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Remote Working Part 4: – Collaboration Tools, Systems and Employee Business Value Metrics

Gerry Sweeney -
Remote Working Part 4: – Collaboration Tools, Systems and Employee Business Value Metrics

In Part 3, my goal was to give you a sense of what I thought were some of the key management practices that would need to change and why. In this article I am going to address the challenges to making organisational-wide remote working productive in the medium to long-term and give you a sense of some practical approaches to these problems.


Collaboration – A way of working – not just a tool

Let us start by looking at Collaboration, and specifically what that means. It is intuitive for any businessperson to understand that people must work together, they must share ideas, transfer knowledge and generally support each other through good and bad times.

In the previous office environment this was done by working side-by-side, physical meetings, water-cooler conversations, social activities, business and social interactions and so on. Well run companies understand how important this is and do what they can to facilitate, but mostly this happens organically because that’s what people naturally do.  

One of the main problems with remote working is, people are physically isolated from each other, and much of the organic interactions simply do not happen. To help combat this, there are a lot of digital systems, and at the very heart of these are collaboration tools. Tools that are designed to bring people together digitally. It is no surprise that during COVID-19 lockdown, video conference and other collaboration tools enjoyed a surge of high demand.

It does not really matter what specific tools you choose, but they need to be good, comprehensive and facilitate strong interactions.

In 2015, at Hornbill, we made a significant change to the way we work. We essentially banned the use of email for internal conversations and transitioned everything onto our own Collaboration platform, deciding to “work out loud” and operate in a more transparent, open, and inclusive way.

The transition was not easy for people, we had to change the way they communicated, but once we managed that transition, it was transformational, it improved information and knowledge sharing, it raised everyone’s awareness generally, and as a result reduced the number of physical meetings required dramatically; and we have never looked back.

For Hornbill, when COVID-19 lockdown hit, everyone was at home, but everyone remained just as connected as before. There is no doubt, our wholesale adoption of a digitally collaborative approach to working paid huge dividends for us.

Consider a Collaboration strategy, adopt tools that will work for your organisation, and ideally make this transition to collaboration before you transition to a remote working model. The one bit of advice I would give is, do not just give your people a tool and expect them to start collaborating, if you do, you will be disappointed with the results.

Make sure you choose tools that facilitate collaboration while working and don’t make collaboration an extra thing that people have to do. We have written extensively on Digital Transformation and Collaboration here are some resources you might find useful.          


People "Presence At Work" Visibility

When it comes to remote working, you must look carefully at what makes an office environment work so well. One of the important aspects of an office environment is that people are present in the office, and as a result are both visible and accessible to others.

When people come into the office, they are visually signalling their presence and declaring their “at work” status. Remote working means the loss of this visible presence, and I think it’s critically important to mitigate this.

The most fundamental aspect of people working together is to know when they are “at work” and “with who”. In our own collaboration tool, we have the ability to allow co-workers to easily declare their current availability status, a couple of clicks is all it takes, then throughout the system, where you are referencing people, their current availability status is presented in real time.


The technology to facilitate this is of course trivial but its changing people’s behaviour to proactively and willingly do this in the first place is where the difficulties lay. Leadership through the changes and clear communication is one of the key aspects I made in my ebook (in the previous link).

In essence it is simple, if people work from home, and have more flexible working arrangements, then is perfectly reasonable to expect people to declare when they are and are not working/available to work with their co-workers, in fact from a business operations point of view it is pretty critical to establish this working practice.


Building Trust

People are incredibly perceptive and generally very good at making assessments and “getting a feel” for other people. In fact, one of the most revered characteristics of any good businessperson is the ability to identify and attract other good people.

There are many characteristics that make a person “good” in this context, but there is none more important than an individual’s trustworthiness, their integrity and their character. Trust is a complex area and a significant area of identity management for the purposes of this article I will keep the discussion high level.

People become trusted over time, through their actions, interactions and conversations with others, and in a work setting, much of this happens in the office, in those meetings or by the coffee machine.

For remote working to really succeed, there has to be a reasonably high level of trust, between co-workers and, between the organisation and each co-worker too. As I mentioned before, existing teams already have established trust, the problem to solve here is hiring new people and bringing them into the organisation, and then giving them the opportunity to establish themselves within the “circle of trust” so to speak.

Here are some of the things I would be thinking about…

  • Onboarding people: Rather than relying on “on the job” training, you should consider a more formal learning and development program which embraces multiple channels, and not just on-line self-study. Do not let your management approach rely on the fact that people will “pick it up” as they go, put together a program, and use that opportunity to get to know your new hires as quickly as possible. Make sure the companies, vision and cultural aspirations are set out clearly and get any contentious or areas of difficulties out on the table as early as possible. Set clear expectations early on, and make sure that on-boarding starts well in advance of ‘day one’ on the payroll.

  • Establish a formal method of determining and grading trust: It is important to hire people that are trustworthy not only from day one, but day one minus 30. What systems can you provide access to in advance of their start date. How can we avoid losing the first weeks in the business looking for a new employee to be productive while they go through induction which could have been done in advance of the start date. To enable leveraging these strategies it is sensible to consider a system of trust grading, for example, you might want to place specific access controls to your companies Intellectual Property, your financial records, access to bank accounts or HR records. The main point is to identify what is important to you and think about what would be the process for new hires to work through the levels of trust and grading needed in order to do their job.

  • Consider new HR practices: that facilitates activities, on-line social events and other relationship-building interactions, this should be in addition to more traditional physical meet-ups, and focus these specifically to facilitate the natural trust-building process. It’s likely that most people will not make the time or put in the effort to do this sort of thing undirected, it will come down to the organisation to ensure it happens, and you will need to do this in the context of remote workers, you will need to use digital technologies to avoid excluding people who are too remote to "pop over" to the local meet-up venue.

There are of course, many other practical steps, but get these three steps nailed and you will be a long way on a successful journey to supporting a remote working strategy.


Employee Business Value

I have saved this point until last because its possibly the most difficult to articulate. I think the best thing I can do is jump straight to the point - As a business, if you move your employees to a remote-working structure, your employees are in danger of becoming just a cost line in your P&L, you must never let that happen.

This is a key element of transformation. There is no point trying to apply previous measures to a business which is trying to change. Innovation and re-invention will be strangled if the business does not adapt its measures to deal with this issue. Every one of us wants to feel they get good value for the money they spend, don’t assume companies are any different.

Whether we like it or not, in a traditional business setting, many companies rely on the fact that their employees come into the office at 9AM do a day’s work and go home at 17:30, that’s always been like that, and this does, contribute in some way to the value judgement about people - even though for information workers that really does not make much sense.

This leads to an important question – how does a business actually measure the value of an employee’s value contribution in relation to their cost? The answer is, most businesses do not do this at all, or do it really badly, instead they rely on middle management to make those judgements, and look at the bigger picture, often by department or division. I have seen P&L semantics often applied to a department or function, but I have rarely seen the same applied to individuals.

Does remote working even change this? Well, I believe it does. There is a real danger of individual co-workers suffering from being “out of sight, out of mind”, and as financial pressures mount in a down-turn, a business might have lost sight of the value their people are delivering. What I am about to say is probably even true for non-remote-working teams, but I think it’s critically important that business start to develop ways of measuring individual value contribution, and this should be measured against the cost of that employee to determine if each person employed is in fact “good value for money”. That is a brutal statement in many ways, but its also true.

People must always feel valued, and should be measured and rewarded for delivering good value, and in fact, if you can properly measure individual value then you can properly reward people who over-perform. The key is having a clear understanding of what good value is, and who, in terms of other people/teams are the beneficiaries of that value being delivered.

The innovators align each person to key aspects of the corporate strategy, ensure their focus and direction rolls up to be in-line with the direction of the business, formalised measures against company metrics. This connects individuals, teams and functions together irrespective of location and job function.

One way of doing this is to measure the perceived value of a person’s contribution by other members/teams assessments and/or appraisals, for who their contribution is important. One of the most interesting approaches I have seen in this area are peer reviews/peer rewards, essentially a way of measuring how a co-workers contributions are valued, you could think of this as a type of employee of the month scheme but supercharged and far more sophisticated.

One final point on delivered value, I think organisations ultimately need to not depend so much on middle-management functions to justify to demonstrate group value, but move the focus and create the expectation that each employee will be expected to better demonstrate the value they individually deliver back to the organisation, in much the same way as a contractor who is being paid by the hour, on a "price per deliverable" basis. This is a big topic in its own right, but we all see  the top few contributors in our own organisations, the ones that stand out as key contributors - what we need to do is ask, what do those people do differently to everyone else, because that’s what everyone else should be doing too. If an organisation cannot see the value an individual is delivering, then that individual should perhaps not be in the organisation at all.

That’s it for this one. In Part 5, I will talk about some of the things that IT should be considering, remote working changes things a lot, IT needs to be prepared to change with it.

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

Hornbill ESM

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