on opposite coasts and literally mailed their work back and forth until it was complete. (snail mail…not email 🙂

    Their debut album still holds a place in my Top 10 favourites.


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