There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles, books, blogs, and Websites filled with advice about how to manage remote workers (or telecommuters, or workshifters, or distributed teams–we tend to use these terms interchangeably, even though we know there are subtle distinctions among them).
However, most of that advice amounts to broad generalizations or “bumper-sticker”-like slogans that are well-meant but rather shallow: “Pay attention to your staff’s personal life,” “Measure what they produce, not how much time they spend,” “Hold regular conference calls,” “Check in with your subordinates on a regular basis.”
While those slogans do point in the right direction, they tend to be stated as universal truths even though the real world is full of complexity and varying contexts. Worse, they don’t begin to deal with why and how companies choose to embrace workforce mobility. And an organization’s motivations and experiences make a huge difference in what works and what doesn’t.
In our latest research (full report here), we identify and discuss five major things that leading organizations do to make workshifting work for them–and for their employees:
- They do it strategically. That is, the workshifting program is formal, explicit, and sponsored by senior management. Everyone knows why the program has been launched and what specific business outcomes it is intended to help achieve.
- The organization and its members learn to work differently over time. In most respects employees continue to do the same basic work even though they are in different places. However, “going mobile” requires some fundamental changes in how they get that work done. And distributed work essentially forces organizations to measure and reward work outcomes instead of just monitoring employees’ activities through “management by walking around.”
- Training is a central part of the program. And the training programs include both managers of remote workers and the remote individual contributors themselves.
- The effective deployment and use of collaboration technologies is central to making distributed work “work.” And we are not referring just to the basics like email, conference calling, and instant messages. Successful organizations today make a wide variety of collaboration tools available to their distributed workforce.
- Success depends on planning thoughtfully and implementing aggressively. It’s an old idea, but an important one: plan the work, and work the plan. Distributed work programs aren’t just about redesigning facilities and letting people move about the country; they almost always include significant organizational and cultural change, and must be treated as such.
Phil Montero of The Anywhere Office told us:
Too many organizations stumble into flexible work on an ad-hoc basis, and then adapt to it only when they realize that it’s happening. Successful organizations make sure their managers are trained in how to lead remote employees and take a deliberate approach and strategy.
Kate North, Vice President of Global Business Development for e-work.com, an online training program firm, made a similar point:
Today, the primary driver for many organizations adopting mobility strategies is cost reduction driven by a shrinking real estate portfolio. And as the implementation team launches, if they have not done their homework and properly prepared their mid-level managers on how to successfully lead a distributed team, their program could hit a wall.
In the past, managers picked up a tremendous amount of “visual queuing” when their teams were office-based. They were able to “see,” quickly and subconsciously, how their team was doing, what they were working on, and who was connecting with whom. When visual queuing is no longer available, a manager can feel quite vulnerable and frustrated.
In addition, if individual employees sense that their manager has not cultivated these skills and doesn’t feel secure, they too may resist a mobility program–especially in today’s economy. On the flip side, when a manager has honed the necessary skills and continually demonstrates best practices, employees will begin to thrive in the virtual workplace by developing their own skills; and, needless to say, their engagement and productivity will soar.
Workshifting Requires Redesigning Work Processes and Management Practices
We also identified five specific ways that successful workshifting employers transform they way they get work done:
- Going paperless. People can be much more mobile when they don’t have to access paper documents that are by definition stored in only one location. The real magic of centrally stored digital information is that once it’s online it can be accessed and processed from almost anywhere.
- Supplying workshifters with the mobile technologies they need. One government agency we studied no longer has any desktop computers. Everything is portable, although all laptops have physical security devices and are assigned to individual employees. This degree of technology mobility increases the likelihood that people will work wherever they are–because they can.
- Making time to practice new tools such as job-specific software applications. The winners give their employees time to learn how to use new collaborative technologies well before they are expected to integrate them into their work style.
- Ensuring that workshifters are “contactable” (i.e., published times when they are available to peers and managers). When people work in a single central location everyone assumes that if they can see you, you are available to talk. When people are remote they must set aside specific blocks of time for calls and other real-time collaborative activities. One remote manager called these times his “open-door hours.”
- Teach workshifters personal discipline, including knowing when to “unplug.” Gil Gordon (one of the thought leaders we interviewed) is famous for promoting the value of getting offline. Burnout can become endemic among remote workers unless they learn how to disconnect regularly.
This research has been both enlightening and confirming. We’ve been tracking distributed work and workforce mobility for many years. We’ve helped clients write telecommuting policies; we’ve built the business case for flexible work programs; we’ve designed, implemented, and evaluated pilot projects and training programs.
We have always been major advocates for flexible work. Yet interviewing other thought leaders and experienced practitioners over the past several months has re-energized us and strengthened our belief in the “rightness” of flexible work.
In the end, it all comes down to an abstract but critically important aspect of organizational culture: trust. Trust the organization and its people to do what they’re asked to do: hire people to accomplish a specific task; measure and manage them on the basis of results; and don’t worry about controlling where and when they do their work.
Photo Credit: Round Indigo Rock