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Quartz, the cutting-edge NY digital news outlet, caught my eye last week (March 21, 2017) with this headline: “IBM, Remote Work Pioneer, Is Calling Thousands of Employees back to the office.”

This is a big change in direction for Big Blue. As recently as 2009, IBM had 40% of its hirelings working from home.

In fact, a number of companies have quietly begun shifting their home-based associates back to their corporate offices. This trend began to emerge publicly with Marissa Mayer’s startling decision to end Yahoo’s remote work policy back in 2013. Facebook now offers a $10,000 bonus to employees who live close to their office, and many other companies, like Best Buy and Reddit, no longer allow work from home. By September of this year IBM’s over 5,500 marketing people will have to work from physical offices in one of seven central locations: San Francisco, New York, Austin, Armonk, Boston, Atlanta, or Raleigh. Remote work will no longer be an option. (IBM already applies this policy to departments like security, procurement, most of IT, Watson, Watson Health, cloud development, and artificial intelligence.) Companies increasingly feel collaboration, creativity, and community are better fostered in a central office.

As an early successful adopter of the virtual office model with my first entrepreneurial firm, Corporate Rain, in the 1990s, I have always thought “What’s not to like?” After all, you save on office rent, office expenses, and commuting. And research indicates that remote workers are more productive and put in more hours than their office-based kindred. Also, for many people, it has been a partial solution to the work-life balance problem. According to the Gallop Poll, 25% of all American workers are presently laboring remotely.

That said, however, I am increasingly coming to a sense that for many companies, particularly large ones but also some of the small ones, there is a compelling rationale to centrally co-locate their office communities again.

For example, Best Buy reported that productivity had an average increase of 35% in departments that shifted to employees working whenever and wherever they wanted. However, there is a different set of benefits that ensue from central offices–and most of these benefits center around creativity and innovation.

Note John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University, a specialist in HR strategy–again quoting from Quartz. Sullivan says, “It turns out the value of innovation is so strong it trumps any productivity gain….[Remote work] was a great strategy for the 90s but not for 2015.”

Certainly established companies are searching for how to solve the conundrum of creativity and how to come up with the next transformational eureka out of their behemothic institutions.

They long to infuse entrepreneurial passion and disruptive imagination into their titanic old-line firms. Their hidebound strategies aren’t working, therefore renewed office centralization is increasingly favored as a tool to help create a more generative, communal, cohesive business ambience–hopefully one more like the entrepreneurial laboratory.

Jeff Smith, IBM’s CIO, advocates agile management based around “squads”. He says “…leaders have to be with the squads and the squads have to be in a location.”

There increasingly is a valuation of what many call “the watercooler effect.” (Steve Jobs certainly appreciated the value of how chance meetings and accidental conversations can lead to disruptive ideas.) Note a recent study by Kevin Rickman of George Mason University and Michael Pratt of Boston College, who found that increased offsite work can have very negative effects on the office environment. Mason and Pratt state: “If the office is going to become a collection of employees not working together, it essentially becomes no different than a coffee shop (though perhaps with better internet and worse coffee.).” That may be a bit overstated, but perhaps reflective of the most au courant new HR thinking.

When asked what percentage of Google’s workers telecommute, Patric Pichette, then CFO said, “Our answer is: As few as possible.”

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unnamedAs a frequent business traveler, I have noticed an unhappy change of late: I’m meeting fewer people than I used to. And I don’t like it.

It is not that I am a hopelessly garrulous yakker by nature. Quite the opposite. I’m a bit of an introvert–a lover of reading and personal cogitation. But I’m finding my recent business travel an increasingly isolating experience. Too much so.

I used to have the jolliest of chats with total strangers on planes, trains, and boats. It broadened me, it amused me, it opened me to the new. Of late, not so much. Less and less do I find these unexpected illuminating contacts with folks different from myself–whether it be a country barber, a beauty queen, or another business owner.

Why is this? I’ll tell you why. It’s bloody technology, goddammit.

I’m afraid technology is turning us into dull-eyed, unpresent I-Zombies. We are losing the gift for connection to our fellow human beings, as well as stunting our brain processes that summon nonrational revelations and “aha”s.

This was brought home to me earlier this year when I was in Dallas on business and found myself a bit lost and late to my next appointment. I was walking through the downtown arts plaza and I looked for some friendly, authoritative face to approach for aid. But as I looked around I found every person I saw shuffling along fully immersed in their personal private technology Idahos, oblivious to any person or thing around them.

I didn’t want to rudely interrupt, but I was annoyed because I needed some directions! This made me think about how much present richness and human feeling we sacrifice for an ersatz virtual reality. (I increasingly feel the same way walking down Broadway in New York when half the folks bump into you while texting, rather than taking in the infinitely unique international culture and urban magnificence constantly on display in my never-boring city.)

6a00d83451c29169e20112796ebe9f28a4Note Douglas Rushkoff‘s book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. (The title is a riff on Alvin Toffler‘s Future Shock from the ’70s.) We’re becoming addicted to what Rushkoff calls a “dopamine squirt,” the ego boost we get from Twitter, Facebook, emails, and texts. This leads to a compulsive immersion in the superficiality of keeping current and cool on social media. According to Rushkoff, this is stress-inducing and, more importantly, creativity-killing. I certainly agree that we are becoming committed to a sort of always-on, live-streamed reality show which is taking us into creatively shallow, spiritually thin cultural waters.

Or consider Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, which posits the rewiring of our brains by way of technology and social media. (Carr first became alarmed when he found himself increasingly unable to concentrate when he sat down to read a book, because of his longing for and growing addiction to the peripatetic excitement of his pinging computer.) Carr writes: “Any kind of thought process that requires focus on one thing is what is being disrupted, and, unfortunately, another thing brain science tells us is that the process of paying attention, paying deep attention, activates a lot of our deepest thought processes. Our long-term memory, the building of conceptual knowledge, critical thinking, all of those things hinge on our ability to pay attention.”

In other words, our “eureka” moments may be being sacrificed for a mess of pottage–that mess of pottage being our present experience of superficial sledding on an omnipresent sea of technological connectedness.

So I miss my now-infrequent accidental connects with my fellow man when I travel. (Not to mention the fact I’ve gotten two major pieces of business through these chance encounters over the years.)

144476685_87a0c6a898_zJaron Lanier, computer scientist and classical musician, who originally popularized the term “virtual reality,” wrote a book in 2010 called You Are Not A Gadget, in which he offered this prescient warning:

“Information is alienated experience. Stored Information might cause experience to be revealed if it is prodded in the right way. A file on a hard disk does indeed contain information of the kind that objectively exists….But if the bits can potentially mean something to someone, they can only do so if they are experienced. When that happens a commonality of culture is enacted between the storer and the retriever of the bits. Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information.”

I don’t think I can sum things up much better than that. So, the next time you travel, try keeping some of your time away from the allures of your iPad and iPhone. There might be some lost soul out there looking for directions. Like me.

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2704_825111_080514P_0208There is a reason to take vacations.  That reason is to simply stop.

This summer I took my first vacation in over two years.  It was not easy.  Taking a vacation is a very specific conundrum for the impassioned small businessman.  There is no good time to do it.  There is no time when it seems there is not a Sword of Damocles looming over our high-risk, very personal business creations.  There is no time when we do not need four times as many hours as there are in the work week.  It seems unimaginable to take a prolonged work intermission.  A true existential furlough from our labor.

Workaholism is a habit.  It is an addiction.  It needs to be fought each day with tools like meditation, prayer, yoga, and exercise.  But it also needs the occasional Big Break.

My friend Helanie Scott, CEO of Align4Profit in Dallas, writes an excellent newsletter on business leadership each week.  She points out that brain researchers have proven that habits create neural pathways in our brain and these paths are like ruts in the road that send you in a predetermined direction before you even have time to consider where you are going.  We need to break up these preordained ruts periodically.  She says, “That’s scary enough but it gets worse.  The longer you indulge in a bad habit, the stronger grows the pull of your neural pathways.”

Clayton_ChristensenNot taking a vacation is a bad habit.  It’s easy to get off—to get high—on the everyday frisson of business drama.  Harvard Business School professor Clayton Cristensen, in his bestseller How Will You Measure Your Life (Harper Collins, 5/15/12, with co-authors Karen Dillon and James Allworth), points out that the ROI of work is immediately apparent.  It offers instant gratification and feedback in the form of general approbation, ego inflation, contracts, and money.  Entrepreneurship can be a habit not too different from the high of cocaine, heroin, or sex.

Bart Lorang, CEO of FullContact, a contact management firm in Denver, warns of what he calls “misguided hero syndrome.”  (Stuart Varney, Fox News, 8/14/14)   Misguided hero syndrome is the belief that the world might stop spinning without our wonderful selves.  He actually pays his associates $7500 to take their vacations.  He only asks three simple things of them in exchange.:

1.  They actually go on vacation.
2.  They must disconnect from all technology.
3.  They can’t do any work on the vacation.

Personally, I was stopped in my tracks this year when I realized my recent divorce was partially caused by my bad work addiction.  I think I actually never wanted a real vacation, though I denied that to my wife.  My relationship with my daughter was also in danger.  She incessantly asked me to “take off my business face” and be with her.  (I noted that uber-entrepreneur Tesla’s Elon Musk is a twice divorced father of five, who has acknowledged taking only one vacation in four years.  Hmm.)

imgresWell, I took eight days out west with my daughter this summer.  I committed to only checking my email every other day during that time.  And no Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, et. al.  That’s as close to going “cold turkey” as I can for now.  All was fine when I got home.

It’s ego-gratifying to believe our companies would collapse without us.  L’etat c’st moi!  The fear of vacation is partly that we might discover we are less important than we thought.  A vacation allows one to self-humblify.

In her novel Bel Canto (Perrenial Publishing, 2002), Ann Patchett intones through one of her characters.  “I don’t have any talent for vacations.”  Me either, Ann.  But I intend to practice more.

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Photo-of-the-Day-President-Obama-s-Selfies-at-Nelson-Mandela-s-MemorialI assume most everyone saw Barack Obama yukking it up at Nelson Mandela’s funeral back in December.   He was taking “selfies” of himself with other heads of state during the Mandela memorial service.  While I assume President Obama admired Nelson Mandela as much as the next person, the tone he set made me uneasy and got me thinking again about social media and its effect on the culture of the entrepreneur.

Self-obsession seems to be growing with the expansion of all social media, the largest of which are Twitter and Facebook.  The “selfie” is just one of the latest manifestations of a culture that often confuses personal exhibitionism with business accomplishment.  I call it “Kardashianitis”—visibility as a counterfeit version of value and vision.  It seems to me this is a dangerous and distracting trend for entrepreneurs.

Psychologist Jean Twenge has reported the steady growth of self-importance in our personal lives over the last decade.  (www.narcissismepidemic.com)  She and others have described a burgeoning “narcissism epidemic” abetted by social media.

5559383398_39a88d8512_zHeightened ego is the enemy of practical business efficacy.  It’s distracting and disorienting.  In this omnipresent culture of “look at meism”, the the useful tool of social media can be perverted into a quest for self-glorification.  Look at how many “likes” I have, check out this Instagram, look how many people have “friended” me this week, etc.  Or look at the case of former NY Representative Anthony Weiner, a poster boy for this new apogee of self-ardor, seductively facilitated by use of social media.  Weiner’s downfall was not brought about by a sin of lust or passion, but rather a jejune exhibitionist search for public approbation.

Dr. Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, recently wrote an op-ed on this very subject.  She says the following:

“Technology doesn’t just do things for us.  It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.  The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us ‘on pause’ in order to document our lives.  It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations ‘on pause’ when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.”  (NY Times, Dec. 16, 2013)

It’s increasingly easy to confuse entrepreneurial exhibitionism with entrepreneurial success.  There are several clear dangers in this infatuation with social media.

First of all, it can be a distraction from your core commitment to your business passion and dream.  It’s easy to overvalue virtual vanity metrics, but they are often a time wasting diversion and, at worst they vitiate and belie the deeper sense of integral self needed to effectuate an entrepreneurial vision in any number of ways.

Second, it’s often just a bloody waste of time. Research shows that everyday social multitasking reduces cognitive depth.  (Journalistresource.org/studies/society/internet/cognitive-control-in-media-multitaskers)

757px-Jean-Paul_Sartre_FPThird, people just don’t like self-aggrandizing assholes–the energy suckers of our vocation.

So, I’ll make you a deal:  If you will not twitter me about the excellent ham sandwich you had for lunch, I will forego sending you a picture of my adorable labradoodle.

French philosopher and dramatist Jean-Paul Sartre says, “You are—your life, and nothing else.”  (No Exit)  Thanks, Jean-Paul.

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Damage-Your-Business-ReputationA few weeks ago I recommended a friend to a former client of mine who had a job opening.  My friend came back to me aghast.  My former client had a voluminous set of near scatological comments on various social media placed by a few disgruntled employees.  My friend thought several times about even considering the company.

The calumny spread through social media is mostly unaccountable.  It may be true.  It may not.  But, through the ubiquitous reach of Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et. al., the false is often lumped equally with the true.

The danger to company brand and reputation is frightening.  I remember a couple of years ago (Feb. 2, 2011) when hundreds of people were being killed and raped (including reporters) in Egypt, Kenneth Cole nearly had his head taken off when he glibly tweeted:  “Millions are in an uproar in Cairo.  Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”  Well, he got tens of thousands of response tweets like the following:

1.  arrington—WTF is wrong with you@KennethCole?
2.  soullindo—Bad taste@Kenneth Cole.  Bad.  Taste.
3.  palbi-palbi—@Kennethcole is the asshole of the day.
4.  (And my favorite)  BookGirl96—“I wouldn’t want to be in Kenneth Cole’s shoes right now.”

CROP_jason_collins_SI_coverThe threats to cyber security are no longer just from malevolent hackers like Anonymous or the cyber warfare division of the Red Army in China.  They are just as damagingly coming from inside companies, either from their own careless mistakes and thoughtlessness or from disgruntled employees.

For example, Facebook recently received a black eye because of certain “group sites” that posted misogynist and abusive comments about women.  Similarly, when Jason Collins recently came out as the first active NBA star to announce he was gay, NBA chat forums posted a lot of anti-homosexual hate speech which NBA officials claimed they were helpless to prevent, but as it turned out, they could have stopped.

So what companies face is at least a three-headed Hydra of social media threat:  external hacking, brand-threatening marketing misjudgments, and internal mischief and/or sabotage.

A new hybrid of company has appeared to combat the more wide-ranging downside of social media.  It deals not only with anti-malware technology but also with helping companies and brands streamline safe and effective social media practices and strategy that ensure reputation protection and legal compliance.

Per this, I recently met an entrepreneur named Devin Redmond, Founder & CEO of a kick-ass two year old company Nexgate, based in San Francisco which specializes in cloud-based brand protection and compliance for enterprise social media accounts.  He tells me business is brisk.

Devin_Redmond-e1363074492919In addition to social media strategy, Redmond (who’s clients include Rosetta Stone, Intel, KPMG, among many others) seamlessly addresses and monitors a full range of social media issues like:

  • Protecting against high-profile social media attacks
  • Protecting company/brands’ reputations from harmful content, both from within or third party messaging
  • Helping businesses stay savvy  in interacting and engaging with customers
  • Keeping current with technology that is available to help minimize security and compliance risk
  • Identifying social media risks, compliance issues and audience abuse

Being the technology dinosaur I am, the technical details of all this cyber genius is a bit beyond my ken, but I certainly recognize the threat, as well as the promise, for all of us in this cyber world that is moving and evolving at breakneck speed.  It’s bloody scary to think a carefully built reputation can be quickly damaged by inattention or carelessness, while our chief focus is on our core business.

Have to run now. Gotta check a tweet from @carlosdanger.com.

Charles Caleb Colton observed in 1825, “There are two modes of establishing our reputation; to be praised by honest men or to be abused by rogues.”  Thanks, Charles

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