Fast Company

The Road Not Taken

Unit of One

Travel is broadening! Travel is exotic! Travel is also exhausting. Which prompts the question: Has anyone figured out how to stay put? Fast Company hit the road in search of professionals who have found ways not to travel. How have they reshaped their organizations and developed new work strategies? How do they maintain relationships and settle disputes from afar? Here, 16 road-savvy time travelers offer their road-tested methods on how you can reshape the road to the future by traveling on that road less often.


Nick Shelness

Chief Technology Officer
Lotus Development Corp.
Edinburgh, Scotland

My wife and I live in a renovated late-seventeenth-century corn mill 60 miles north of Edinburgh, Scotland -- and about 3,500 miles from Lotus headquarters. We moved there in 1991 -- four years after my wife had surgery for a neurological condition. During most of those four years, she spent about a third of her time in the hospital. Even so, before we moved, she was still running the molecular-medicine lab at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. Her neurologist told her, "We can't guarantee that if you stop working, you'll get better. But if you don't stop, we can guarantee that you won't." She's Scottish, so we moved to Scotland.

I spend about a third of each year on the road. The rest of the time, I work from my home, where I have four computers. In the morning, I can work uninterrupted, but in the afternoon, I'm constantly communicating. To keep my travel load to a minimum while making sure that the CEO knows my activities, I submit weekly reports detailing what I've accomplished.

In truth, those reports are more for me than for him. Having a written record of what I've done is very valuable. When you work at home, it's easy to feel ineffectual. If you're at home reading and thinking, and the phone isn't ringing, it's easy to lose track of what you've accomplished. Maybe people with huge egos don't have that problem, but I do.

Nick Shelness (shelness@lotus.com) is lead evangelist of Lotus Development's technological vision. He also works with IBM Research. At both Lotus and IBM, Shelness is a fellow -- the most senior technical designation at each company.


Andrew McGrath

Technical-Design Manager
British Telecommunications PLC
Ipswich, United Kingdom

My job over the past few years has been to look at how people who live in different cities work together. I'm not against people getting together. But many people don't want to spend all of their time on an airplane. We've done studies on office behavior -- what happens when people run into one another at, say, the photocopier. When you don't share office space with people, things like networking and exchanging information tend to dry up. I'm looking at ways to enable those interactions to occur between people who work in different cities.

My team has created the "Forum Contact Space," a 3-D world that appears in a little window on your computer. You, and whoever else is participating, appear online as animated figures called "avatars." Your avatar moves into different rooms depending on which project you're working on. You may find yourself in a room with three other people who are located in different cities. If several people are in the same room with you, you're free to interact with all of them. You can upgrade the contact space to a "meeting room," or you can shut off the talk feature, indicating that you're unavailable.

If you think about how teams work, quite often, people don't say anything to one another. And that silence isn't awkward at all; it can actually help form a bond. Our virtual contact space lets you "hang out" with people and be available to them -- without traveling back and forth just to remind them that you're still around.

Andrew McGrath (andrew.mcgrath@bt.com) is technical-design manager for the shared-spaces team at Adastral Park, British Telecommunications's research facility. He specializes in problems associated with cultural differences in virtual collaborative environments.


Ann McGee-Cooper

Founder and Partner
Ann McGee-Cooper & Associates
Dallas, Texas

If you want to cut down on your travel, stop assuming that you need to be everywhere in person. There are many other ways to be represented. Coach other people, and send them to meetings. That will give them the opportunity to take responsibility.

Most people's knee-jerk reaction to a problem is to figure out who the top-level decision makers are and to call a meeting. Typically, no one thinks to call in whoever is closest to the problem. Senior management huddles and then goes back to the field to announce the solution to lower-level people.

You can cut your travel time in half by thinking more creatively. Ask yourself, Who's being left out? Are different perspectives available? Who has seen this pattern before? All of that groundwork can be done by phone. Instead of going to a meeting yourself, send someone who is closer to the problem and who may have a good idea. Back that person up by sending another person along for visible support.

Also, reconsider where everyone is meeting. Instead of meeting at headquarters, meet wherever the problem is most concentrated. Have other workers fill in for the ones who are traveling to that site, and let them in on the decision-making process. You'll earn their respect and gain their commitment to the solution. Think creatively, and you can make an impact -- without setting foot on a plane.

Ann McGee-Cooper (Ann@amca.com) was an early member of Southwest Airlines's culture committee. Her firm has worked with TD Industries for more than two decades. Her most recent book is "Time Management for Unmanageable People" (Bantam, 1994).


Neil Isford

Vice President, e-Business Services
IBM Global Services
Somers, New York

In the new world of e-business, people have to collaborate and share ideas. But building a team can be difficult when team members spend all of their time on the road. I manage IBM's e-business consulting division, which comprises people who do everything -- from Web design to strategy to systems integration. We've begun to focus on collaboration by creating innovation centers, in an effort to bring work and customers in, rather than sending our associates out. Our prototype facility in Atlanta, which has been open for seven years, houses a pool table, a Ping-Pong table, an iguana, and a three-legged dog. All of the centers have couches, open space, meeting areas and workrooms, and a design studio. By the end of the year, we'll have about a dozen centers open in Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States.

We've learned from the Atlanta location that these facilities are very successful among customers, because they provide a comfortable, well-equipped environment in which they can meet our team. And because people are sick of traveling, these centers are attracting top-notch folks to IBM.

Employees also have more opportunities to share ideas. We developed a technology for a Java real-time scoreboard that was used at the U.S. Open tennis tournament. We used that same technology to create a real-time stock tracker for NYSE.com. The idea for using that technology for NYSE.com came about during a casual chat among programmers and strategists about some of the projects that they were working on. There's power in bringing people together instead of dispersing them.

Neil Isford (isford@us.ibm.com) is responsible for 2,000 strategists, interactive designers, developers, and systems integrators at IBM. The company's first innovation center, in Atlanta, houses 400 associates.


Jorg Haake

Division Manager of Collaborative Work and Learning
GMD -- German National Research Center for Information Technology
Darmstadt, Germany

If people travel so that they can communicate and collaborate, the only way to reduce travel is to find ways to connect by using technology. And when you work with technology, you're really working with people, their social attitudes, their superstitions, and their rules. I learned that lesson while I was working on a pilot project on using technology to link government offices in Berlin and Bonn.

After reunification, the parliament decided to readopt Berlin as Germany's capital. Parliament decided to move out of Bonn over a 20-year period. My project's goal was to support long-distance negotiations and to coordinate meetings between working groups in the ministry of the interior. We set up "team rooms," which were basically videoconferencing areas. But the shape of the rooms created terrible acoustics.

One solution was to use microphone earplugs, which would give everyone the highest-quality audio. Unfortunately, lower-level civil servants who worked for the ministers were (wrongly) convinced that their bosses wouldn't wear earplugs. So we ended up buying very expensive audio equipment that marginally improved sound quality. That could have been avoided if we had just involved the end users in the decision-making process. It's funny, but the lessons of technology often have little to do with technology itself.

Jorg Haake (haake@darmstadt.gmd.de) heads one of six divisions in the German National Research Center for Information Technology. GMD is a nonprofit institution that conducts IT research and does contract work for companies and government agencies.


Tokuko Kimura Chapin

Director
Toko Consultants Private Ltd.
New York, New York and Ngee Ann City, Singapore

If you want to work globally but don't want to spend all of your time on the road, you need to develop a consistent pattern of travel. The goal is to let your overseas clients and customers know when you're available to them in person. That way, it's easier for them to remember when they'll see you next, and it's easier to coordinate schedules.

For three years, I traveled from New York to Tokyo and Singapore every month. Now I make that trip every other month. I'm a legal, accounting, brokerage, and tax consultant in charge of negotiations for a Japanese company that owns a large, upscale mall in Singapore. The mall has 115 tenants, including Cartier, Chanel, and Tiffany & Co. My husband and I lived in Singapore until five years ago, when his company relocated him to New York. That's when I began making those monthly treks to Asia.

I've managed to cut my travel time in half by regularly chatting with and emailing people in other offices about what's going on. I find that casual conversation is the best way to detect issues. I also have a key person to whom I listen carefully. By "key," I don't necessarily mean "high level." That person is someone who is very observant and very good at detecting smoke where there may eventually be fire. She serves as my eyes and ears in Singapore. Above all, she tells me immediately when she suspects that something isn't quite right.

If you need someone to act as your eyes and ears, make sure that person will pass the hot iron quickly. And if that person raises a concern, you must respond promptly. You have to maintain the momentum of the communication if you want it to be effective.

Tokuko Kimura Chapin (toko@pacific.net.sg) works for the Singapore branch of Toshin Development Co., which owns and manages a 770,000-square-foot mall: Takashimaya Shopping Centre at Ngee Ann City, in Singapore. Chapin is a consultant to its senior managers in all aspects of operation and is in charge of negotiations with tenants, legal and financial professionals, government agencies, and others. She has logged more than 1 million miles on United Airlines.


Peter Schwartz

Cofounder and Chairman
Global Business Network
Emeryville, California

I'm chairman of a small consulting firm that helps big companies think about the future. A lot of my work involves meeting with CEOs or other members of a company's senior team. Much of that requires face-to-face contact, but many interactions can be done electronically, using videoconferencing equipment in my home office.

My setup cost $11,000. The price of that equipment has fallen dramatically in the past couple of years. The first time that my equipment saved me a trip to Europe, it paid for itself. What's more, I no longer need a team of technicians to place a videoconference call. My monitor is a 32-inch TV screen, next to which are two small boxes. The camera sits on top of the TV. I sit in an armchair beside the coffee table.

The equipment has improved communication at least as much as it has diminished travel, and it has made contacting people easier -- which means that I communicate with them more. In the long run, though, there may be a sting in the tail of this technology: It may eventually increase my travel load, because the easier it is for me to communicate, the more global my reach can be. And the more people I interact with, the more demand there will be for my physical presence.

Peter Schwartz (schwartz@gbn.org) most recently coauthored "The Long Boom" (Perseus Books, 1999), with Joel Hyatt and Peter Leyden, and "When Good Companies Do Bad Things" (John Wiley & Sons, 1999), with Blair Gibb. He is cofounder and chairman of Global Business Network, a business consultancy that specializes in scenario planning.


Eric Richert

Vice President, Workplace Operations and Research
Sun Microsystems Inc.
Palo Alto, California

I'm responsible for setting up Sun Microsystems's offices in a way that makes them conducive to the work that people do. A big part of my job is understanding how people can work together across long distances without having to travel. No matter how good technology is, it goes to waste if the technicians don't understand how people meet. People get a lot of important information from the gestures and facial expressions of others. We arrange teleconferencing equipment to make all attendees -- both local and remote -- appear as if they're sitting at one long table. To do that, we set up a video monitor at one end of the table, so that if you're sitting at a conference table in one location, you see in the monitor an image of the people in the other location sitting across the table from you.

We also discovered that people listening to a speaker from a remote location often feel remote. Presenters attempt to counteract those feelings by giving those in remote locations printouts of their overheads. Bad idea. Instead, give everyone printouts. That way, both local and long-distance groups are looking at the same information, and everyone can understand what's going on.

Eric Richert (eric.richert@eng.sun.com) heads the division of Sun Microsystems that creates workplaces for the company. He is responsible for innovation, research, development, design, construction, IT deployment, and services associated with those offices.


Jonathan Grudin

Senior Researcher, Microsoft Research
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Washington

In an effort to reduce employees' time on the road, more and more companies are conducting more and more of their training sessions remotely and putting an increasing number of courses and lectures online. Soon, the number of people who listen to a lecture remotely or take a course on the Web will exceed the size of the audience that hears it in person. That's already true for presentations at Microsoft. So, if you are someone who gives presentations or conducts training sessions at your company, you should start thinking about designing your talks with both live and remote audiences in mind. So what kinds of things should you do differently?

First, your live audience members are no longer your primary audience. Think of them as a studio audience, whose purpose is to give you feedback. Second, structure your talk around your slides, and carefully consider how you label them. By doing so, you can use your slides as a table of contents for your presentation, which will help your audience navigate through your lecture. Also, state all of your key ideas up front. A live audience usually sticks around for the whole explanation, but remote listeners may not.

If you monitor how many people watch a given portion of a talk, you'll see that the number is high each time a new slide is displayed, but it falls off the longer a slide stays on the screen. People tend to skip from slide to slide. If you're designing a talk for people to access at a later time, get your key ideas in at the beginning of each slide; don't save them for your punch line.

Jonathan Grudin (jgrudin@microsoft.com) has been studying access patterns to learn about how people use distributed learning and on-demand video. Grudin researches human-computer interaction and computer-supported cooperative work. Microsoft frequently has outside presenters speak in-house for developers, testers, marketers, and others. The archived videos of those talks have been accessed by tens of thousands of viewers.


Jim Herbsleb

Leader of the Collaboratory Research Project at Bell Laboratories
Lucent Technologies
Naperville, Illinois

We use two organizational models at Lucent to minimize travel. The first is to distribute the work so that sites operate as independently as possible. The second is to establish employees as official go-betweens. We call them "liaison engineers."

One of our first liaison engineers worked between our offices in Nuremberg, Germany and Bangalore, India. The Bangalore site was a relatively new one, whereas the one in Nuremberg had been operating for a number of years. Naturally, the engineers in Bangalore had lots of questions for the Nuremberg staff, so a liaison engineer from Bangalore was sent to Nuremberg to learn how that office was run. That temporary position turned into a permanent one, with a new engineer rotating in every three months to satisfy visa restrictions. Whenever an Indian engineer had a question, a liaison was around to find the answer.

Whenever we plan a site, we urge that someone who's gregarious and technical become the liaison engineer. The person most familiar with the style of an area learns to communicate and to supply information to colleagues at home.

Jim Herbsleb (jherbsleb@lucent.com) is a member of the technical staff in the software-production research department at Lucent Technologies's Bell Labs facility. He is currently leading a research project to address the problems of globally distributed software engineering.


Danamichele Brennen O'Brien

Vice President and Chief Travel Scientist
Rosenbluth International
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Regardless of your company's size, T&E -- travel and entertainment -- is your third largest expense. If you want to reduce travel, restructure your relationship with your travel agent -- by giving that person incentives to reduce costs, not to book flights.

For a long time, Rosenbluth has been in the business of not providing tickets. We work for a flat fee: Our job is to minimize travel expenditures by negotiating deals with airlines, hotels, and car-rental companies. We also help companies analyze data about their travel habits, and we suggest ways for them to get the most out of their money.

Another way to reduce travel is to rethink how you budget for communications technology. People don't use videoconferencing because it's not managed as part of a business process. Usually, equipment is owned, set up, and run by IT departments. If you want to reduce travel, manage and account for your communications technology as part of your travel department.

Rosenbluth is an interaction-management company, not a travel agency, so I also create partnerships with companies in order to help them collaborate without traveling. My group has been looking at how different media can affect travel expenditures. Now we're designing a sophisticated decision-support system to help companies integrate technologies such as videoconferencing into their travel programs. Creating software is the easy part. The difficulty lies in trying to change an organization's discipline and work style.

Danamichele Brennen O'Brien (dobrien@rosenbluth.com) is responsible for Rosenbluth International's global innovation, research, and product development. She holds all of Rosenbluth's patents for travel-related optimization and fare-construction systems. Rosenbluth is a private company with annual sales of more than $4 billion.


Elizabeth Churchill

Senior Research Scientist
FX Palo Alto Laboratory Inc.
Palo Alto, California

How do you establish and maintain trust in a long-distance working relationship without being constantly on the road? You let people know that you're available to them -- working alongside them, as a teammate. The easiest way to do that is to find a lightweight software application that lets you maintain a constant, real-time connection to whomever you're working with. So-called demanding technologies, such as videoconferencing, are cumbersome to set up, can create technical impediments to interactions, and end up being more of a problem than a solution.

You can create a reciprocity and a rhythm at work by using a real-time chat window. At Xerox, I've been working on designing a lightweight chat application called "Sticky Chat," which is similar to a smart Post-it note. You can open any editor, such as Microsoft Word or Adobe PhotoShop, and "stick" a chat window anywhere in a document. You then select a few people from your "buddy list" and invite them to view the document with you. You control the navigation through the document, but everyone has the same functions as the editor -- so everyone can make changes to the document and chat about it in real time.

You can pick up Sticky Chat and move it and your chat "buddies" to another part of the same document. Or you can move it to a different document or to a different editing application. You can look back at a conversation, search text by keyword, or replay a conversation segment by segment, as if you're watching a stop-action video. We've been using the prototype internally, and we're now thinking about making the program more robust -- so that it can actually be deployed.

Elizabeth Churchill (churchill@pal.xerox.com) joined FX Palo Alto in 1997. "FX Pal" is the Silicon Valley outpost of Fuji-Xerox Co., the hub for Xerox Group's operations in Asia and the Southern Pacific. Churchill's work has focused on implicit and explicit cognitive processes and their implications for designing computer interfaces and virtual environments.


Joyce Bembry

Manager, Global Business Travel
E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co.
Wilmington, Delaware

I manage global travel for Dupont. Think about why people travel: It's a means to an end -- effective communication. Our function is not simply to book tickets and obtain low fares; it's also to facilitate interactions between people. If that's the case, then we have to start looking at other means to that end.

Right now, we're looking at other ways in which people can communicate, besides getting on a plane and traveling to another person's location. When is it appropriate to use technology, and when are face-to-face meetings the only alternative? We're also looking at what makes employees decide to travel.

If you want to look at current patterns and experiment with change, the best place to start is within a company -- with internal communications and travel. Internal relationships are easiest to change. People aren't usually inclined to try something new with valuable customers. So I've started providing organizations with alternatives -- ways to reduce travel internally. But I can't force change. People have to change the way that they understand travel, realize that they have options, and think about their travel budget in a new way.

Joyce Bembry (joyce.m.bembry@usa.dupont.com) began her career with DuPont in 1965 as a chemist. She later joined DuPont Sourcing, the company's procurement organization. Over the past 20 years, Bembry has managed several different business areas, including buying groups, distribution, import-export services, education, and development. She became manager of global business travel in 1995.


Bob Gett

President and Chief Executive Officer
Viant Corp.
Boston, Massachusetts

As a professional-services company, we have been very concerned about the amount of travel that we require of our staff. One of our key objectives when we designed Viant's operating model was to minimize travel.

How are we doing that? We've decided to establish offices in major cities, and we've opened 10 so far. Each office offers all of our services but only works with clients in its own metropolitan area. Instead of doing work at a client's location, we're now doing everything in-house -- which means less travel, even within a particular area. Employees receive bonuses based on their ability to share information across departments, offices, and groups. The result is an automatic companywide exchange that helps eliminate a lot of face-to-face group meetings. Since everybody is a shareholder, and everybody's bonus is based on companywide performance, there's a real financial incentive to share information. We've actually found that incentive programs based on an individual's performance can be counterproductive.

As we expand, we're focusing on maintaining our corporate culture. A lot of companies that want to expand quickly into a city buy a local company, put a new name on its door, and, voila, they have a presence. We don't do that. When we go into a new city, we send in a launch team of 6 to 10 Viant-experienced people who form a nucleus there. Our culture, our processes, and our vision are immediately planted, and they grow organically.

Bob Gett (bgett@viant.com) is president and CEO of Viant, an Internet-consulting firm that has worked with such clients as American Express, General Motors, J. Crew, Kinko's, Sears, and Sony Pictures Entertainment to plan, build, and launch their digital businesses. Viant has also helped build such virtual businesses as della.com, sputnik7.com, and Wit Capital Corp. The company went public a year ago and is listed on NASDAQ under VIAN.


Shankar Sastry

Professor of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, and Bioengineering
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, California

People often say that there's no substitute for face-to-face interactions. I disagree. In some cases, technology can replace travel and actually provide a more human experience than in-person contact does.

I'm working on a project that will enable surgeons to operate remotely, using minimally invasive techniques, on patients who are in other cities. With this technology, a surgeon can sit at a computer and use a virtual-reality training simulator to repeat a procedure until it's perfected. When the surgeon gives the okay, the instrument repeats the surgeon's movements, but this time, it's on a live patient. Such instruments add precision to a procedure, because they're designed to compensate for involuntary movements in a surgeon's hands.

People hate hospitals. This technology can bring health care into homes, and it can provide a more human experience than traditional face-to-face interventions ever could.

Shankar Sastry (sastry@darpa.mil) is on leave from the University of California, Berkeley and is now director of information technology for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in Washington, DC. At Berkeley, he has helped design millirobotics for minimally invasive surgery, a new air-traffic-management system to help alleviate congestion at airports, and a theoretic model for learning and adapting to biological systems.


Steve Poltrock

Technical Fellow, Boeing Phantom Works
Boeing Co.
Bellevue, Washington

I work in the research division of Boeing, improving the way people in remote locations use technology to collaborate and studying how technology affects and changes the way people work. Long-distance collaboration is a very important issue at Boeing: Every new commercial aircraft that we create involves hundreds of design teams that are located in different cities throughout the United States. We've studied how teams work together, and we've come up with a few guidelines to help improve that process.

First, technology should never replace face-to-face contact. When Boeing begins building a new airplane, the first thing that it does is to bring the project's team leaders and other key people together. That initial face-to-face meeting helps people get to know one another, builds trust, and helps people to agree on goals.

Second, when people are teleconferencing, everyone involved must be very conscious of social behavior. People know how to behave in group meetings, but certain parameters must be established to make a teleconference effective. For instance, it's important to designate a meeting facilitator -- someone who makes sure that everyone feels included and gets heard.

Third, one person should be responsible for setting up equipment. Could you imagine trying to conduct a meeting if no one knew who had the key to a conference room? It's also surprisingly common to waste the first 15 minutes of a meeting trying to get connected.

Finally, in real estate, it's location, location, location; in long-distance collaboration, it's audio, audio, audio. I have observed 25 engineers try to have a conference call using a tiny speakerphone. My most important piece of teleconferencing advice: Use good speakerphones!

Steve Poltrock (Steven.Poltrock@PSS.Boeing.com) is a technical fellow in mathematics and computing technology at Boeing Phantom Works, Boeing's research division. He leads projects supporting teamwork, work-flow management, and knowledge management. Poltrock earned a PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of Washington and has conducted research in perception, cognition, and mathematical psychology at the University of Denver and at Bell Labs.

Add New Comment

0 Comments