More and more people are searching for flexibility in their work. This often includes working from home; but how do you make that work for you and your staff? As a manager, how do you maintain social contact and team cohesion? How do you maintain your oversight on productivity and workflow management? Working from home should be the same as working in the office, but different.
Same but different
What I mean is, the same rules should apply. Changing the physical workplace environment, does not mean that standards change. When I lead a virtual team of 27, they were right across Australia. What I expected from my team, regardless of whether they were working in the office or home, was the same. I expected the same standards.
Regardless of the environment, I expected them to maintain the quality of their communication; work; and interactions with team members. I also expected them to deliver the same if not increased levels of productivity. I particularly watched out for behaviours that showed me whether they were dis-engaged or demonstrating an investment in the team and the culture of the organisation. My expectations didn’t change because staff were working in a different location.
It’s analogous to when a football team plays an away game. Playing an away game does not mean that the rules change. They might have to adjust their playing to meet the new conditions, but , they’re still playing the same game. The rules do not change because the environment changes.
In my large virtual team most of our interactions were via video conferencing. We used to joke about what people were wearing from the waist down when they were working from home.
Humour reinforced the fact that it was unacceptable to not be in proper business attire.
I always made a point of guiding staff about standards of appearance and professionalism regardless of where they were located. They still had the same etiquette and professionalism that they would have if they were working in the office. So whilst it’s the same but different, there are some things you need to rethink to make it work. The first thing is thinking about how people communicate virtually, or how they communicate when they’re not face to face. There are lots of available software and hardware that enables that. There are many video conferencing applications that enable a lot more collaboration across your team than you would even expect when people are face to face. That’s why would recommend some kind of digital conferencing and collaboration software even for teams working face to face . Names that come to mind for software are Cisco, GSuite and Microsoft Office Suite. They all have some great collaboration software that allows you to do all sorts of asynchronous communication across the team. And importantly, these products are fun to use and mirror the engagement techniques used in the usual social media platforms that your staff are using anyway. Many of these software platforms not only manage your communication, they also manage collaborative spaces. All the things you used to do face to face are replicated in a digital environment. A software that I love to use, Miro, enables a digital whiteboard coupled with some great collaborative templates. It gets people using post it notes and drawing on a shared whiteboard. My staff really loved it and I got a higher rate of pre-meeting engagement because of it too!
There are many software applications that help you to share files across the digital space. You can work on one file at the same time with other people, and then chat with them about how it’s progressing.
These tools provide so much potential when running workshops and creative sessions virtually and face to face. So, there’s so much we can do in the digital space, even more so in some ways than when we’re face to face.
The next shift – how you manage people and work
Flexible working requires a shift in leadership. You need to manage people more around results than their inputs.
When we see people coming into an office environment, we can tell what time they started and what time they go home. There is an assumption that they’re working productively because they’re there, in your physical space. However most jobs don’t require staff to be sitting focused on inputs in a particular location. Of course the exceptions are in some of the front line customer service and retail roles and some forms of delivery. But for most other jobs, allowing autonomy over where and when the work gets done, actually increases productivity. In fact, according to Harris Poll 64% of telecommunications workers say working from home increases productivity output.
What this means is that you can manage performance and productivity according to outcomes. The manager’s role is to delegate tasks, keep track of progress towards an agreed outcome, and to provide clarity to staff about what’s required in that week or fortnight. They are also responsible for removing any road blocks to progress and developing capability in their staff to achieve these outcomes. It does not require keeping track of when work started and finished. The manager is there to motivate the team to achieve in that week. And that is what you manage. For example, if you’re hitting a sales or delivery target for that week, the manager’s role is to keep the team focussed on that target, and remove impediments to progress, full stop. You wouldn’t want performance to be based on how long staff are tied to a desk. People should be acknowledged for their results. If they achieve that result quicker, that’s fantastic! Similarly, some staff work better at different times of the day. You don’t want to tie people into times of the day that they them to work in the way that best suits them, when they feel more energised and productive.
I often think about managing people this way. Don’t measure the amount of hours that their bums are on seats, measure the results that they produce. People are often happier, just personally happier, when they’re managed in that way.
The last thinking shift required to make flexible working work for your team is about how you create culture. Because it’s a virtual environment, you really have to do things differently around building team culture and social engagement. You need to be explicit about how people are going to communicate with each other, and how they’re going to manage the small social niceties throughout the day. As a leader, I often lead the way. For example, even on an instant chat, I’ll often start with small talk, “Hi, how are you? How’s your day going? I can see that’s a dog in the background, what’s their name?” If you were working with someone face to face, there would be a little bit of small talk there. So, you want to make sure you’re incorporating that into your digital experience as well. The other important element is team rituals. You need to have time in the week where people come together and talk about their experiences. This is not just about communicating about the work, but also about more personal things, or perhaps even reflecting on the week about what people have learned, etc. You need to ask yourself, what kind of team rituals are you applying right now and how might they be applied across the virtual space?
In that, don’t be limited. I’ve often instructed managers about how to create a similar and even sometimes better experience online around team building . To give you another example, some of my team were in the Philippines, India, Western Australia, Eastern Australia. That’s a lot of time differences to manage. It was difficult to get people on a meeting at a time that suited everybody. Instead, we set up group chat sessions where people could follow the conversation and then add their comments to the conversation. This was similar to holding a meeting but people engaged when they could. Their engagement was the same, and the conversation was easy to follow.
You can use this technique to also lift the engagement of a face to face meeting. Ask for questions your staff want raised beforehand. They can add them to a document anonymously or for others to see through the instant chat application. Being able to have staff ask questions anonymously can sometimes really help surface issues that they may feel shy, embarrassed, or concerned about raising otherwise.
However you do it, the important thing is that you have everyone looking at everyone else’s inputs, and also being asked to input. People get a sense of how others think about a situation and it can really help in forming consensus or raising constructive conflict points. Both are necessary in a high performance team culture.
For some people, working from home may not be an option. But commuting long distances to get to work may not also be attractive. For those people, coworking may work. There may be one close to their homes that is suitable, and often coworking spaces allow casual or drop in use as well. A coworking space provides an environment where staff can be with other professionals, and yet connected and engaged with the rest of their team who are in other locations. Win, win!
To help our current coworking community connect and thrive in these uncertain times Higher Spaces is offering free online sessions that include virtual happy hours, and motivation boosters, and lunch and learn sessions etc. Join our Community to receive updates.