The changing workscape: Virtual-friendly companies

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You get what you pay for, not what you wait for…

I have belabored the whole Yahoo! putting a stop to telecommuting story and the backlash surrounding it. What’s done is done.

What is more important, which is something I have been meaning to write about, is the companies that have embraced virtual work –either  in part or in some cases, the company is 100 percent remote (such as Automattic, the maker of the well-loved, much-used WordPress platform). This has been on my to-do list, but I happened upon an article from Forbes that highlights the top-100 companies for offering work-from-home options, according to the FlexJobs website. As the article points out, if not going for jobs that are obviously remote (such as work with the aforementioned Automattic or Mozilla, which are reputable companies with very visible virtual-work profiles), it can be challenging to identify companies and jobs that support remote-work possibilities – and jobs that are not just some kind of work-at-home scam to lure unsuspecting, naive dupes down a blind alley.

Of course there are a lot of companies that offer flexible work schedules and remote options without publicizing it – it is more a matter of building a relationship with people inside the company and demonstrating that location has very little to do with the work. Likewise, there is a growing number of sites and services that cater to a freelance workforce, allowing flexibility to both freelancers and companies and individuals who are seeking more project-based help. The best-known among these, oDesk and Elance, recently merged.

But where are the companies that are, if not “loud and proud” about being virtual-work friendly, supportive of the future of and possibilities enabled by a virtual, distributed workforce?

One that I stumbled on in my search is actually quite vocal about its support for taking advantage of the benefits of a distributed workforce. It’s called Lullabot. The Lullabot team is one-hundred-percent remote, and as its own content (an article from the company CEO) states,My feeling is that most conventional co-located companies simply don’t know how to manage, and more importantly, how to include their remote workforce.” These are exactly the kinds of objections I hear again and again – and tend to think it is more a stubbornness and resistance to change the way work is done than any real hindrance to working remotely. It’s like everything else – people don’t like change, and anything new is disruptive. With a company that has been distributed from day one, this change never has to happen.

I should also clarify, as Lullabot has done, that there should be a distinction between “remote” work and “distributed” work – a fully distributed company has no central location (necessarily) from which to be remote. The whole company is distributed.

Further to this distinction, I came across another company, Fuentek, which is, as an NPR article described, not a virtual workforce but an entirely virtual company – which changes the whole mindset. A company founded on the flexibility enabled by a distributed workforce is entirely different from a traditional company trying to implement flexible policies.

That said, some quite traditional employers are moving in the right direction.

Aetna, a massive health-insurance company operating a relatively staid, conservative industry, has embraced the efficiencies of telecommuting. Aetna’s reasoning is pragmatic – they managed to cut real estate and associated costs by about 78 million USD.

A really surprising leader in virtual work growth is the US federal government. (This will not come as any surprise to most, especially if you’ve ever worked for the government.) While it is not true across the board, some government agencies have been more eager to take on telecommuting in a serious way. The groundwork has already been put down to introduce telework across government agencies, but so far the one federal trailblazer has been the US Patent and Trademark Office, which has a dedicated telework coordinator and almost 70 percent of its workforce working remotely at least part time.

Ultimately these moves should not come as any surprise. The evidence shows that virtual work is a win-win. Employers can, like Aetna, attract and retain premium talent while reducing their costs. Employees are more likely to stay, feel trusted and feel a sense of loyalty to the company. Most companies have the technology for enabling virtual offices but the attitudes and institutional support lags behind.

The search for compassion and attributes found in those younger/finding however unaccountable harrowing hate/craving reaction, a hideous terminal hunger/starving for life in a world with so much on its plate” The Chills – “Singing in My Sleep”

Bad Cover Version – Peeking in on the Underdog

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I spent a long time working at Opera Software, maker of the cross-platform Opera browser. What’s that you say? Never heard of it? Yeah, that was sort of the uphill battle of working in marketing at Opera. Where do you start with marketing and building buzz about something that no one has heard of and that is the quintessential underdog in a world of giants (Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari). In some niche markets, Opera was kind of like a household name – and in the developing world, Opera was not necessarily the underdog – but it made a mobile browser that would work underdog phones (low-end, Java-enabled feature phones). It was kind of the “browser for the people” – for those who heard of it. Especially prone to underdog status – the desktop browser… up against insurmountable odds and an engineering culture behind it that had no belief in marketing (i.e. the old “if you have a great product people will find it”).

But Opera had its fingers in a lot of pies, so plenty of people were using different variants of the Opera browser on different devices without realizing they were using Opera (on various mobile phones and on televisions). And perhaps that is how underdogs survive and sometimes thrive. Embracing the fact that you are never going to be the market leader is the first step – and then you have to decide how you deal with that. What niche can you dominate? Where can you find loyal fans and partners? How can you mutually exploit those partnerships?

You don’t have to be a cheap knock-off just because you’re the underdog.

I have been thinking a lot about this with regard to streaming audio services. Ignoring for the moment the arguments against streaming leveled by music artists themselves, and taking into account the growth of streaming and downward slide of downloading, cross-device streaming is happening. Spotify might not have been the first such service out of the gate. But it is probably the best known globally. That said, there are plenty of other services – some geographically restricted, some not. Perhaps even more so than with the Opera experience, forming partnerships is key to making these services work. But the really important thing is to make the user experience immersive. Users turn to what they know – again and again – because it is familiar. Not necessarily because the feature set offers the most or because the service is user friendly. Not taking into the account the aforementioned geographical restrictions.

With streaming music, I instinctively turn to Spotify. But why? Is it because I think it has the biggest available music catalog (without having any evidence to support that)? Is it because I find it the most useful, engaging, immersive? User friendly? In truth, I think it is a matter of what I saw first (and what was available). When I have tried to convert people to Spotify in the past, they resisted if they had already become dedicated users of some other service. I found this was particularly true with French users of Deezer and US users of Rhapsody.

What converts users? With Opera there was a lot of repeating and reinforcing incentives – that is, looking at popular use (what sites were people visiting) and forming partnerships with mobile operators to promote use of the popular sites (free use of those pages for a month, if using the Opera browser). This could contribute to subscription sales for the operator, and they would, I assume, pay some kind of fee to Opera based on traffic.

The streaming music model is more complicated, considering the geographic and licensing limitations and restrictions. I am interested, though, in how services like WiMP can take on the giants like Spotify – find their niche rather than becoming like a bad cover version.