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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Contracts Professional

September 6, 2010

A couple of times in recent weeks I have heard from organizations that their internal employee surveys have shown that contracts staff feel ‘isolated’. This reflects other survey evidence regarding the sense of being ‘under-valued’ and comes especially (but not solely) from those in a post-award contracting role.

I suspect that the broad sentiment regarding value is because many staff in these positions still tend to be viewed as somewhat administrative. But for others, it can be a problem that increasingly they work remotely from their colleagues, either largely working from home or perhaps within a larger account or project team which has no other contracts professionals.

These two issues – value and isolation – are certainly linked. Indeed, anyone who feels isolated tends to become defensive; and isolation clearly results in reduced skills and value over time. Research has pointed to the fact that people who are well connected (in terms of their professional links) are held in far higher esteem – because it gives them access to more information and unique insights. Genetic research has also shown that people who are cut off from their mentors or sources of innovation steadily lose the ability to perform.

So these sentiments matter and represent a serious challenge to those who manage contracts personnel. It demands steps to ensure greater connectivity, more sources of inspiration and the chance to network for new ideas and fresh solutions. For many, physical meetings are no longer an option in these days of constrained travel budgets. The occasional team webinar or conference call often fails to do the trick. Indeed, I was reminded recently how it can make people feel even more isolated. I was told about a regular team call, where those in HQ would gather in the Vice-President’s office and join the call together – leaving those on the outside even more conscious of their lack of influence and input. Not surprising;ly, most of the conversation was dominated by those in the conference room. Those on the outside were disengaged.

Senior managers must think about ways to keep their people connected. They can do that by emphasizing its importance – and reflecting that importance in their actions. So conference calls, webinars, virtual working groups and project teams, the use of message boards and coomunities of practice are all ways to enable connections, but only if they are managed in a disciplined way and gain the visible attention of management. Participation also needs to be required  – for example, it should feature high on personal appraisals. Staff should be rewarded or acknowledged for delivering new insights to their colleagues. For example, there are so many external sources of information that few organizations leverage in any effective way. IACCM has weekly expert interviews; it runs dozens of relevant research surveys; it offers webinars, news updates, this blog ….. how often are team members encouraged to follow these sources and then perhaps give periodic feedback or reports on what they discovered?

Ironically, the volume of information at our disposal and the ease with which it can be accessed are unprecedented. Yet we know from the data at IACCM that many contracts staff take little advantage of this. A networked world has offered new opportunities for ‘inclusiveness’; but it has also left many people feeling isolated. Addressing this issue demands new approaches and new thinking by management and also by any individual professional who wants to progress and to ensure their personal development.

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