The UK Government is urging companies to allow much higher degrees of working from home during the 2012 London Olympics. Indeed, the poor London transport system is depending upon it to manage the huge numbers of visitors to the city during this period. So what will make it a success? And more importantly, are you honestly able to play your part in making it happen?
The way we work is changing all the time. This is just the reality of modern working practices. A staggering 8 out of 10 leaders see significant workplace change ahead, yet the gap between expected change and the ability to manage it has tripled since 2006. That means managers need to be proactive in the way they handle their teams without waiting for the company to tell them how to do it!
I recently read that by 2014, over 50% of the workforce in Europe, the UK and North America will be working “flexibly”. This means either working remotely all the time, or telecommuting occasionally. Maybe, if you are caught up in the Olympic preparations like me, you will be experiencing it now and trying to keep up. If you are a leader or a manager, here’s a little help in that endeavour, to improve how your team works when they are not actually across the desk from you anymore:
- Take time to assess each individual’s attitude, talents and goals. Who do you have working for you? Do they have what it takes to make a team work? Where do they need coaching, help or encouragement? This is about getting to know them as individuals and what they bring to the team. It is a vital step in building that trust we mentioned at the start of this article.
- Promote autonomy and access to decision makers. If the team has to rely on you for information and access to decision makers, they will not be proactive or feel empowered. At the very least you become the bottleneck for every little decision and the chokepoint for all communication. Who wants to work that hard? Its exhausting. Again, trust them, they have talents and you have to let that bloom.
- Agree communication expectations. A good open and honest communication channel is absolutely vital to successful home working. Are the team keen to pick the phone up or do they revert to texting? Real time communication is far more successful and doesn’t waste peoples valuable time.
- Make sure everyone has access to communication tools and infrastructure and that they know how to use them effectively. It’s one thing to say “we’ve given you the tools, now use them”. It’s something else again to monitor their usage and identify why people are (or more likely, aren’t) utilizing them. Remember, when it comes to adopting technology, one person’s “intuitive” is another person’s pain in the neck.
- Distribute the workload where possible. Delegation is a key leadership skill, but with remote teams, many times we tend to micromanage processes. Agree when work is to be completed and stick to it.
- Use both synchronous and a-synchronous communication tools. Synchronous tools are things like the telephone, instant message and video conferencing that allow everyone to see and say the same thing at the same time. Non-synchronous (or a-synchronous) tools allow for things like being in different time zones, going back and referring to documents. Typically, this is e-mail – the scourge of our lives! A vast 60% of my in-box is unnecessary and/or as a result of someone being afraid to pick the phone up. Have a heart folks – and get out of my in box! Your team needs to use the full range of tools at your disposal.
- Use a shared workflow tool (if you have access to one). A common process creates a common language. It’s also important for long-term team success that people know what others on the team are doing. A shared tool like SharePoint, Office Communicator, Dropbox, or many others, helps. I don’t care if you hate it, use it. Its part of the infrastructure that allows you to be at home so a little discipline is not too much to ask for!
- Systematically build social capital. This means do it “on purpose”. Social capital is made up of the little things human beings do for each other that make us want to pull together. Make jokes, ask how the kids are. Remember that your team is not made up of disembodied employee numbers, but real people. Its really important to have informal conversations too – it allows you both to get to know each other. We are real people after all.
- Invest in face-to-face contact whenever possible. I know the whole idea of working virtually is to reduce costs/footprint/increase flexibility, but the costs of teams not pulling together are much higher than the occasional train fare and hotel bill. Skype, Facetime, Webex, all excellent ways to “pretend” you are in the same room/meeting when you very much aren’t!
- Find a means to establish managerial and corporate presence. Managers need to be involved on a regular basis with their teams. No team pulls together for a faceless, soulless, big brother corporation. They do pull together when there’s a feeling of belonging, a feeling of knowing real human beings, and they have a feeling of all working towards shared goals and collective pride in what they’re doing. Maximise it!
As managers, we need to take action now, and help our organisations develop best practices that will help everyone deal with the way work is increasingly being delivered today. Because we are very much worth it!