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Interview with Charlie Johnston HR director at Cisco

Cisco takes remote working to new levels - staff communicate more via webcams or Skype from home than they do face to face at work.

HR magazine has a confession to make. Without fail every HR director we profile is interviewed face-to-face. It is the way we like it; we find we can better gauge people's reaction and interpret their body language. This time, however, Charlie Johnston, Cisco's UK HR director, and I have never actually met. Unforeseen circumstances forced us to speak the old-fashioned way, on the phone. "Don't worry about it," he says, dismissively. With that we get down to business, and the more he talks, the more I discover how apt this arrangement for speaking actually is.

For the longer we chat, the more I suspect this remote form of communication is how he prefers to do things, because it exemplifies what he is encouraging all of his staff to embrace at Cisco - to work for the company, but not necessarily at a company location.

"There are changes in society that are happening at such a phenomenal rate, companies will have to change the way they expect people to work for them," he says grandly. "Societal changes are being led by social networks, informality and interpersonal relationships across the ether; we can no longer ignore this fact and that informality is creeping into the workplace. Traditional command-and-control leadership has had its day; it will have to be replaced by collaboration instead."

With the buy-in of CEO John Chambers, this is exactly how Cisco is repositioning itself. Two years on since launching what it calls its 'Transformation Plan', Cisco is now a company of almost futuristic proportions: today 56% of work done by Cisco employees is actually accomplished away from their desks; 63% of their time is spent 'collaborating' - 35% of which is done virtually (which is more than is done face to face). Not only this, but some 20,000 Cisco employees (about 20%) use the 'Cisco Virtual Office' system to work remotely from home. All told, the average Cisco employee spends two days a week doing what it calls 'telecommuting' (working from home), while 40% of all staff are now not even located in the same city as their manager.

"The style of working we have now is irrespective of job title, and it will supersede other working trends that will come and go," says Johnston. "The global view was that Cisco needed to be pioneering this space."

The transformation project has been as much about a cultural change as a technological one. "Our CEO boldly said 20% of our management could leave, because it wouldn't suit them," says Johnston, "but we've been clear to stress we are on a journey. It's a fundamental shift, and one we believe in."

The change means employees are more likely to use Skype or webcams to communicate and collaborate with colleagues from their homes rather than travel to the office. Early results suggest that although the change is just as significant a shift for staff as it is for managers, it is something they are embracing. "A poll in 2008 found 91% of staff thought the ability to telecommute was 'somewhat' or 'very' important to their overall satisfaction in their jobs," says Johnston. "Some 69% of staff report higher productivity working from home, 66% said the quality of their work has improved, while 80% think it improves their quality of life." He adds: "About 60% of our people use the time saved to work more, while the rest use it for personal activities."

Although Johnston says the new regime is "not a mandate, but a way of empowering staff", (he says he is not setting hard-and-fast targets for a specific number of people to work from home), the new model is no fad; it is something that will only get stronger. "People want to be trusted to do their job, we see it as a real advantage to attracting and retaining people."

Nothing demonstrates Cisco's commitment to this cause better than its TelePresence video-conference technology system for meetings that all managers are encouraged to use. Imagine an elliptical table, with real people sitting around one half, facing a wall of screens on the other side. Life-sized participants can 'join' the meetings on these screens from their own base. The alignment and filming of the digital delegates is so precise, the illusion is that these people are all sitting around the table in front of them for real (see left). It has to be seen to be believed - go to YouTube, and type in Cisco TelePresence to watch it for yourself.

Cynics might say this project is really a way of trying to reduce travel expenses and office costs. "There's no doubt this is part of it," admits the HR director, who says the company has set itself the challenge of saving $1.5 billion in internal costs over the next three years. But this would be unfair. "The overriding concern is that the workplace reflects modern life, and that we treat employees in an up-to-date, grown-up way," says Johnston. "We also want people to switch off from work - we don't want them on call," he adds. "Through this process we're actually creating some new HR issues - how to engage a group of people who do not physically come together any more."

But HR directors should not shy away from these new, tough challenges, says Johnston: "HR has been guilty of sitting in its ivory tower. HR needs to move from owning a policy to developing an organisational culture. The best ideas will come from people we've engaged in a new way."