Have you seriously considered the implications of the apparent recognition that remote working can, and will, be a greater part of the employment mix in a post corona world?
There is a loud noise that ‘everything will change’ reverberating, an echo chamber of that view amplified by digital tools. It seems to me that human beings are simply insufficiently flexible to change ‘everything,’ although it seems the trend towards remote work has been accelerated a decade by the bug.
I have worked remotely and in offices, mixed about in a pretty random fashion for 25 years. The recent past has brought into focus some of the factors that I think are worth consideration.
‘Industrial’ management, the norm for the last 100 years, made in the image of Frederick Winslow Taylor assumes that in the absence of close supervision, little work of value will be done. At the extreme other end of the scale, you have enterprises like ‘Automattic’ the parent company of WordPress, that has remote workers around the world, and no head office of any type beyond the current location of Matt Mullenweg, the CEO and co-founder. It is a continuum on which we all fall somewhere, and it is evolving quickly.
The change in management style to remote will be for some, too much, as it adds several dimensions to the task that many managers are simply not up to doing.
Managing remotely adds a number of challenging dimensions:
Tools are needed that are not familiar or easily learnt by many, so simplicity is key. In addition there is a host of newer challenges to be addressed relating to the provision of the tools from software to the hardware, and the security questions hanging over everything digital.
Behavioural norms established in an office environment have been thrown out the window. Suddenly, we need to consider things like the interruptions of children, the family dog, and flexible working hours. In particular, the move to being available at all hours which was evolving as a result of the digital connectivity we had while still working from an office, has been supercharged. Suddenly, working 24/7 risks becoming the norm, unrestrained by reasonable office hours. All of these, and many others indicate that a very different way of measuring performance will be required.
‘Meetings’ from the casual gathering around the coffee machine in the morning, to the established and regular formal meetings deliver a rhythm to the day that is suddenly absent, and needs to be replaced somehow. The formal meetings can be done using one of the many tools, but the casual, unplanned meetings that happen in an office, that can be hugely valuable, present a different challenge.
Culture. The glue that holds the workplace together, will undergo radical surgery. Human beings evolved in small groups that looked after themselves by looking after each other. While this has eroded somewhat over the last 250 years, the need to be ‘together’ is nevertheless hardwired into our collective DNA. I suspect this will be the largest hurdle for management of the remote corporations to address.
Recognise the ‘God Syndrome’ and kill it. I cannot help but wonder if the challenge of leading remote teams is no more than a light being shone on existing failures of leadership that went largely unnoticed. Those in senior positions do not have all the answers, often they have very few of them. Unfortunately, those in leadership positions are often there partly as a result of being able to convince others they are right more than anyone else, and they play ‘the game’ more effectively. The reality is that they are usually as confused and uncertain as the rest of us, they just hide it better, and sometimes ask better questions. The tide has gone out, so the rocks are exposed, the failures of leadership are more obvious. Humility is the common characteristic of every really good leader I have seen.
Deliver Psychological Safety. Everything I see and read about the psychology of human beings is that we seek ‘psychological safety’. This is the place where we feel safe to do and say things that really reflect what we think, without fear of any sort of retribution. Achieving this in any workplace is really hard, and is the result only of truly great leadership. Achieving it when many of us are working remotely, away for the ‘safety’ of those few we know well and truly trust, will be a monumental task.
When you strip it all away, the reason workers are congregated in offices is to achieve the objective of making money for their employers. It is however an artifice forced on us by the industrial revolution, and is somewhat inconsistent with the way we humans evolved. The recent past has demonstrated that this congregation may not be necessary to achieve that commercial objective. Almost certainly it is not necessary in the form that it evolved, as a means to find a way to manage operational scale. Therefore, a rational management will set about reducing costs, and expensive CBD office space has suddenly become a soft target.
Allen Roberts is principal of StrategyAudit, a consultancy that helps companies identify and remove the barriers to high performance.
Picture: Allen Roberts
Subscribe to our free @AuManufacturing newsletter here.