Managing Remotely - A Question of Trust
The number of employees working remotely in the UK, including contractors and freelance workers, is growing. Leading futurologist, Dr James Bellini, estimates that there are around four million people who don't work for a specific company, don't go to a fixed-place office every day and don't create a permanent overhead. This type of employment, known as contingent working, requires skilled leadership and management and I don't believe our managers are ready for it, yet.
Contingent working has come about as employers look for ways to cut costs and improve their profitability whilst employees look for enhanced flexibility in their working arrangements. Adapting this kind of outsourcing policy gives an organisation the flexibility to employ people only when it needs them, while freelancers can manage multiple contracts without putting all their eggs in one basket..
The advantages of a contingent workforce to an employer, employee and the economy are well documented. What, perhaps, is less widely discussed are the innate challenges around managing a remote team of workers and the skills required to provide successful leadership in this context. The key issues revolve around control and trust. Subcontracting to freelance staff can create difficulties as employers may feel that they have less control of a temporary worker than over a permanent member of staff. To some degree, this can be offset by the knowledge that a freelancer is motivated to complete the job and to do it well. The contingent worker wants to be paid, referred to others and commissioned again – this is strong motivation. If I don't work, I don't eat! Control can however be built into the process by setting out, in writing, what is expected of the contingent worker, the project's objectives, timelines, reporting mechanisms and expected outcomes – and continually reassessing progress against the agreed benchmarks.
Strangely where managing remote workers becomes more challenging is where the individuals being managed are on the permanent pay-roll. Our research revealed that when the opportunity presents itself to experiment with remote working, such as extreme weather, a significant breakdown in travel infrastructure or even physical injury, there is a distinct reticence amongst some managers to encourage remote working. Indeed, the opportunity to practice the skills which would be so useful for managing contingent workers is wasted by about 20% of managers in the UK.
Our research indicates that, in this context, the issue becomes one of trust: “How do I know that Joe Bloggs is actually working?” In my opinion, this says more about the manager's expertise than the staff being remotely managed. The basic process I described earlier for managing contingent workers is applicable, with appropriate modification, to the management of remote permanent staff. However, managers need to be trained to motivate and manage their staff wherever they are based and whatever their contractual relationship is with the business. Our leadership and management programme identifies the following steps to effectively manage remote staff:
- Provide clear written objectives: Detail exactly what is expected and make sure you can measure ‘output'.
- Incentivise timely, accurate delivery: Encourage the completion of work ahead of schedule with no loss of quality. Recognise individual performance and share best practice with the team.
- Morning register!” A brief call in the morning is an effective way of focusing your team on the day ahead and providing a forum for airing immediate issues and reinforcing priorities.
- Deal with challenges promptly: Encourage remote workers to contact you straightaway if they face any problems. Aim to resolve it fast so it does not delay the delivery of your project.
- Create a routine: If possible, create a predictable way of working as most people tend to operate more effectively and more creatively when there is a structure to their working lives. This also lets you know what time is best to reach workers.
- Set regular milestones – Split a large project into smaller, date-based milestones so you can measure progress during regular intervals. This should help you to monitor progress and alerts you to any potential issues
- Celebrate achievements: Appropriate recognition promotes loyalty, competition and helps to focus your team's attention on the factors that are important to you, in the context of the project.
- Keep track of progress: Use Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) accurately benchmark achievements on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
Dr. Frank Shaw, foresight director at independent think tank, the Centre for Future Studies, states: “Whilst managers acknowledge that remote working is essential to attract and retain key staff, most companies do not have a formal working from home policy. There is a pressing need for managers to reskill themselves if they are serious about ensuring that their businesses remain competitive.”
If, as all the evidence would suggest, a more fluid, semi-permanent workforce is the future then we are doing our managers a disservice and our businesses real damage by not equipping our managers to manage remote teams effectively, contingent or otherwise.