While the benefits of technology-enabled mobile working are widely documented, the downsides get less attention.
When employees spend long stretches away from the workplace, they can quickly feel isolated from co-workers and disconnected from their employer.
If bosses plague them for constant updates, they may feel they’re not trusted. If they don’t, they can feel abandoned. Either way, opportunities for collaboration and shared insight often fall by the wayside.
According to a global survey of over 26,000 business executives, conducted in late 2013 by office space provider Regus, almost 50 percent of respondents said that they now work remotely for at least half their working week.
At IT services company HCL Technologies, headquartered in Noida, Uttar Pradesh in India, the proportion is higher still, with a large proportion of the company’s 88,000-strong headcount working at any one time, on client sites around the world, to deliver IT projects.
That could make maintaining team spirit and corporate culture a challenge, says the company’s chief human resources officer Prithvi Shergill - but it’s one that HCL tackles by providing employees with the same kind of online social networking opportunities as they get from using Facebook, for example, to keep up with family and friends.
The platform HCL uses to do that is called Meme, which it launched in April 2011, with the objective of helping employees to “connect, share, learn and grow by exchanging information, so that they feel part of the HCL family,” says Shergill.
The response to Meme over the past three years has been “overwhelming’, he says. Today, around 77,000 HCL employees are registered ‘Memers’ and, at the last count, the platform was supporting 2,057 groups and 71,568 posts. “We see employees from different age groups, nationalities, functions and locations really connect and, more importantly, bond with each other on Meme,” says Shergill.One of the main benefits for them comes from using Meme to collaborate on work-related issues, although many interactions are more social in nature. Senior leaders, meanwhile, are encouraged to use Meme to post queries for employees to answer and share their ideas on company strategy and working practices.
This two-way communication, says Shergill, doesn’t just foster a sense of company-wide inclusion. “It also helps employees to understand their own place in the company and their personal contribution to helping HCL Technologies achieve its goals,” he says.
Shergill is an enthusiastic Memer himself. “I often go on the platform for live chat sessions, for example, because it’s a powerful way for me to reach large groups of employees and answer any questions they might have for me.”
In fact, Meme has replaced email as the main vehicle for internal communications at HCL, he says: “Sometimes, emails don’t get the time and attention they need, but when we go onto Meme, we find much of our workforce is on there already.”
Meme has also turned innovation into a crowd-sourcing exercise: there are over 300 project-specific work groups on Meme, which Shergill reckons have generated new business ideas worth over $25 million to the company.
And it’s also a powerful aid to employee productivity, he adds, because it offers them a direct link to functions like human resources and IT help desk services. Over 4,000 HR-related enquiries from staff have been resolved through Meme, cutting resolution times by 90 percent, and over 2,000 IT issues have been tackled.
HCL Technologies used its own, considerable in-house technology skills base to build Meme, using the Drupal open source content management system - but other companies are achieving similar results using enterprise social tools such as Microsoft’s Yammer, Salesforce.com’s Chatter, Tibco’s Tibbr or VMware’s SocialCast.The freeflow of information and ideas that these platforms support is simply what’s expected by younger, ‘Generation Y’ employees, says Shergill - but older employees aren’t slow to recognise the advantages they offer over more traditional ways of collaboration.
And HCL’s workforce has proved itself adept in finding new ways to use the platform: for example, after identifying a trend of blood-bank requests by employees on Meme, they’ve created a virtual blood bank (VBB).
“Nothing will do away with the importance of meeting people, establishing personal connections and exchanging ideas and information face-to-face. In a world where mobile working is more and more the norm, progressive organisations now need to make a more conscious effort to ensure that takes place,” says Shergill.
“But Meme has become an enormously important in shaping an employee-led company culture, especially at times when face-to-face isn’t possible.”