The Way We Work
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The MoveOn Way
The Way We Work
You may have noticed that MoveOn staff live all around the country, and that no two people work in the same place. This is not an accident – it is an experiment in radical decentralization – that we believe has been an important part of our success. This experiment began when we engaged our first core team members – and didn’t require any of them to locate in San Francisco. We found that decentralization worked just fine. In fact, it seemed to give us important advantages over traditional organizations. As more core staff came on board, we continued to pursue decentralization, because it works.
Why does a decentralized model work for us and yet seems to be difficult for other organizations? We believe that decentralization works, but only if we follow a simple rule: each staff member works in a separate place.
THE PURE MODEL WORKS
Why the hard, fast rule about not sharing a common office place? We believe the reason the MoveOn organizational model works is because we don’t mix models. Many organizations have experimented with decentralization, but usually only with parts of their organization. The sales force may be decentralized. Or freelancers may work outside the office. Some allow staff to only come into work three days a week, and work from home for the other two days. In general, these models don’t thrive.
We believe that there are different techniques that work in a virtual environment, that effectively replace the in-person technique that people use in a physical environment. For example, instant messaging is the virtual equivalent of popping into someone’s cubicle and seeing if they can talk with you in a bit. A key reason that mixed models don’t work is that it is very difficult for any one person to master both ways of interacting.
NO PHYSICAL POWER CENTERS
Just as importantly, if you pursue a mixed model, staff outside the central office feel like and are outsiders. You can see how a radically decentralized organization could quickly become centralized: (1) two powerful staffers make the case for an in-person office so they can “communicate” better, (2) they essentially form a powerful clique and make the case for support staff (“We need an assistant to be effective”), (3) the office becomes a de-facto central office and other staff begin to gravitate to the perceived “insider”-ness.
In short, radical decentralization is unstable UNLESS the organization has a strong genetic code – an ideology – that reinforces it. We’ve developed that genetic code.
EMBEDDED IN AMERICA
It’s very important to our approach that we are NOT Washington D.C. centric and that we are truly populist. Why has just about every other advocacy organization found itself inside the beltway – breathing in the cynicism of the political elite? Because there are strong forces pushing for centralization in any organization – everyone wants to be an insider. And once an organization is centralized, it makes infinite sense for it to be in the center of political power – the nation’s capital.
We have a different model: MoveOn staff are “embedded” in the communities that make up America. We have a good, well-functioning team, but our work is not our entire social life. As social beings, we pursue the healthy development of community and social connections outside our work lives. This delivers the side-benefit of helping keep us out of the traps of hyper-activism: where our only connection to the world is through the activist community and through people who think just like us. And we are closer to our members and partner organizations, because we communicate with them in the same way that we communicate with each other.
A BETTER LIFE FOR STAFF
Facilities are a remarkably big part of just about every organization’s cost structure. For example, a few years ago the DNC did a massive fund raising campaign ($10M or so), so that could own their building and avoid yearly costs of renting space. Instead of investing in party building, they invested in an edifice in D.C., with a high tech TV studio. If you avoid these costs, you can put the expenditures in other, more exciting places. The benefits for staff:
– Staff can live wherever they want in the country, giving families tremendous flexibility in where they live, to meet the needs of the family and significant others.
– There is no commute, saving hours of wasted time and hassle every week.
Decentralization delivers significant lifestyle advantages to staff. Of course, from the organization’s perspective, these benefits are a tremendous recruitment tool. We can hire the best person for the job, no matter where they live. Relocation is huge obstacle to recruitment for most organizations. Not for us.
PROVING A GREAT MODEL FOR HOW TO WORK
Everyone knows the indictments against our car-centric economy. So why do we continue to pursue car-centric life-styles. One key reason is that nobody to-date has found an effective model for the virtual organization. We believe we have.
The pain society feels because of the car-centric model is clear. Separating work from where you live (1) leaves dead suburban bedroom “communities,” (2) makes men and women choose between family and work, (3) forces an incredible waste of time and fuel in moving our bodies around to where the work is. When both wage earners in a two wage earner household have to get to a centralized workplace, nobody can live close to where they work. At best, people live between the two wage-earners’ job locations.
By proving that a fully decentralized model works in a publicly prominent organization, we can lead the way to healthier work models for the entire non-profit sector and beyond.
We are nothing, if not flexible. There may be intense times when employees need to be in the same place at the same time. These include: (1) periodic retreats for developing strategic plans and reconnecting as a team, (2) training periods for new staff, (3) crash projects, especially technical projects. But these times must be short and defined, and not devolve into hub offices.
The bottom line is that it’s important that everyone on the staff embrace and master the techniques of working together using communications technologies, as opposed to classical in-person techniques.
If we do this, and prove the model, this is another way in which we can help change the world.