Industry Updates

Go For Remote

Written by Ken Kinlock
Published on Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Distributed TeamsWe have had a lot of interest this year in “remote workers”. Now is the time to talk more about the possibilities of extending this practice. We have the positive support of workers: they love the idea. Let's address the data security people: my response is, as expected if you have read what I write, is the CLOUD. Now the immediate managers: it is no different than any other project you have managed (watch me, I will show you). Top level management: think of the savings in these huge buildings you have: funding a remote worker is less than your square foot charge to house him.

IT Strategy and Security 

Forrester Research states that nearly 60% of all corporate employees share, access and manage content outside the office. It is all about increasing productivity, maximizing collaboration and running the business better. Remote workers are not an option anymore.

IT Strategy is to treat the needs of remote workers as critical. Goals must be: anywhere access (any location, any device); keep desktop, browser and mobile data in sync; remote device management including with auto logout and locking; clear policy on how content is managed and accessed in the organization; centralized security, password/permission management and effective auditing and reporting.

Used to be a big hassle in companies, sort of a square peg in a round hole, but now with the Cloud it is all very doable. There is no difference between a desktop in corporate headquarters, a sales person on a mobile or a systems developer in a “virtual studio” in his house.

The mobile worker is not going away. Companies are already committed to supporting more mobile applications for employees whose “office” is wherever they are.

While we have been addressing why workers like to work remotely, a recent survey on CIO Insight addressed why employees hate coming to the office? Also addresses what employees will give up for just one day a week at home. The “team building” exercises going on are not popular. The least popular being costume contests. Other happenings in offices that get under worker's skins are the company "know-it-all" and the "constant complainer". Not high marks for managers who manage by walking around. Some workers admit to planning their vacations around bosses out-of-office schedule. Many respondents who have never worked from home say that they would give up at least one extremely popular company perk to be able to do so. A third would give up the lunch break. On the bright side, over two thirds are likely to quickly respond to an urgent work e-mail while on vacation

Managing Workers

The first question that always comes up with remote workers is how do you track worker’s time? Think again, is time tracking meaningful? Why not track against anticipated results? Can workers pay be linked to expected throughput?  If you are not paying people by the hour, you need some sort of work tracking system. A ‘results-oriented’ work place? Project milestones might be used as a collective measure of value delivery. Another difficulty is managers who like to see their workers in their office cube and “manage” on-site. Going to be a different World, isn't it?

Less work is being done face-to-face. Not only are individuals moving around more often, but they are interacting with co-workers, project team members, clients, and service providers who are “elsewhere” and they probably don't know them personally anyway. But face-to-face interaction is not going away. In fact, most organizations still feel that physical presence has a real value: some meetings are still more effective when everyone is in the same room. Facts are virtual (more properly called distributed) teams spend almost as much time in full team face-to-face meetings as do teams in which all members are based in the same building.

Managers are concerned about the possible loss of corporate culture when teams start operating more virtually.  Even if we prefer face-to-face meetings, they are happening less and less. We’ve all got to learn how to work effectively with people who are located in other places.

When you think about collaboration, it’s easy to see that with a disbursed company, all the participants on teams and projects will need tools to share information swiftly. The “Social Network” of choice should be Retail Universe.

An innovative managing device that has a lot of potential for teams of remote workers is brainstorming.  A team gets on a phone or video conference and goes after a solution to a problem. It is not easy at first and complicated by distances, but can be very effective. Everybody thinks of ideas then the group discusses them. You would be surprised at what we can come up with when we don't censor ideas and just toss them around. Lots of ways to carry out brainstorming, here is one you might try.

Remote Projects

Yes, managers and members of distributed teams have concerns. Working in a mobile environment is more difficult than being close by other team members. Not just cost of meetings, but in a global situation you do not want to limit yourself to local resources. Managing in this new environment will require adjusting skills and management style.

A manager of remote workers must (working with the team) determine what assets each team member needs so the job can be completed. Team communications are important and lots of times the members become closer than when inside the four walls. When the team is in a central location, everybody is busy on the phone or in a meeting. When you are remote, you can call or message them and it is easier to connect.

Let's start with how are we going to communicate. Communications can be dumped into into four distinctive buckets:

  • Same Time/Same Place
  • Same Time/Different Place
  • Different Time/Same Place
  • Different Time/Different Place

How can we do communications across time and place:

  • Same time, same space: Conference room
  • Same time, different place: Web conferencing
  • Different time, same place: Flip charts in conference room
  • Different time, different place: email, social networking

 Now, how do we keep the team focused? How do we motivate them to accomplish the goals of the organization? Managing distributed employees and remote/virtual teams calls for many of the same basic principles and practices that any good manager employs on a daily basis:

  • Have the team participate in establishing the goals of the group.
  • Publish formal policies and procedures for distributed work.
  • Establish realistic and understandable performance measures.
  • Develop a  process to ensure regular interaction. 

What are the legal and financial issues? These need to be ironed out ahead of time. Who buys a chair and other furnishings? Who pays for the phone and internet? What times are employees accessible to management and co-workers? It is important to treat employees equally. You don't want to be in a situation where employees find out they are receiving different levels of support for their home offices. Things like chairs are important for remote workers.

Results-oriented performance measures are important in keeping distributed employees in synch with company goals and with each other. Here is what has to happen:

  • Clear guidelines and expectations about how each distributed employee will be measured and rewarded.
  • Help team members stay focused.
  • Assign accountability.
  • Give senior management feedback as to cost-effectiveness of the team.
  • Shift from managing time to managing tasks.
  • “Managing by walking around” can't happen in the distributed world, so what do we do?

Treating people like adults means being clear and explicit about job requirements, performance expectations, and the results they’ll be measured on. Then you can turn them loose and not worry so much about where and when they actually get their work done - as long as they are on track with schedule and budget.

Schedule Web conferences on a regular basis and meet face-to-face if it is critical.

At important tollgates in projects it may be necessary to bring a project team together for a formal meeting. A face-to-face meeting at this point in the process is a good way to confirm the solution, enhance it, and then find barriers to successful implementation. Not easy because there is some stress and possibly internal conflict among the team members.

The point here is that supporting mobile workers is much more complicated than giving everyone the same tool set and the same work environment and then turning them loose. The interactions between task, person, role, technology, and place are incredibly complex. All of these factors must be considered simultaneously; there just aren’t any simple answers.

Some tricks from the centralized world like tee shirts and logos can still be used to encourage a team to have it's own identity.

Upper Management Concerns - Fully Distributed Teams

The old industrial/capital system is broken and trying to fix itself. Manufacturing is dead, banks are hurting. We have to think out of the box to survive. We strove for efficiency but now have to learn to adapt to survive. We cannot rely on traditional models. Success comes from connecting people to each other, connecting people to ideas, and generating ideas. Think of things like Facebook, Smart Phones and Cloud processing. It is all about having the information you need when you need it, and even then being flexible because everything can change overnight. How does this impact the workplace? Well, now everybody internally and externally is connected, so does it make any difference if teams are physically together? Our task is to keep the teams connected amongst themselves and connected toi the rest of the company. There are two kinds of “connections”: personal relationships and technology tools.

The reliance on information and connections is a result of how the nature of work has evolved from the Stone Age to the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Revolution and on into the Information Age. Tools used to be just physical but not anymore. That is why we can work anyplace. Even the  Information Age was not too mobile just a few short years ago. File cabinets, main frame computers, meetings in conference rooms, etc. We are seeing more and more work done outside the office. Not just home versus office, but other locations like airports, coffee shops, shared workplaces (like where you rent an office, a conference room, a receptionist. WiFi Hot Spots are an important part of today's culture. Guess where I am writing this from! 

Employment practices are changing too. Many of today's workers are independents or temporaries. Companies rely on outsourcing, temporary employees and staffing firms. As an aside, 30+ years ago I remember meeting the guy who was charged with piloting and implementing “flextime” at the Social Security Administration. My! We have come a long way since then.

More information: Fully Distributed Teams: are they viable?

Great read: “Visibility Shift in Distributed Teams

Another idea: a company without a boss

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