Telecommuting Used To Suck. Today's Technology Makes It Awesome.

Let’s not sugarcoat things: as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s now-notorious HR memo states, working with nearby co-workers has its pluses. And telecommuting CAN be rough on employer and employee. I know the latter from first-hand experience. For about four years late last decade, I worked from my suburban Seattle home as a tech journalist.

It was great at first. I ate lunch with the wife and kids, snuck away for mid-day workouts and avoided draining commutes. While I was thousands of miles and three time zones away from my bosses, I was traveling enough to tech conferences and back to headquarters to feel tethered to my colleagues. But with the economic downturn, my travel dried up. As layoffs mounted, my co-workers, who as reserved writer-types were never chatty by phone or IM to begin with, clammed up even more. I started feeling so out-of-the-loop and claustrophobic that even the view from the window of my home office started depressing me. It was so unchangingly grey that it may as well have been a gloomy oil landscape painting.

grey landscape.jpg

Like this, with perhaps
a few more trees.

Five years later, I’m again an (occasional) telecommuter with Avaya. This time, it’s an AWESOME experience, which I attest to three factors: balance, pro-innovation company culture and technology.

Balance: with Avaya, I do the 35-mile one-way drive into the Silicon Valley headquarters a couple of times a week and work from home the rest of the time. Having that balance is great. On the days I brave the up-to-90-minute commute in, I try extra hard to get all my work done and catch up in person with the co-workers I work with. On the days I stay home, I savor all of the time I saved and therefore am that much more productive.

Culture: As at my old job, most of the people I actually need to work with are scattered around the world. But Avaya does walk its Collaboration and Innovation talk. For instance, the Radvision Scopia desktop videoconferencing that we acquired last year is rapidly replacing teleconferences as the main way WE hold internal meetings. What’s the big deal? Well, being on camera forces everyone to focus. So no more surfing ESPN or Amazon on mute. You also get a better sense, through everyone’s non-verbal body language, what your colleagues are REALLY thinking. That helps us come to decisions faster, even though we joke around and socialize more. In a non-fake way, it recreates the sort of impromptu dialogue and team building that Mayer thinks you can only get on campus.

(To see an unserious, extreme demo of this, see our Harlem Shake video filmed with Scopia Desktop.

Scopia is as easy to use as Skype and FaceTime – all you need to do is download, choose your webcam and headset, and go. While both Skype and Scopia Desktop boast up to 720p HD, 30 frames-per-second quality, the key phrase is “up to.” Like you, I’ve used Skype plenty of times. Honestly, Scopia Desktop delivers noticeably better sound and picture quality almost all of the time. Plus all conversations are encrypted and comply with your corporate firewall and authentication policies. Which, as an enterprise-class product, you’d only expect.

Technology: five years ago, I used a hodge-podge of sub-standard tools for telecommuting – Vonage for my home phone line, AOL instant messenger and an underpowered BlackBerry. They were impossible to knit together and widened that gulf between me and my colleagues.

Today’s Unified Communications tools shrink that gulf. Avaya Aura, for instance, can extend unified phone and data services to home workers. With the Avaya one-X Mobile app on my iPhone, I can instantly set turn call forwarding and simul-ring on and off, set my presence so my co-workers know whether to ping me by IM, phone or e-mail, and more. With Scopia Mobile or Avaya Flare Experience, I can start a high-def videochat with a colleague on my iPad or Android device anytime, anywhere.

Bring Your Own Device is old news. What’s in is Bring Your Own Unified Communications. Workers who once clamored to use business mobile apps on their personal iPhones and tablets have moved on. With today’s crop of superphones and turbocharged tablets, they are asking for the enterprise-class equivalents to Skype or FaceTime.lg optimus pro.jpg

Care to videochat on this LG Optimus G Pro with 5.5-inch 1080p screen, quad-core chip, and 2.1 gapixel webcam? Um, yes, please!

Avaya is answering that call. For instance, Radvision is working with Quanta Computer, one of the largest makers of laptops and mobile devices, to deliver HD video calling over the TD-LTE network of China Mobile. TD-LTE is China’s homegrown 4G network, with speeds equivalent to your ultra-fast 802.11n wireless Wi-Fi router at home. Chinese workers will soon be able to videochat with no-jitter video and great sound wherever they are, as well as collaborate nimbly on shared documents, and more.

Collaboration technology continues to improve. The next generation, called ‘Awareness’, is set to leapfrog today’s passive presence information to provide a virtual personal assistant. Say a calendar invite pops up. Click once to join the conference in audio, video or Web chat mode, and the latest versions of the documents needed for the meeting are automatically located on your e-mail, hard drive or network. Similarly, if you get a phone call from a co-worker, Awareness can automatically find and open up the current versions of the relevant documents. It’s all of these little things that lubricate interaction between colleagues and can collectively jumpstart employee collaboration and innovation. Read Senior Vice-President Brett Shockley’s article, “Awareness. Simplicity.Customers.” to learn more.

To sum up: telecommuting used to have major drawbacks. But UC and video conferencing apps running on today’s super-powerful mobile gadgets bring the Innovation back. Mayer may think the only way to turn Yahoo around is to jail employees inside their cubicles five days a week, but I disagree. The right collaboration tools can nearly recreate that agile, intimate office experience, at lower financial cost to employers, and at lower personal cost to employees.

Related Articles:

Five for Friday: Things We Plan To Do With Our Mobile Devices On Plane Takeoffs And Landings

Road warriors rejoice! A key Federal Aviation Administration committee has decided that using our iPhones and Galaxy Notes on a plane is safe during takeoffs and landings – even with most kinds of on-board Wi-Fi Internet today.

Nearly all airline fleets “already have been so dramatically improved and aircraft are so resilient” to electronic interference, Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president of global public policy and a member of the committee, told the Wall Street Journal, that the committee concluded they would be safe for “gate to gate use” of such devices.

guy cellphone airplane.jpg

Don’t worry, you’ll soon be cleared for takeoffs and landings.

Of course, there are some cavaets: 1) There’s no timetable for when these recommendations would go into effect; 2) There are some exceptions.

First, the FAA still plans to prohibit mobile devices and on-board Wi-Fi systems from accessing cellular networks (i.e. 3G and 4G/LTE networks) for voice and data at altitudes under 10,000 feet, i.e. the takeoff and landing phase.

That’s a problem because the market leader in on-board Wi-Fi Internet, Gogo Inc., uses cellular towers at low altitudes. Gogo has three-quarters of the market. The other major providers connect with satellites for Internet access, which are ok.

Finally, the FAA would still ban the use of laptops during takeoffs and landings, because their bulk could be a problem in case of an emergency.

I asked the Avaya social media team what they plan to do the first time they get to use their mobile device on takeoff. I got back darker (snarkier?) responses than I expected:

1) Jaime the Aerophobe: “Film myself experiencing turbulence so my doctor will give me Xanax #ihateflying”

2) Luke the Aerophobe Tormenter: “Use my iPad to look up and read aloud takeoff/landing aircraft disaster statistics.”

3) Ashlie the Artiste: “Draw a picture of Superman saving the plane from plummeting out of the sky in Photoshop.”

kid airplane tablet.jpg

Note: this is not Ashlie.

For my part, I plan to do two things: 

4) Video chat with my kids using the Wi-Fi-enabled Scopia Mobile or Flare Communicator on my Android smartphone. DADDY’S COMING HOME.

5) Using one-X Mobile on my iPhone, call ahead for takeout from my favorite Thai restaurant around SFO. CUZ IT’S FLAVOR TIME.

What do you plan to do when you’re able to start using your mobile devices on takeoffs and landings?