Andrew Gruen: The Necessity of “Smart Work”

Curator-in-chief’s Note: This is a speech given by Andrew Gruen, former editor of OhmyNews International.

Hello! I’m Andrew Gruen. I used to work at OhmyNews on the OhmyNews International Web site, and I am now a PhD Student at the University of Cambridge, in Cambridge England. I study news organizations — particularly those like OhmyNews that are born digital and produce accountability news. That is those news enterprises that are creating new news that helps to hold big institutions in society–be they chaebols or governments–to account for their actions.

Today I want to talk about smart work in the United States. I started my understanding of smart work during my research. One of the key questions for me has been how to structure new, born-digital news enterprises. The way we did it in the past cannot be the way forward.

It used to be that we staffed news enterprises for the end-of-the-world breaking news
events, and we did so with many generalist reporters. Even if someone was an expert
at the environment, we would often have them covering politics because we had them
on staff–and we had to make sure that big group of people had work to do. This
meant we got less expert stories.

Then as we started to see news enterprises sprout up in the digital era, we realized
there was another way to staff. A smarter way to work. And OhmyNews represents the
most extreme version of this.

Rather than putting a generalist to work on specific topics, we can hire the best,
smartest and most expert person to work on just one story–that which they know the
most about. And this can be even more economical than the old way. How can this
be? How can we be working so much smarter?

Our research has shown that the best news enterprises online are learning from the
way Hollywood and the magazine industry have operated for a long time. And the way in which pioneers like OhmyNews already do work. Rather than having a large staff of experts and not being able to use them efficiently, the best news enterprises are learning to have a very small central professional staff. This tiny core staff does create some news on their own–but also coordinates many outside experts. For years, magazines have had a small internal editorial staff and hired freelance writes for individual stories. And movie studios have managerial staff and hire out the most talented actors, directors, crews and effects companies for the particular project.

News enterprises that are doing smart work have learned from this example. Rather than making incremental cuts to news staff–the smartest of smart working news enterprises are making cuts, and then hiring back many more people to do just what they’re expert at. They may even pay each person more for a single story–but it will be what that reporter does best. And it will free that reporter to also earn that higher rate from other news enterprises.

This is not to say there are not problems. In the movie industry, there are guilds which
help individual experts get health insurance, find jobs and share best practices. There
are similar organizations for magazine writers. But for daily news workers, these
support institutions are not there yet.

Through these models I’ve already seen how people in news can work smarter.

And from here I got interested in what other kinds of smart work was already happening
in the United States.

The single largest employer in the U.S. is the United States Federal Government which
has about two million civilian employees–excluding the postal service–according
to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And this employer is getting into smart work in a very
serious way. It is sorting out how to enable its staff who work all over the country to
get things done in an efficient way and has turned to telework to get it done. And the
scale of working smartly–by working from wherever experts are, instead of bringing
them into an office or other central location–is huge. In 2009, the last year there is
data, more than one-hundred and ten thousand workers, more than five percent of
the total federal workforce, did so remotely. Interestingly, those who teleworked also
experienced a host of other advantages. When compared to those who didn’t, in a study
presented to the U.S. Congress by the Office of Personnel Management, more people
who did smart, remote working were clear about work expectations than those who
didn’t. Moreover, that same study found that those who engaged in smart work had
more control over how they worked.

There were other benefits for the smart workers. One of the biggest for government–which is also directly translatable to news enterprises in particular–was in what is
called continuity of operations planning (COOP). This is defined in a rather strict way by
the U.S. Government as:

“an effort within individual executive departments and agencies to ensure that Primary Mission Essential Functions (PMEFs) continue to be performed during a wide range of emergencies, including localized acts of nature, accidents and technological or attack-related emergencies.”

But clearly, these are some of the same conditions that news enterprises–and indeed
many other businesses operate under. Work must go on, and services must be
provided, particularly in times of hardship.

The study of the U.S. government found that seventy-two percent of government
agencies had plans to use smart-work to get their jobs done in the event of an
emergency.

Beyond planning for emergencies, smart work has also helped the government,
according to the report, by reducing costs, increasing productivity, helping to recruit and
retain people, and less need for leave time for critical employees.

Again, though, the picture of smart work at the largest employer in the U.S. is not all
pretty. For example, only eighteen percent of government agencies that have smart
workers purchase all the needed equipment for their employees. And thirty-seven
percent of agencies ask their employees to buy all their own equipment.

But if smart work has been good for the biggest of employers, can it work for smaller companies, too? My search lead me to what I think is the most interesting example of all: an airline with a huge staff of smart workers.

JetBlue is a low-cost airline here in the U.S. that started in 1999. From its start,
the airline attempted to redefine what it meant to fly. Not just as a low-cost airline
passenger, but in general. It borrowed a model from another U.S. carrier, Southwest
Airlines, of flying just one type of plane to reduce costs. It also equipped those planes
in a way never before done: putting live, satellite TV in every seat. In addition to the
equipment — JetBlue also sought to improve the quality of airline service. And one way
to do that was to enable their entire telephone staff to work in a new way. A smart way.

While many other airlines and companies offer customers a chance to call in, mostly
the workers who answer those calls are in giant call centers. A central building where
everyone goes in to work.

JetBlue found another way. All of their reservation agents work remotely, from home.
Sometimes in pajamas.

JetBlue has had agents that work from home since it started, and by two thousand-six,
more than eighty percent chose to work this way. using an internet-based reservation
system, agents can be anywhere.

And it’s been great for the agents and the company.

Agents say they like it because it saves time, money for gas, and that it is easier to see
their families.

For JetBlue, it obviously saves money by reducing the amount of office space they
need. But it has also helped to them to do a better job at one of their core aims:
customer service. If the phone lines get busy, JetBlue is a quick email away from more
workers logging on and accepting phone calls. The reverse is also true: when there
are few calls, JetBlue has people sign off, should they want to. This kind of on-demand
service has been useful for the airline.

One might think that managing smart workers is tough. How can companies know their
workers are getting the job done? And how can workers make sure their employers are
getting what they need? JetBlue has used software tools to help them in this regard.
They have special tools which help trainers listen-in to phone calls and offer tips to the
reservation agents by email. And they have tools to show when people are into the
system.

But because technology is not perfect–and because the Internet in America is no
where near as excellent as it is in Korea–all the JetBlue smart workers must live within
a 40 minute drive from the office. This way, if something goes wrong with their home
computer, etc. they can be to the office within an hour.

Moreover, JetBlue still has employees come in on a regular basis for training and to
keep their equipment in order.

Clearly, smart work can be beneficial. But how can we optimize it? I found that
years of management research offer many rules to follow for success.

First, research shows that it is important not to be totally isolated. Setting a routine to
see your co-workers can be supremely beneficial. Even just one meeting a week helps
to keep teams working well together, and helps to build trust. Moreover, it helps for
discussing sensitive issue. Neurological research shows that seventy-six percent of
language is non-verbal. That is how you make facial expressions, and change the tone
of your voice make a big difference in delivering information. Because very few people
are able to write as expressively as they speak, making sure teams meet from time to
time is critical.

Second, setting up a good working space–even if it is at home–is also important.
While there are some notable exceptions–the author Jack London wrote twenty-five
hundred words a day at his kitchen table–most of us need a quiet, separate place forworking. Many smart workers found that they made a space–even if it was in an atticor a garage.

Also: to optimize, smart workers should set a schedule. While it seems like smart work
could be done any time, setting a clear time offers two benefits. First, it helps to build
a routine and keep work out of your personal life. Second, it helps to coordinate with
other smart workers: by setting a time, other people know when they can expect to
reach you.

Smart workers also find big improvements in their quality of life when they share tips
using online message boards. Because people no longer go to an office, it’s harder
to share life-related tips. For example, where is a good place to get a haircut? Or get
something dry cleaned? or get a healthy lunch delivered?

Then there are some recommendations of what the company must do for smart
workers. And primarily, it is essential for the company to create non-work social events
for them, both online and in person. Building community–MT–is totally critical to
getting team dynamics running. Moreover, companies would do well to let the smart
workers choose these events — if everyone wants to go to a Circus, then the circus it is.

From my look around the United States, it’s clear that smart work is here to stay.

It’s better for us as human beings. It’s better for companies because it’s more efficient.
And it reduces travel and thus carbon in the atmosphere–something that’s critically
important for our environment. It will be important to news enterprises of the future.
It’s already proving to be useful in the biggest of big employers: the U.S. Federal
Government. And it works for start-up organizations that grow big, like JetBlue. And
with some planning and reading of relevant research, it can be optimized.

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