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  • Writer's pictureNigel Adams

Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time

A brief look at workforce flexibility and the challenges of leading a virtual team.


The controversy over the title translation of Proust's masterpiece - À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu - may be an obscure way to introduce a blog on the topic of workforce flexibility, but it is apt, as hopefully you will see. Fortunately no further knowledge of Proust is required.

 

What led me to this topic was an observation of how quiet the rush hour commute to work is on a Friday relative to other days of the week and how relatively quiet my local coffee shop is on these days.  Chatting to colleagues, they also observed the same phenomenon and attributed the cause to the introduction of flexible work practices, one of which was allowing staff to work from home.

 

So far, so good.  Everybody wins.  For those choosing to work from home there are clear benefits: flexibility around working hours, fitting in household chores, lack of distraction etc. For the employer, more flexible work options widen the available talent pool, and for those choosing to work from the office, the daily commute is less crowded when others stay home to work.   

 

So what's the problem?


In subsequent conversations on the topic with my colleagues, a few themes emerged:

 

  1. Connection: teams need to interact and connect to solve problems and progress toward completing the task at hand.  This is hard enough to do when co-located, but when the team operates in a virtual environment, the obstacles can seem insurmountable - if in doubt, watch Tripp and Tyler's satirical You Tube clip.  Repeating what's been said, waiting until the noise abates, re-scheduling, or trying to soldier on through the distractions all result in lost time and impact the team's productivity.

  2. Availability: counting the hours lost, as team members struggle with the infrastructure for scheduled meetings, trying to connect with someone working remotely for an impromptu meeting, can also be a thankless task.  For those stoic commuters, stuck in the office, the lament is: "why can I never get hold of X?  How can I complete my task if they are never available?"  On the other side of the fence, the home worker is saying: "I had such a productive day, I got so much done. I managed to get the dog to the vet, drop the car off at the garage, pick the kids up from school and get all of my work done."  This problem is exacerbated if team members do not have regular work from home patterns.  The time wasted on this activity can become significant.  

  3. Trust:  the third theme, and possibly the trickiest to deal with: "are they really working at home?"  A breakdown in trust is the surest way to kill productivity amongst the team.  Without the visual cues, the frequency of day-to-day contact, and the ability to tackle a problem in-the-moment, it's very easy for the negative cycle to take a life of its own creating an "us and them" situation.  The increased stress and the time required to repair relationships, in what may become an increasingly toxic environment, is obviously damaging.  The proportion of people who choose to abuse the system is probably quite small (I am yet to see any reliable statistics on the issue), but guilt by association is a powerful and destructive force in this scenario.  


Taken together, it is easy to see why, for some organisations, the win-win turns into a productivity sink hole.

 

What to Do?

Sean Graber has written an excellent HBR article on why remote work thrives in some organisations but not in others and what it takes to succeed: communication, coordination and culture.  What was interesting for me was how the experiences and observations of a couple of people, with no real research, were reflected so closely in Sean's study. 

 

The underlying premise of the article is that management needs to focus heavily on creating the right processes to support execution, in line with the three success factors.  But the real message for me was: set clear expectations and hold the team accountable. 

 

Leadership v Management

There is a lot of focus in the current management literature on inspirational leadership.  Someone once said to me, “leadership is simple; all you need to do is show the person how to get from A to B and inspire them to follow you there”. Simple but not easy, as anyone who has poured over thousands of pages of leadership texts would know. There is no simple checklist that, if you follow it word-for-word, will guarantee success.  There is no magic tonic that will turn you into an inspirational and visionary leader. But there is hope! I've been lucky enough to work in at least two high performing teams.  In each case the leader inspired the team by working with us to agree the objectives, clarify why they were important and then empowering us to execute. The only visionary words of wisdom we needed to hear were, “this is what I’d like you to do, now get on with it and here’s some people and money to help. I’ll keep checking in to make sure you’re on track and If you run into trouble let me know so I can help out.”

 

In short: pretty much what Peter Drucker espoused over 60 years ago in Management by Objectives and the Practice of Management.  And the best thing about management tasks is that you can create a checklist - no need to spend hours with your corporate psychologist, searching for the inspirational leader within.

 

The Checklist

For those organisations where the nature of the work and the technology make remote work possible, here are a few additional tips to complement Sean's article:

  1. Objective setting - set defined objectives (with the team), clearly articulating why they are important and hold the team accountable for execution.

  2. The task at hand - what tasks need to be done? Who is accountable for doing them? When do they need to be done by? Be specific and make sure this is shared and visible to all.

  3. Operating rhythm - agree which days you will all be in the office and which days are ok to work from home.  Set the "non-negotiable" schedule, when everyone needs to be available for teleconference/Skype meetings etc. Create space in the calendar for ad-hoc calls when everyone is available.  

  4. Setup - define the minimum acceptable infrastructure - if video-conferencing is essential, specify the minimum broadband requirements.  Include in this specification, that the home worker must have a distraction and noise free work space at home.  Specify the rules for connecting whilst travelling.

  5. Behaviour - what is and is not acceptable.  Be very explicit: does working from home  mean you put in a couple of hard hours and then relax, go to the beach, watch a movie - or is that letting your team down.  Be very clear about the consequences of not adhering to the behavioural expectations.

  6. Break the task down - it is much easier to manage a team to a daily cycle, so break longer duration tasks down to what needs to get done today. This will move the team closer to complete the entire task and everyone will know that those working from home are working, not shirking. 

  7. Check-In/Check-Out - set aside 15 minutes in the operating rhythm at the start and end of the day to ensure everyone is clear about what needs to be done today (check-in) and whether it was completed (check-out)

  8. Follow-Through - if the team does not display the appropriate behaviour, you must act immediately.  If a task is blocked or starts to slip, you must act immediately.


Much of this aligns with the current thinking around Agile. It is aimed at increasing the pace of delivery but also overcoming the challenges associated with management of a virtual team. Critics may view this as micro-management, but, for me, micro-managing is where the leader meddles in the “how” a task is delivered. It’s a leader’s job to specify “what” is required and that isn’t micro-management.  This is the link to Remembrance of Things Past with its roots in Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives/Practice of Management.

 

Whilst the focal point here is the role of the leader, the same checklist applies to self-directed teams - just because there isn’t a hierarchical leader doesn’t mean expectations can be ignored. The aim is for the team to achieve their goal and, to do that, the same rules apply. 

 

So, if the question is how to find the lost time, the answer is in remembering the wisdom of a bygone era and practising the noble art of management, albeit dressed up in the language of today. 

 

I'd love to hear your thoughts, tips or comments on managing virtual teams.

 

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