Strategic Implications of Remote Working
During the last few weeks many organisations have pre-empted official advice and started working remotely in response to Covid-19; most others have now followed suit now that staying at home is officially prescribed for all but essential services. There has recently been an outpouring of advice on how to cope with remote working and I’ve read many useful articles outlining tips and best practices for a way of working that are new to many.
Tactics work in the short term and now leaders need to be preparing for what is coming next and to create a coherent story for the next few weeks or months while restrictions on travelling and meeting in person remain in place.
Presenteeism or Trust
Many organisations and managers have historically resisted remote working because of a belief that staff cannot be trusted to work without a manager keeping an eye on them. Now we can ignore the arguments about whether that is in itself self-defeating or not because there is now no choice for the vast majority of teams.
if you want to lead
you have to trust your teams
So what are your choices as a manager of a remote team? As a manager you now have the choice of trusting your team or enacting a stringent surveillance of each team to make sure they are present (such as permanent video feed and monitoring for everyone). In my opinion, if you want to lead you have to trust your teams and it has never been more true than for remote teams. Fostering an environment of openness where the team makes choices and takes responsibility collectively will lead to better communication amongst the team. It will also enable colleagues to challenge each other which will help highlight more naturally who is disengaged or underperforming, and provide a first pass way for them to be included.
Flexibility for whom?
One of the advantages of working remotely is that it gives workers more flexibility on exactly where, when and how they work. Indeed, this has often been a major factor in persuading people to look for remote work.
many people are confronted with disrupted lives
At present many people are confronted with disrupted lives where they are grappling with disrupted schedules. One common situation now is families with school or nursery-aged children: parents now find themselves working at home with children studying or playing alongside them. They need flexibility and may not be able to work the same hours as some others in the team. Creative ways of working like core hours plus coverage, results-based rather than time-based assessment, or even allowing teams to coordinate cover themselves allow teams to take ownership of their work.
Regarding working hours, it is worth considering for whom they are important. Customer-facing staff need to work as closely as possible to customer time requirements; support staff need to support the front-line staff as well as possible especially where the need is synchronous. It seems rarely justifiable that working hours are decided for managerial convenience – although in the past this has been very common. True leaders will take care to consider how working hours are best arranged for all stakeholders.
The past few weeks have brought a step change to many people’s lives and because of the extraordinary circumstances most people are willing to take the pain and to adapt. What is not so clear is whether the majority will be ready for the consequential gradual changes which follow in the months to come. Of particular importance here is the danger of a shift from social distancing to social isolation to emotional isolation.
colleagues provide a significant part of daily support and companionship
Leaders take responsibility for their team over the long term. One of the good things to come out of the recent crisis is that many more people are talking about and taking notice of the emotional and psychological aspects of work. For many, work colleagues provide a significant part of the daily support and companionship that they receive. The social inclusion initiatives proposed such as replicating tea breaks and social activities are great in the short term. The risk remains, however, that they could become token practices with no real meaning, especially for those most at risk from lack of emotional support.
One way to avoid this is by putting in place extended support such as cross-team or cross-functional triads who connect and check on each other regularly. Ideally line managerial reporting should be avoided here as there is a danger that asking a manager for help is considered a weakness. Ideally provide staff with the ability to call upon employee assistance programmes or other external organisations.
In the next article I will discuss implications of other areas like remote hiring and onboarding, creativity and thoughts on what might happen when the all clear is given to return to normal life.