High Tech / Low Tech

If Lief Morin had his way, everyone in his company would work in the office every day. "You hear analysts and Harvard Business School types talk about how the disconnected-office thing is awesome and saves costs," says the president of Key Information Systems (#46). "But I think it's all bull."

Whether or not telecommuting is a viable work style, Morin has decided that the practice runs counter to the culture he hopes to create. "I don't believe you can build and maintain a culture of strong personal relationships without a real office environment," he says. "There's so much subtle, even nonverbal, interaction that you can't replicate."

Morin's anti-virtual-company stance may have merit or may simply reflect a personal bias. He accedes that some people thrive in a work-from-home environment but says it's a skill that's hard to screen for.

The realities of business, however, have compelled Morin to be flexible about where his employees are located. As Key Information Systems, a systems-integration company based in Woodland Hills, Calif., has expanded, it has taken on employees in northern California to work with its clients in the Bay Area. (Morin says he's not quite ready to establish a branch office up north but that he may do so within the next year.) Morin has also hired a few staffers who live in Southern L.A. County, a difficult commute to company headquarters, and Morin has grudgingly allowed them to telecommute as well. At present, 8 of the company's 33 employees work from home.

The reality of the situation notwithstanding, Morin remains determined to create his ideal workplace. To that end, he's implemented a variety of collaborative technologies to give remote employees real-time access to the company's resources and culture. A virtual private network provides secure remote access to the company's computer systems. All the staff members carry cell phones with their colleagues' relevant numbers programmed in. And Morin recently had instant-messaging software installed so that no one on staff ever needs to play phone tag. "It's been enormously successful," he says. "We could be looking at some hypothetical ROI from the savings on telephony costs, but we're not really thinking in those terms. It's just another way to communicate."

Perhaps the most interesting -- and controversial -- component of Morin's virtual culture is the series of security cameras he's had installed throughout company headquarters. The cameras give remote employees a chance to see what goes on in the office at all times. "They can figure out who's in on Friday at 5 p.m.," he says. "Is so-and-so there or are their lights dark?"

In the two years that the cameras have been in place, some employees have told Morin that they think the system is just great, some have said they rarely use it, and some have said they find the whole thing more than a bit creepy. "When that happens, I have to remind people why we do it," he says. "My goal is to offer the opportunity to be closer to our office, not to spy on people."

In his quest for every possible way to keep people connected, Morin is currently testing some desktop videoconferencing software with some of his remote employees.

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