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April - 2014 - issue > In My Opinion
Work is What You Do, Not Where You Are
Ken Kannappan
President & CEO-Plantronics
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Plantronics (NYSE: PLT) is a leading electronics company developing audio communications devices for enterprises and consumers. The firm, based in Santa Cruz, CA has a market cap of $1.9 billion.

I remember a time when the unemployment rate in Tijuana, Mexico, where Plantronics has its largest facility, was only 0.2 percent. We had fifty job openings, and overnight we had 2,000 people applying for positions just through word of mouth. There is a fundamental truth that people need jobs to make a living, but they want careers and an opportunity to contribute something meaningful.

Yet several surveys in the U.S. and globally indicate that many people are not finding those meaningful careers and that in fact, fully 70 percent of workers are either not engaged or worse, are actively disengaged, from their employers. We are hiring knowledge workers to bring us forward and as leaders if we are not getting their maximum contribution, we are failing.

How did we get here? I submit that outdated managerial practices tied to an unyielding view of where work must be done have contributed to the spiritual malaise of many employees.

Traditionally, people's responsibilities have influenced where they work, and the workplace has evolved accordingly. People who farm for a living work on farms, people who manufacture things work in factories. This makes sense - that's where their work is. But when it comes to today's knowledge workers, many are working in office environments that are not very different than those of the clerical workers who predominated the workforce 60 or 70 years ago. For the well-being and vitality of our economy, our companies and our people, it is time for leaders to evolve the workplace to meet the needs of today's employers and employees.

The tools and resources those office workers of yesterday needed to perform their jobs - such as typewriters, telephones, company data and customer accounts -- were physically located in only one place - at the office. In the past 20 years, technology innovation has enabled us to virtually access all the information we need to do our jobs regardless of location. During the same time, the workforce has also changed dramatically with the automation of clerical work making way for knowledge workers, who now make up the majority of the workforce in many countries. Despite all these changes, the notion persists that work is best produced in a shared physical office environment, with a desk, computer and phone for every employee. Just as technological advances have upended where resources are located and the type of work people do, they have also laid the groundwork for a new, more flexible approach to work that is more concerned with what is accomplished, rather than where it is performed.

A shift in thinking about work as an activity and not a set location would mean more engaged employees and more successful companies - not to mention cost savings from smaller offices, lower utility use and a tangential but important boost for the environment. It doesn't happen overnight. Establishing a new model and phasing it into practice requires you to think deeply about the people whose skills your company needs to attract and retain, the values and behaviors you want to perpetuate, the capabilities of your management team and the organization's capacity for change.
Because change is hard, it's important to understand the fundamentals that make it worth the effort. If you want to hire the best people, you need to offer outstanding opportunities for them to achieve something. If you're leading the best people, then you need to both inspire and engage them to contribute their best work in service to the goals of the business. Rather than being overly concerned about how many hours the average knowledge worker spends in the office, leaders should focus on larger considerations in creating a productive work culture that helps drive superior contribution.

You may wonder, "How can I make sure my team is engaged?" and "How do I inspire them?" Things to consider, in addition to providing clear and compelling overall direction are:

- The value of individual employee contributions and how efforts are aligned across the organization,
- How your leadership team models collaboration, and whether your managers are secure enough to empower their teams rather than focus on purely supervisory skills, and
- Proactively ensuring that employees have the tools and the mindset to be effective contributors regardless of location

The qualities that make effective leaders in traditional office environments are even more important in today's more fluid workspaces. You must focus on communicating clearly and consistently about where the company is going, the opportunities and challenges ahead, why and how the organization can win. You want to facilitate a two-way line of sight: people need to know clearly what hills need to be conquered and leaders need to be able to inspect for progress and results.

Over time, as employers recognized the value of knowledge worker collaboration, offices with four walls and a door were displaced as new "open" environments came in. And, despite the explosion of mobile technology that allows access to people and information round-the-clock, many still consider work to be what people do while tethered to the hardwired phone at their office desk.

We have taken a different path to help attract and empower the best people to do their best work. At Plantronics, we have brought a Smarter Working philosophy to life. We believe that in many cases our employees have the best sense of where they should be to get their jobs done. If someone is coding all day, or heads down in an important project, working at home may be the best choice. If there is a meeting with team members from other locations, being in the office makes sense. If people are doing a mix of activities, you need to consider locations that work for all of them. The management question shifts from "Where are my team members?" to the more important matter of "What is being achieved?"

To help employees accomplish their work, we use unified communications technology that enables them to communicate seamlessly by voice through their laptops, their mobile phones and other devices including those that they own. We have no phones on our desks. This enables people to be productive and collaborate effectively wherever they are - at home, on the road or in the office. I have seen time and again that when people are provided the freedom to determine how and where work is accomplished, work quality and productivity increase. When employers provide flexibility, employees are more likely to reciprocate in kind - for example, by actively participating in the late night or early morning calls required in today's global business environment.

You might wonder, with all this flexibility, why would people choose to come to the office to work? They come to Plantronics' offices because we have a culture where people genuinely like to work with each other. They come because within our offices, we provide a variety of physical spaces for people to use depending on what kind of work they are trying to accomplish at any given time. In addition to conference rooms, our offices also have "chat" and "focus" rooms equipped with monitors where you can hold two-person meetings, conference calls or just use to perform work that requires intense uninterrupted concentration.

We have enhanced the traditional neon-lit image of the "cube farm" by building our facilities to ensure plenty of natural light. And we have used our deep expertise in sophisticated audio communications and technology to dampen the sound of conversations that in other office spaces might carry from one end of the room to the other. Acoustics have been engineered to very specific standards that allow you to hold a conversation on the computer or with someone at your desk and be assured that someone a dozen feet away won't hear what you are saying or be disturbed. It is a decidedly peaceful and enormously productive environment.

In making workplace planning decisions, the more you focus on the organization, what direction it needs to take and what must be accomplished by your team to get there, the better you will become at creating environments that meet the needs of the business and those of employees.

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