Liz Poad, Head of Learning and Development, Cordant Group considers the value of today's flexible workplace and the remote management skills a boss needs to lead a flexible team so they remain motivated, engaged and high achievers.
As the Virgin boss proclaimed in response to Yahoo's decision to withdraw from flexible working: companies that turn their back on flexible working are "taking a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever."
Today's brave new world, where companies are starting to invest more and consumers are beginning to spend more, requires speed and flexibility to survive. Competition is increasing on a global scale and customer expectations are higher which leads to tougher targets, tight delivery deadlines and managers' demanding more from the team.
Flexible working enables companies to survive this new world. For example, flexible working gives businesses the ability to adapt quicker to changes in the market; to be available to customers and suppliers 24/7; to operate more efficiently by reducing the cost and inflexibility of traditional office spaces and to attract a wider pool of the talent that may not have been available to work a nine to five working day.
What is more, the business world is much flatter, decentralised and geographically dispersed, driving the need for flexible working hours. The fallout from the recession and cuts to the workforce means managers are often overseeing teams scattered around the globe in different time zones. Meanwhile employees are juggling their week, working from various 'remote' locations - home, regional offices, and customer and supplier locations - often travelling or working outside of the typical nine to five day to accommodate the demands of the job. Meanwhile the manager will be doing the same, diminishing opportunities for face-to-face interaction with the team.
Flexible working certainly has its benefits and place in today's business society but, if badly managed, there can be downsides such as loss of engagement, creativity and the exchange of ideas between the team and their manager which often come from the so called “water cooler chats." Flexible workers that have little face-to-face or regular contact with their boss can also be at risk of isolation, which will affect their motivation and performance.
The temptation for managers is to apply the same techniques used when leading a team based at one office. However, elements to managing a flexible workforce can be very different. Managers can no longer directly oversee to ensure work is being done or rely on personal interaction to pick up on problems or gage how much support or advice a worker may need. They need to know how to drive results through others with little face-to-face contact which requires good remote management and motivational skills. They have to learn to adapt their natural communication style, understand how to 'read between the lines' from afar and learn how to engage and inspire trust in the team.
There are a multitude of skills required to lead a flexible workforce effectively, with trust forming the foundation.
Do you trust?
Building trust between a manager and the team is important when there is little face-to-face contact. Managers can inspire trust by assigning individuals to certain tasks and responsibilities as well as through regular contact to lend encouragement, support and guidance. This approach will make the team feel empowered, engaged and connected, despite the distance, which will boost motivation and performance.
Managers should not be tempted to treat their team like children - supervising their every move and asking where they have been every second. This will just take time and energy that transpires to resentment and dissatisfaction among the team especially for high achievers that have been used to working effectively remotely and autonomously. Employees who want to manipulate the system are going to do so inside or outside the office so supervising them more closely is not the answer but ultimately a losing game on both sides.
Are you communicating correctly?
Planning and setting expectations and developing people remotely is much harder when there is no day-to-day, face-to-face contact but managers that inspire trust and motivation are ones that adapt their natural communications style to suit the individual member of the team. They know what level of support and guidance to provide and the best way to deliver it, depending on the individual's experience and personality. For example, a new starter will need more one-to-one support compared to a high achiever who may be more motivated by a call once a week with the boss.
Whilst some remote managers make the mistake of supervising too closely some slip into the "They will ring me if they need me" mentality, often going days without contact or feedback. Conversations tend to be only when there is a problem or challenge rather than opportunities to share the ideas and experiences needed to build a highly engaged team. This lack of interaction will leave workers feeling de-motivated, under-appreciated and under-developed.
Managers should split the team into three tiers and then adapt their management style to suit the remote individual.
Tier one is the "Top talent (20%)" who are kept motivated through recognition, praise and by continuously being stretched and challenged so they are constantly developing.
Tier two is the "Middle workforce (70%)" which are steady workers, not necessarily ambitious or driven, but are reliable, efficient and do a good job.
Tier three is the company's natural churn which is around 10% of a workforce.
For workers in tier one and two it is particularly important to pick up the phone regularly or set up team conference calls to share feedback, acknowledge great work and share ideas so employees know that their work is being noticed and appreciated. Hiding behind email will just de-motivate staff and lead to feelings of isolation.
Circulating weekly update reports and sharing access to each other's diaries are also simple but effective ways of making people feel connected. If possible, make use of web and video conferencing facilities as these can help managers pick up on physical cues. Any messages should be responded to as quickly as possible and should be an exchange of daily pleasantries just as much as a conversation about work to help build rapport.
Reading between the lines
Not all managers will have access to web or video conferencing so they need to learn how to read situations remotely and identify any potential problems.
Flexible workers may go for long periods of time with little face-to-face contact with the team or boss so they are more susceptible to feelings of isolation.
These feelings of alienation can negatively impact discretionary performance, which can lead to an attitude of "that will do" rather than "how can this be excellent?"
On the flip side, the potential isolation can lead to individuals overcompensating by spending more time working to prove their contribution to the business. Many flexible workers with the ability to work remotely admit to struggling to switch off from work, checking messages in the evenings and weekends and neglecting work life balance, which just leads to an exhausted, unproductive team.
Interpersonal skills such as effective use of questioning and active listening skills that focus on the overall tone, pitch and pace of exchanges will help managers to "read between the lines" when communicating remotely.
Regular coaching on being self disciplined with good time, self stress management skills and coping strategies are also important for both the flexible worker and manager.
Building trust, communicating effectively and being able to read a situation remotely are not skills that can be developed over night. They need to be part of a continuous personal management development programme learnt from junior management level upwards. Managers should conduct a regular skills audit on themselves and their team to identify areas of improvement and request regular feedback from the team on any areas they recommend changing or doing differently. This collaborative approach builds trust, engagement and sets a great example and genuine commitment to personal development.
Flexible working is the norm today so it is important to ensure managers are equipped to lead these teams effectively. It may require investment in training and development but the return will far outstrip any time or money invested, driven by a more adaptable, motivated, engaged and highly performing team that can meet the challenges thrown at them by today's brave new world.