Remote workforce support, like any new management idea, has had its leaders and laggards. According to The Work Foundation, the UK has now reached the tipping point, in which more than half of organisations support remote working. The Foundation predicts that 70 per cent of UK employers will have remote work policies in place by 2020.
The pros and cons of remote, distributed work teams were a topic of discussion at the recent Thomson Reuters Knowledge Management Forum in London that we sponsored. More organisations are enabling people to work remotely, yet the consequences are not always fully considered. Some early remote workforce adopters are finding that knowledge creation is as important as knowledge management.
LAC Group and LibSource COO Rob Corrao was part of a panel discussion on sharing knowledge across geographically dispersed teams, virtual teams and satellite offices, and the issues included:
- What are best practices and what works well? Which common pitfalls should you avoid in remote working?
- The KM system and process compliance – should and can it be mandated?
- The role of culture and adjusting for relative requirements for different jurisdictions.
- Management and engagement: how to include everyone, or perhaps how to make sure you don’t exclude anyone?
The discussion touched on some of these issues, and it became clear that managing a remote, distributed workforce relies on three critical success factors – empowerment, performance measurement changes and best use of technology.
Balancing enforcement with employment
Organisations can compel the behaviours they desire, but only to some degree – rather than mandating the behaviours you want, it’s better to encourage them by setting up the right environment. For example:
- Operate with clear, transparent guidelines for remote workers and office workers alike, and apply them fairly. Special arrangements for remote working should be avoided if possible, or they should be the exception and handled with discretion; otherwise resentment can build and you increase the risk of insubordination.
- Lead by example, not only at the executive ranks but at divisional and departmental levels. It’s often the behaviours and edicts of immediate supervisors or line managers that create unnecessary conflict and confusion and discourage worker trust and participation.
- Facilitate and reward the knowledge-sharing behaviours you want of remote workers by involving them regularly and proactively in online discussions, acknowledging their comments and input, and otherwise encouraging the level of engagement that’s needed for knowledge teams to work effectively and successfully.
Adjusting performance perceptions and expectations
Vodafone remote workforce research found that some of the biggest barriers to adoption are beliefs around performance: 22 per cent believed employees would not work as hard if allowed to adopt flexible working patterns and technologies and 30 per cent were concerned about friction between remote and office workers.
While these concerns could be a temporary issue in the early days of remote work arrangements, in the long run, the data disprove these beliefs. Other surveys have shown the opposite regarding productivity – remote workers tend to work more than office workers – and any friction that arises can be smoothed over or avoided altogether through communication and fair treatment.
Distributed, remote workforce success does, however, require a shift in performance measures and expectations:
- Organisations need to find ways to measure individual and team performance based more on deliverables and outcomes rather than rigid workday hours and time spent. The perception that it’s enough to simply be visible and present must change.
- Develop a culture that empowers and encourages active feedback and participation more than simply checking in and responding. Make sure employees participating in remote working are adding ideas and input and suggesting fixes and improvements.
Effective technology deployment and utilisation
It’s a given that organisations with strong KM initiatives and remote working policies are using technology. However, they may not be using the right systems, or using those systems well. We have found within LAC Group that the blend of tools may be more important than the tools themselves. According to Rob Corrao:
“We couldn’t operate in a distributed environment without technology to empower and capture collaborative discussion and sharing of information. We use Yammer throughout LAC Group, but Slack and other systems accomplish the same things. We are also active users of web video conferencing. That means, of course, that remote workers must have a webcam. We use BlueJeans throughout LAC Group. When it’s impossible to be in the same physical location, it allows all team members to see each other, and brings remote workers ‘into the room’ as active contributors.”
Can laggards learn from early adopters?
While the gig economy and remote workforce have picked up momentum in recent years, the concepts are not new. Businesses that have lagged the early adopters can learn from their experiences.
Don’t let remote workers be out-of-sight, out-of-mind
IBM began deploying remote working as early as the 1980s, and by the 2000s, about 40 per cent of its global workforce worked from home. Yet recently, IBM has been calling some remote workers back onsite, to encourage greater collaboration and creative problem-solving. It’s ironic that a technology company isn’t able to leverage technology, especially a company like IBM, which develops and markets communication and collaboration technology! But it does demonstrate the need not only to deploy these tools, but to consider culture, processes and other factors critical to success.
Limit and prevent remote worker abuses with clear policies and expectations
Some people may abuse remote work policies and privileges. When Melissa Meyer became CEO of Yahoo, she ended the company’s remote working policy. She has since said that her decision was partly driven by abuses by some workers that interfered with project schedules and inconvenienced other team members. These abuses can be circumvented by clarifying acceptable remote work standards, and addressing abuses when they happen.
Don’t neglect culture and communication
While I’ve talked about the importance of technology, those systems mean nothing on their own. You may have to adapt your culture and find new ways to bring a remote workforce into the fold. Your policies and expectations must be communicated, actively, regularly and across multiple channels. This is where KM groups can and must take the lead in an organisation.
I believe the solution lies in balance in meeting the needs of employees, as well as the needs of the organisation. Make sure you start with a viable plan, clearly communicate your remote work policies, and apply them fairly across all workers. Then it’s a matter of keeping remote workers visible and actively engaged.
We’ve had people working remotely for several clients in the UK since 2013 and both our clients and our remote workers are very pleased with the results. Our clients get the skills and experience they need, wherever the people might be in the world, and our staff get to build their careers while balancing their work and home life most positively. By building and developing a community feel for our remote staff using our online collaboration and communication systems and clearly-defined processes and expectations, we have been able to demonstrate that it doesn’t matter where you are located. Some of our clients don’t even realise we aren’t just sitting on a different floor in their building!
As more and more companies adopt agile and remote working policies I’m certain that others will soon experience the same success.