Managing a remote workforce
Most of the problems arise from people’s perceptions of remote working rather than the practicalities, writes Mark Dixon.
September 10, 2013 12:07 by kippreport
Remote or flexible working – as opposed to the traditional office routine – is here to stay. It is an inevitable consequence of globalisation and technological development. When technology makes it possible for people to work more effectively from long range or on the move, why would they want to commute to somewhere less convenient? And why would their employers want to tie up their own capital in buildings that are not capable of meeting the requirements of the modern workforce and are therefore condemned to be underused? It simply makes no sense.
My own company, Regus, has just concluded a survey of remote working, based on interviews with more than 26,000 senior managers and business owners in 90 countries round the world. It shows that 48 per cent of our respondents now work remotely for half their working week. The clear implication is that those professionals who continue to work regularly from an office will soon be in a minority. The trend also explains why Regus itself has grown so rapidly for the past few years, opening business centres and introducing new services to cater specifically to the expanding global population of flexible, mobile workers.
Yet from a casual reading of some headlines since the beginning of this year, you could be forgiven for thinking that some kind of reaction against remote working, or retrenchment to business centralisation, was under way.
It was Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo!, who set the cat among the pigeons back in February when she announced that there was to be no more working from home at her troubled company. Then BestBuy, another US company to have fallen on lean times, announced that it too was turning its back on remote working. Of course, these reported “bans” on remote working turned out to have various exceptions; the issues involved were more complicated, and the measures taken not as clear-cut as the headlines suggested.
What often happens in these cases is that remote working works fine for a while, but management loses control and can only regain it by pulling everyone back to headquarters, which is all very understandable. No one said that remote working was easy. In fact it is extremely difficult, makes much greater demands on management and requires a change of attitudes at many levels of an organisation.
Most of the problems arise from people’s perceptions of remote working rather than the practicalities. For instance, a Microsoft survey in Canada revealed that whereas 60 per cent of managers insisted that they themselves were more productive when working remotely, only 25 per cent said the same about their employees. Most workers took the opposite view, with 55 per cent saying that remote working made them more productive.
Of course people want to be able to work flexibly, in ways that suit them. But remote working, by its very nature, means that much of a person’s best work will be performed unseen, whereas errors will still have consequences and be hard to conceal. In times of stress or under-performance, therefore, managers will want to keep a closer eye on employees who, for their part, will want to be seen to be doing their best.
In the Regus survey, 55 per cent of respondents said they believed effective management of remote workers was perfectly achievable, but only with additional management training and skills development. I couldn’t agree more.
It is good to know that businesses are bringing increasing rigour to the practice. Our survey shows that more than a third use specific efficiency-monitoring reporting systems for remote teams, while 43 per cent of remote managers use video calls to communicate with their office teams – use of technology that is clearly more efficient than expensive travel. Interestingly, the leading countries in this respect include India, China and Brazil, where managers are more than averagely concerned about productive use of staff time.
There are other specific concerns about remote working, of which one of the most common is the notion that remote working slows the development of junior employees – a view expressed by 68 per cent of our respondents.
Sure enough, junior staff are bound to need more supervision, but this need not mean corralling them all into one place. It is perfectly possible to identify and allocate tasks, set up monitoring or measurement systems, insist that employees report back regularly, whether by video-link or other means, and ensure that they are undertaking whatever training programmes they need.
Anyone who thinks effective management of remote workers is not achievable is simply wrong. No doubt there are lazy employees who take advantage, just as there are control-freak managers. But the job of senior management should be to eliminate any such impediments to progress while concentrating on efficiency and productivity, with an open, informed mind.
I believe there are simple lessons to be learned from all this research. First and foremost, managing a remote workforce is all about conquering fear and suspicion – which are never the best starting-points for effective management.
Instead, we should look at practicalities and deal with the world as it is. Thanks to the power of new technology, sales managers can keep in constant touch with widely dispersed sales teams, while GPS systems enable service centres to track the progress of engineers and maintenance teams. Client-facing teams can concentrate almost exclusively on their clients, without being drawn into whatever is happening at their own head office.
The job of management in these circumstances is to identify the work that needs doing, and then take the work to the right people wherever they happen to be. Use the most appropriate technology and establish the processes that make it work more effectively. Provide the necessary training both for managers and employees. Keep every kind of communication channel open, including social media, video-conferencing, text and email.
Above all, treat people as adults – with care and consideration. Give them the opportunity to earn your trust at the same time as they gain greater reward for their successes.
By Mark Dixon, CEO, Regus