Implementing remote working in a business requires an effective management system that can cope remotely. Trust in workers, management by clearly defined objectives and co-workers who can be autonomous in their work are the prerequisites. This is all vital for remote working to be effective.
So, how can we help management evolve to avoid transforming their professional life into a living hell?
For a manager that isn’t familiar with remote working, this way of working can be torturous. In remote working, common places abound and can serve to comfort managers in their darker moments. Remote working means taking the risk that employees sit at home doing nothing. It is also about scattering teams all over the place so that team members never see each other again and condemning employees to the torment of working around their children. And, more than anything, it is about abandoning them to the grip of miserable isolation.
This is all the more worrying for businesses where the control of working time is the dominant culture. After all, if businesses have gone to the trouble of inventing “clocking in” devices or time recording software, there has to be a good reason for it, doesn’t there?
And, up to a point, that is true – controlling employee’s attendance at the workplace met the needs of the company of yesteryear when you had to bring the employees into the places where production took place. As Jean-Emmanuel Ray, a professor of social law at the Sorbonne in France explained, a company’s life was traditionally ruled by a unit of time (the siren), a place (the factory) and an action (the production line).
Control, evaluation or surveillance?
Ever since the factories of the nineteenth century, management methods have evolved and it is accepted that control – in the sense of surveillance – is not effective because it only measures the time spent and not the quality of the work carried out. A good manager evaluates the work of his workers, the quality of the deliverables and the amount of working time spent on them. In addition, managers now have no control over the place where the work is carried out.
When it comes to jobs which are in the knowledge-based economy – and increasingly with many others – people can now work from anywhere with just a laptop and an internet connection. Thanks to the glut of methods of connecting remotely (via traditional telephone, web conferencing, chat, document sharing and the like), people can even work in remote groups which gives flexibility to teams and organizations. The reality is that the physical location of work doesn’t matter anymore and that change has already happened in the US. Gallup recently showed that 43% of Americans now spend at least some time working remotely, according to a survey of more than 15,000 U.S. adults.
The benefit of remote working is immediate and well known: Improved work-life balance, cost savings, reduced absenteeism, a reduction in work accidents related to travel and better productivity. The aforementioned Gallup study also showed that remote workers were 86% more likely to love their job than office-based workers while a previous French study from 2012 measured the satisfaction rate at 96%. In addition, Global Workplace Analytics reports that over two-thirds of employers have seen increased productivity from their remote workers with large, established businesses such as American Express reporting teleworkers as being 43% more productive than their office-based counterparts.
So, the question for the manager is how can they give this improved working environment to their workers without continually monitoring them – or “How can the manager reach heaven and avoid hell?”
The bedrock of remote working: Trust and autonomy
If checking is rendered impossible, how can someone be managed remotely? Well, they can by simply fostering a relationship of trust between them and the worker and also by encouraging the autonomy of the employee in their work.
The message that the company gives to its managers, and that then gets passed on to the manager’s workers, is that the physical location of the workplace is not important. What counts is doing quality work and doing it on time. This allows the remote working employee to benefit from the flexibility of their status. It is often a win-win for the manager and his remote employee with benefits that are shared between them both.
Given that you cannot force people to be confident that this will work, how can we create heaven?
The groundwork that needs to be done before instituting remote working is the transformation of internal organizations – specifically the reduction of hierarchical differences, the breaking down of silos in favor of collaboration and the realization that monitoring working time is ineffective and demoralizing for staff. A recent comparative study by Steelcase demonstrated that physical space or workplaces were one of the factors that impacted employee engagement.
Once employees have been given their freedom, the physical place of work is no longer a problem – even if they are required to visit the office from time to time as a confidence-building measure. Best practice suggests that three days per week out of the office is ideal – beyond that and managing the team becomes complicated and group working can become weakened.
The recipe is tried and tested – and it relies on trust. But how can we establish a climate of trust with employees when they are physically distant?
Of course, we are assuming that trust and autonomy already exist within the company. If not, one must endeavor to establish trust and autonomy in the long run and this has to happen even before thinking about implementing remote working. Instituting remote working is a strategic project that relies on bringing exemplary values, consultation and participation to the forefront. A business must encourage “good behaviors” in their managers: To be fair and equitable, to give recognition to staff and to help their co-workers. Each company has to find the right methods which best fit its own culture.
The message that companies must give to their managers is that the physical workplace is not important so long as the work is done. This change in attitude can take time, a few months or more, and it is important not to rush managers but, instead, to trust them to organize remote working according to their way of working and according to the needs of the service.
Trust: What is the best route to heaven?
Although there is no single model for good remote management, a few best practices can be identified from successful experiences of remote working. As the central principles of trust and autonomy are fixed, we need to ensure that the details of everyday work life are defined in the same spirit.
The manager will set goals and deliverables with his remote workers. A remote worker is an employee like any other, so there is no reason for those objectives to be any different than those of office-bound workers. Especially given that, as their environment is calmer and less disturbed, remote workers naturally tend to work more and be more productive than those in the office.
To maintain trust, the manager must be exemplary in their treatment of remote workers. Remote workers must not be just left, forgotten at home. They must be contacted regularly through the available communications tools and should be central to considerations of when to schedule meetings. Despite being outside the office, remote employees should still be considered central to it every day.
We said earlier that distance work implies abandoning surveillance but trust does not do away completely with monitoring and checking the progress of work. Problems should not be discovered for the first time when the remote worker returns to the company’s offices. However, to put all this in perspective, the average US worker spends just two days per month working from home, which is hardly enough to disrupt team life!
Trust is like love, we need proof not just words. It’s the same with remote working: If the big principles are clear, the devil is hiding in the details. And hell can be close.
So, to successfully manage remote workers, the manager will need to be sure to set employees achievable goals, to communicate with them regularly and to treat both remote workers and office-based workers equally. If this path is followed, paradise is never far away.
Former journalist, Xavier de Mazenod is co-author of the book Les blogs, new media for all (M2 Editions) and ebook Influence and reputation on the Internet.
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