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Remote Working Part 3: – Key management practices that must change

Gerry Sweeney -
Remote Working Part 3: – Key management practices that must change

In Part 2, I tabled the idea that a transition to remote working will be difficult for many organizations, because I think it’s very important to recognize and deal with the challenges instead of just focusing on the many positives of remote working, of which there are many. 

I promise I will get to these as I move towards Part 6.

To open, I wanted to reaffirm my belief that to have a successful transition to remote working, you will need to change your management practices, you might not want to, you might not have even given any thought to this, so my goal today is to highlight some of the things you should be thinking about. Employee experience will be a key consideration. Brand loyalty both from its customers and its employees is key to a vibrant organization.  Developing an organizational strategy to support fluid remote working is more vital than ever. 


Employee Business Value

Like all things that involve money, there must be a fair “value” exchange, that is the essence of commerce and I think we all intuitively understand that. 

So just for a second, I would like you to think about yourself as an employee and ask yourself this question – How is the value I bring to the table measured and evaluated against my salary? As an employee, it is incredibly important to understand this.

The world of information workers has very much moved on from presenteeism and task-based performance measurements.  It is of course different for each job role, and each company is different too, but in my own experience much of this “value judgment” is still being made on the basis of you being in the role and being part of the team and often not on a task-by-task, or individual contribution basis.

From corporate perspective, its people are the company’s largest single, and ongoing investment.

The roles required are defined by operational need and managers are given and/or request “head count” which then leads to recruitment and hiring to “fill the position”. This is a very traditional approach, and we all know this story, but how do you think the organization makes value judgments about the return on their investment?

In truth, it’s challenging at the organizational level to make judgments about individual contribution. In most cases, the workforce has to be looked at as a whole; the performance of the company, department, team or unit is typically measured by looking at metrics like the bottom line, utilization, and revenue contribution per employee.  

If the finances work, then most companies, and the management teams, do not have to make individual employee value judgments, but instead rely on this overall performance as a leading indicator of return on human capital investment. When performance is poor, it’s no surprise therefore that companies often turn to the cost of its employees.

Managers generally adopt traditional schemes for staff management, things like objective setting, regular review meetings, performance checkpoints, 360 discussions and so on. When done well, these schemes tie into the company’s mission and value statements, but rarely do these directly tie back to outcome-based value judgments against the cost of that employee or team.

Let’s consider a use case scenario. As a manager you are given the task to get your IT team certified for an ISO standard, and your organization will undoubtedly ask you to “find out how much this will cost”. To do this, you may need to use a consultant with relevant experience - let’s call her Jane. Jane will provide a quote, say 10 days at £600/day, which you feed back to your organization, and it is approved. Jane delivers the agreed days, helping you set things up, go through the audit, and so on, until the job is done.

Now think about what has happened.  You have determined that you need a temporary employee (Jane) for 10 days to help you get the ISO cert.  You have told your organization it will cost them £6k, and on the back of that, the organization has made an “investment decision” in which it feels £6k in exchange for an ISO cert is a fair exchange of value.  This is a typical business approach, and in this context, it is easy to understand how we measure the value that was delivered by our temporary employee Jane. We have a well-defined objective, we have “bought the outcome” and anyone in business will find this intuitive.

So, as a manager, the big question you have to ask yourself is this - Why do I not measure my individual employed contributors in the same way? Why does my organization not expect me to do the same as I have done with Jane? Interesting questions right…

People who were traditionally not allowed to work from home will be asking their employers “why can I not work from home now? We know its possible because we have been doing it without any issue”. It will be tough for most organizations to answer this truthfully and say “it’s because we do not have the right management practices in place to facilitate this”.  Remote working will become more common, in fact current predictions from Gartner estimate a six-fold increase, from 5% to 30% of information workers will be permanently remote post COVID-19 lockdown.

There will be flexible arrangements between employers and employees, yet employees cannot be measured by traditional value judgments, like “she is in the office” or “he always works the extra time to get the job done” etc. Instead, people will need to be more measured according to outcomes, and this presents management with new challenges.

Of course, there is a spectrum here. At one end of the scale is the “part of the furniture” employee in specialized knowledge, or leadership roles. At the other end of the scale is the gig economy where employees are paid for outcomes on a job-by-job basis, like short term contractors such as Jane who I mentioned above.

Traditional management practices will need to evolve to use value-outcome based measurements of individual and team contributions. Alongside that, an organization will need to formally recognize both levels of trust and of seniority, as well as the nature of the work being done, even on a role by role basis. These things will need to be more formal and rely less on management intuition. 


People and Presence

When you think about what makes “a company” you invariably think about its people, and there is no doubt that they can make or break a company.  When prospective customers, investors, potential partners or existing customers come to visit, make no mistake, they are coming to “get a feeling about your people” which by association establishes trust with your company.  If all your people are remote, and you do not have a central location, how can this be managed?

Taking it one step further - What about prospective new employees? Typically, they will come along for an interview, and will make judgments about your office, if it looks tired, and shoddy with little activity. If the office is modern, and vibrant with people buzzing around, that leaves quite a different impression. Much as the interview process is about checking employee suitability, it is also about the candidate checking you out.  If you are proud of the working environment, part of the interview process is likely to be “let me show you around”, because you are selling to them, and showing them where they *could* be working. 

This is all standard stuff that we do intuitively – but what happens when there is no office? If everyone is home working, there are no cool social facilities, and no people buzzing around – what then?

When a new employee joins, how do they “sit alongside someone who takes them under their wing” to train and mentor them? How do they meet other members of the team who they do not work directly with when there are no coffee machine conversations. How does a new employee work towards “fitting in”, and “gelling with the team” etc?

These are all very real problems which in my own view, if not addressed would easily cause an unprepared remote team to rapidly decline. The last thing you want is a collection of autonomous individuals where there is no “team” and just a bunch of “I’s”.

And what about that “investment” the company is continually making in their people? When teams are no longer visible, and people are out of sight, autonomous, individual contributors, how does a business look at its workforce and make a judgment about the “value” of their people? Leaders can’t just walk around the office to observe the value being delivered

In reality, “teams” deliver greater overall business value than just the sum total of individual value contributions.

Even the best people have their off days, and that’s where a great team comes into play. A great team irons out those bumps and can still deliver great team performance. Organizations can make much better judgments about how a team delivers value than how any individual does. 

I have often heard statements like “you have a great support team” – an easy value judgment to make when a team delivers specific value to a business, in that case it might be based on SLA’s and customer satisfaction for example.

The bottom line is this - for remote working to be successful, your long-term strategy must ensure that your teams remain connected, strong and supportive. Without a clear HR strategy to support this, your teams may dissolve into just a collection of autonomous self-directed individuals.


Team Interaction & Trust

Trust is the cornerstone of any team.  Great teams build trust over time by working together.  In a physical office environment, much of this trust building happens organically. People are social creatures and they interact naturally, without encouragement, and trust gets built as a consequence, without much management effort.

The office environment helps drive this, in simple ways that we take for granted.

  • Coffee-machine/water cooler conversations
  • Visibility (people are present)
  • Accessibility (you can ask people for help)
  • Social activities (lunch, the pub after work, or exercising with your colleagues)
  • Face to face meetings
  • Chance conversations, inspired innovations, and so on.

These interactions allow you to get to know people, understand their personality, knowledge, interests, and unique characteristics, all of which, builds trust.  It is relatively easy when people are in the same physical location. Remote workers opt out of this, and as a consequence, most feel the need to come into the office once or twice a week in order to interact with their colleagues and be a team player.

From a company standpoint - does it make sense to commit office space to facilitate this need for remote workers to physically interact with their colleagues?  And if you facilitate part-time interactions in this way, you may well be doing just enough to avoid doing anything to properly facilitate a remote team working culture.

How much hot-desking space do you need to reserve to fulfil that need for office interaction? And even if you did reserve space, what about overseas employees? From a long term cost perspective, it may be an unreasonable expectation, as the transition to a remote working model must invariably factor in the reallocation of office space.

That could mean down-sizing, reallocating space to other functions, or could mean removing the need to upscale office space as the company grows in the future. As more formal policies are adopted, remote workers will most likely lose the right to allocated and dedicated office space.


Employee Visibility

In an office environment, it is easy to know “who is at work” because you can physically see them. Door entry systems track staff entry and exit, and having travelled to the office, employees are exclusively “at work” for the day. 

None of this works when the office is taken away. Team members are less visible, there are less opportunities to track when people arrive or leave the office, how long they spend at lunch etc. Remote workers must therefore be trusted to a higher degree than their office-based peers.

Teams are more effective than the sum total of their individual contributors, because they work together. Team members collaborate, share ideas, inspire and motivate each other. Much of this happens organically through interactions, contribution to shared goals, and fair distribution of workload, and praise for a job well done. Managers do not need to force cohesion, as bonding happens naturally over time.

So, what happens when there is no office? How do you know who is “at work”, or whether it’s “ok” to interrupt someone to ask for help. If all interaction is done virtually, how can you gel with your teammates, other teams, and with the organization itself?

In the absence of an office, and physical so interaction, a different approach is needed.  I believe it will become incumbent on employees to make their presence known. People will need to declare their “at work” status and their “availability” and will need to work in a transparent manner, which highlights individual and team contribution, and individuals will be responsible for ensuring the value they deliver is visible across the organization, that will no longer be something that will just happen on its own. 

As the new normal unfolds, organizations will become less reliant on traditional middle-management functions to assess team performance and value. Organizations will expect digital ways of working from every member of the workforce, which means working out loud, sharing plans and experiences, with full scale collaboration to connect silos.

In Part 4, I will set out some practical approaches to tools, systems and metrics that could help with some of the above.

As ever, please feel free to comment below and let me know what you think…

Hornbill ESM

Automate up to 90% of interaction and activity. Make time. Be future-ready.

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