Let’s consider two questions to validate why we should consider this question at all.
First off: Is remote work here to stay?
The answer is, most likely “yes” … to a certain degree.
Why? Because many people like the convenience that comes with working from home. They appreciate the flexible schedule, the possibility to work from any location and the lack of commuting time. This frees up more time for personal activities/development.
The IWG 2019 Global Workspace Survey found that 3 out of 4 workers around the globe consider flexible working to be “the new normal.” As of now, company executives haven’t noticed any negative productivity impacts related to teleworking. However, over time the appreciation might evolve. Although, it’s good to bear in mind that there is a lot of productivity loss in office workspaces to balance out …
Then, are office spaces starting to belong to the past?
The answer is most likely “no” but they will be used differently. Admittedly, I am a group brainstormer and I like in-person interaction when trying to crack some tough challenges or create new concepts by bouncing off on someone else’s idea. To me, scribbled whiteboards in a room filled with few smart peers is the right environment to nurture and refine concepts and ideas. We might be able at some point in the future to develop remote tools able to render the same interactivity. However, until such tools are standardized to work from any of the platforms used by the participants, face to face meetings will prevail for me. This is a way of suggesting that well-orchestrated in person meetings will be around for a while. Therefore, there will be a demand for such meetings and a reason to stay one or a few days a week in an office environment. Luckily it might slim down a bunch of useless, unstructured meetings that end with no minutes and no call for action… (71% of senior managers report that meetings are unproductive and inefficient, and subpar meetings cost companies around $37 billion in annual losses). I admit, I certainly was an early student working on the notion of teleworking in the 80’s and an adopter of such a way of working in the 90’s (see my previous blog) and I am convinced by the potential benefits of remote working yet I tremendously value in person interaction. In case we need to remind ourselves, communication is more than what we say; it is also our body language, our tone of voice, physical expressions, and more that isn’t transpired very well via a vignette of a person during a video call…
As for the question, “when will we see office towers filling again?” Just look at some of the major companies planning to return to the office in June 2021 as a clue. They have ample time to adjust their decision but the organization, risks, and liabilities of running an office setting with a looming virus are very complex and any CEO will have to coordinate quite a bit before letting everyone back in. Some companies have started splitting the personnel into two groups, Group A comes in for two weeks in the office while Group B works at home, then they switch places. Offices are fully disinfected every weekend. Tests are run on each individual who’s turn it is to go back to the office. The theory is that it matches the incubation period. Clearly this can be ponderously debated for a while; and is not the intent of this post.
One thing is for sure, we don’t know what we don’t know! We have no idea how this whole pandemic will evolve and the means we will develop to combat it.
If History can teach us one thing, it’s that previous generations were able to surmount pandemics faced over the years, sometimes at a great loss. Our current challenge is probably more complex than the previous ones, but we also have more means to solve its mysteries. Modern humanity is always in a rush to find hasty solutions which tend to pollute our ability to analyze clearly and give specialists the time they need to reflect on the problems at hand and devise proper counter measures.
While the current situation lasts and eventually perdures to various degrees (maybe purely by choice) remote work needs to be addressed. In the next few paragraphs we will consider what it implies in terms of managing a remote team.
More technology tools adoption requires more human sensitivity to balance it.
As we are learning, the adoption of digital tools prompts us to actually respect human values even more. This is a broad topic which I will try to synthesize, and, in the process, I might overlook some important aspects. Let’s consider some of the underlying principals, the tactics adopted to implement remote work before considering some of the fundamentals to take into account.
As we are missing some of the physical clues of face to face communication, clarity in purpose (few meaningful selected messages) is essential to enable everyone to know and understand the common goals and how to contribute to them. I was once in charge of defining a fortune 500 company’s digital strategy, I asked my boss directly reporting to the CEO to share with me the company overarching strategy, his answer was that this information was confidential and could not be discussed with me! How can you expect anyone to aim at the same target if it is not clearly identified? To be meaningful, there can only be a few set goals at a time otherwise they will be diluted. One can only keep track of so many pieces of information at once! Studies have demonstrated that a person with very high IQ can only keep track of seven information feeds at a time. Not too surprising when another study has shown that it takes the human brain one second to switch from one task to another if asked to multitask.
An MIT survey based on 30,484 strategic priorities from 8,628 respondents across 302 companies surveyed between 2012 and July 2017 revealed that given five tries, 84% of managers could list one priority, 61% could list two priorities and only 29% could list three priorities.
Leaders should put a lot of efforts towards promoting honest and transparent communication among all team members, starting with their own genuine messages. As there are less non-verbal clues available with distant communication, being true and respectful will go a long way. Respecting each other starts with valuing everyone’s talk time, this means avoiding interjecting in the middle of someone else’s sentence, but also being mindful of the allotted talking time so that everyone has a chance to speak during the call.
As everyone is scattered in different places, there is less room for double checking on the way to conduct daily activities as there is in a shared physical environment. Learning to delegate and accept/acknowledge responsibilities becomes crucial. This goes both ways of course, as one is entrusted with responsibilities, one needs to demonstrate accountability for them. A level of confidence on each other’s judgement ability needs to develop. It won’t be spontaneous, yet leading by example will go a long way.
Distributed work implies:
- Shorter more frequent meetings with a very clear agenda and purpose:
In order to maintain contact and cohesive actions when employees are feeling disconnected due to their physical separation, it is important to have a daily recurrent touch point. Depending on the team member experience and comfort a daily second call may be advisable. These video calls should be short and to the point. Many face-to-face meetings are boring; the distance can only accentuate that feeling. Set a clear meeting agenda with allotted time for each participant and a detailed expected outcome recorded within meeting notes containing actionable items. The more diverse an organization is the more chances the conversation will genuinely be interpreted differently. Remoteness will only highlight this fact. Meeting summaries and action items will alleviate some of it. Choose to have a general meeting for everyone to feel part of the team and then other very short ones with fewer people who are key to driving the desired outcome. Some of these spot meetings can be recapped for the general audience. Make sure no one feels excluded yet always keep in mind the efficiency of the meetings. Concise one on one communication is to be encouraged for individuals to keep in touch as well.
- Transparency is welcomed by employees; when leaders explain their decisions and articulate the rationale behind their choices it helps engage the team.
- With distance and transmission tools alleviating the quality of the communication more discipline needs to come into pursuing the goals. This means clearly communicating an acceptable level of tolerable risk one can take so that people feel comfortable to take on their responsibilities within their decision level and you, as a manager, can tolerate choices made without your specific consent.
- Individuals will feel more at ease to make these judgement calls when everyone has a clear understanding of what is expected from each other. Planning in the open with precise assignments will help create this sense of clarity.
- One of the recent finding from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting adaptation to remote work organization has been the revelation of true leadership. Some individuals who had not been specifically identified as leaders rose to the occasion. Ensure that you inspire everyone to rise to the opportunity.
- When there are more risks of noise and misinterpretation due to the nature of remote operations, consistency in clearly elaborated messages is a must to counter them. In order to make sure it goes both ways, up and down, lead by example and give tips to your team as to how to elaborate clear and concise messages.
- To keep people engaged, promote training and lessons learned sharing over dedicated time slots. Ideas that are shared by colleagues valorize the one presenting and makes the message more real when it comes from peers. This can also promote cross department communication.
- Reinventing the way we work is a good opportunity to reinforce that “time is of the essence”, and no one should waste it! The companies who will master their digital journey early on will prevail in the new economy we are entering.
- As employees do not run into each other next to the water cooler to chat it is important to promote fun virtual social interactions to offset the other types of contact. Prizes can be more in the form of gift cards rather than physical items to make it easy to ship to the home address or transfer electronically.
- Genuinely communicate and promote courtesy with gentle responses to articulate concerns or suggestions during all types of interactions.
- Whether a manager or not, lead your peers. Share your perspective and encourage others to do the same. Be willing to be a candid backup when need be.
- A leader should encourage and facilitate ad hoc conversations as already mentioned to create a fluid work environment.
- We have learned from COVID-19 confinement times that companies can adopt an agile culture whereas talents can move much more swiftly from one team to another, creating ad hoc teams to tackle the issues at stake. This newfound flexibility can be achieved because one doesn’t have to move physically when joining a different team. This creates more efficiency for the business and provides employees with more exposure to a variety of activities and sense of opportunity within the company, a more dynamic and richer environment to evolve in.
- As a leader, engage energetically to stimulate your team. As you lose direct contact such as handshakes and eye contact, your voice and posture on camera becomes more important.
- If listening has always been the attribute of a great leader, the virtual environment makes it even more important to be fully present when interacting electronically to avoid blind spots.
- Decentralized decision making is critical for a remote work environment to be efficient. Make people responsible and accountable and give them the tools to do so. Only by building a trusting atmosphere will the inherent decentralized structure of teleworking organization be efficient.
- All the above points will give people reason to go the extra mile to make your company the leader in your field.
- Your greatest strength is in your people. There has never been a time it is truer than in this current period.
- As companies embrace digital tools to improve their efficiency, they will become more hybrids, mixing their legacy culture with newly acquired lessons and findings, embracing a new work philosophy.
- This means building the bounds of a strong team which outlast the tenure of the members who are part of it. For example, I am still in touch with former colleagues going 30 years back, that’s how meaningful a relationship is!
- Instill a sense of commitment which is to “mean what you say” and “do what you say”. This is how you will lead others to do the same and build a sense of reliability amongst all the team members.
- Understand that “an alligator might burst in when your team shows up to empty the swamp”, priorities will shift. Entrust your team to do the best in the given circumstances and respect the decisions they have made. Be constructive in debriefing so the next time they will be even better equipped to react to unexpected situations.
- As always but even more in a dispersed environment, limit your messages to three key take aways at a time and make sure they are understood by asking to hear them back from the persons involved.
- Last but not least, TRUST is the keystone of good management.