Managing a remote, home based workforce

- are your managers prepared?

Home working is by no means a new concept. It’s been around for years, largely driven by the needs of the organisation – take regional field sales positions as an example. In more recent times, roles traditionally based in the office have migrated to homeworking, in line with drivers that range from positioning your organisation as an attractive, flexible employer to greater employee expectations for ‘agile’ working facilities – plus legislation giving employees the right to request flexible working.

So while homeworking is not new, this year many more employees have experienced its benefits and some organisations have recognised how it can work for them. This combined shift in employee and employer perspectives will lead to home working becoming increasingly common.

But we must not forget one stakeholder caught up in all of this – the line manager. This individual is having to adapt and develop a new skillset for managing home based employees. On the face of it, managing people wherever they are based may not seem so different. But in reality, managing an office-based team of employees is very different to leading geographically dispersed people you might only see face-to-face once a month.

Man working at laptop

The “Trust” word

So let’s get straight to one of the key issues behind the emotion of the homeworking debate – trust. Any successful relationship is built on trust and the employment relationship is no different.

We are not talking here about ‘trust’ that’s broken when someone steals from their employer, but a more subtle form. Many managers will have no concerns about certain team members working from home but for others, they would have doubts.

For many organisations there are sound business reasons to control the extent of homeworking, with a common concern that it will adversely affect employee activity, productivity and attention to work.

The reason for this is simple and can be illustrated with the following example: When we buy a machine to produce 100 widgets per hour, we know we will get 100 widgets per hour, on time at the right quality. When we hire a person to hand produce 100 widgets per hour what we are buying is the “potential” to produce 100 widgets per hour. Turning “potential” into “actual” is called… management.

This example illustrates a few things. Firstly, making things happen depends on a few factors: the employee’s personal self-motivation; their susceptibility to distractions in the home and the company’s approach to enhancing self-motivation and output capability – referred to as management systems. Understanding your current management systems and identifying how they need to be adapted are key to transitioning to a successful home working environment.

Understanding your current management control system

The key components of any effective management control system are:

  • how work is directed to employees,
  • how the productivity and quality of work is influenced and evaluated and
  • how managers use ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ to reward good performance and improve underperformance.

Direction of work

‘Direction of work’ can refer to managers delegating work tasks personally or via technology. Technology of course plays an increasing role in work direction, from conveyor belt speed on a factory production line to highly sophisticated work allocation systems such as call direction in contact centres. Clearly these require minimal line manager intervention.

But for line managers who currently allocate work personally, maintaining this style under a homeworking environment becomes much harder, particularly if they have limited visibility of each employee’s capacity for more work.

Lack of awareness can lead to overwhelming the employee or under-utilisation, so measurement/evaluation of work becomes more important than ever. Arguably, this is no different to working in an office environment, so why does home working create an added challenge?

Well, we think it’s summed up in two words: emotional intelligence. Good managers intuitively get to know their people, their strengths, weaknesses and their ability to cope with work levels. In a physical environment they assess these factors subconsciously. Remote working makes it much harder to do this. Video calls can be misleading as they are simply snapshots in time.

How the productivity and quality of work is influenced and evaluated

Monitoring and evaluating work rates is important in any work environment, but research shows that it becomes even more relevant in a remote working context. The key question for many organisations is whether homeworking means that productivity and quality increases, stays the same or decreases.

Employees will say their productivity improves, but how do we know if we don’t measure it? Technology can play a key role here, particularly where work is easy to quantify. Electronic timesheets completed by employees can also become a practical solution as part of the deal when agreeing to homeworking. While this can seem a little “big brother is watching you”, employees must understand that with new working arrangements come new ways of managing.

How managers use “carrots and sticks” to reward good performance and improve underperformance.

Every organisation currently uses the carrot and the stick as part of the management system, whether remote working or not. Incentive schemes, recognition schemes, bonuses linked to achieving objectives are all designed to influence and reward what’s important to the organisation. On the flip side, underperformance is addressed through control methods such as performance reviews, coaching, discipline and training.

This component of your management system becomes increasingly important in a home working environment, where performance measurement can provide more objective insight into each team member. People doing a great job need to be recognised, encouraged and rewarded.

Before deciding on the right management control methods for your organisation, you need to consider one further point. Where does your organisation sit on what we call the ‘Employee Control Scale’? Do you feel more comfortable with Employee Self-Control or do you gravitate more towards Organisation Imposed Control? The answer will affect your choice of control methods, designed to help your managers manage their teams, remotely or not.

We think the strategic stance you take on the “Employee Control Scale” question (which may not be the same across the whole of your organisation), will largely be driven by five considerations:

  • The skill levels and attitudes of your employees
  • How important it is to the organisation for employees to be empowered to do their job effectively
  • The nature of what you do: the importance of compliance and control
  • Your organisational culture
  • Your leadership’s perception of how much employees should be trusted

Once you have considered your position, updating control methods to support your managers is the next step in creating a management system more suited to homeworking.

Organisation Imposed Control Methods

For organisations that seek to dictate how employees work, methods include:

  • Personal Control
    Exemplified by the line manager who has a controlling, micromanagement style, regularly walking the floor to make sure the job is done and checking constantly.
  • Technical Control
    In some workplace environments machinery plays a big role here – the speed of the production line for example.
  • Technology Control
    Just two examples of the tech available right now: recording the geolocation of the employee when they log on to start work, and intelligent IT systems that alert managers when an employee has been inactive on their desktop above a specified time.

  • Bureaucratic Control
    Organisational rules that tell employees what to do. Standard operating procedures guarantee things are done the same way, consistently. 

Employee Self-Control Methods

Self-control methods aim to move away from traditional organisation imposed control to high employee involvement/participation. These facilitate greater employee empowerment, discretion and self-control and in turn encourage employees to take satisfaction in their work and actively contribute towards the organisation as participants, not spectators.

  • Commitment-Based Control
    These forms of control are based-on organisational values, visions and behavioural competencies. They allow discretion around how employees work, with clearly communicated values, beliefs or purpose. They rely on high employee engagement with the purpose of the organisation, stating the direction of travel, but allowing employees greater influence over “how to get there”.

  • Diagnostic Control Systems
    Key Performance Indicators are designed by organisations to monitor critical, measurable outputs. It’s how these are used that makes them different to Organisational Control methods that use technology.

That’s because they are used by managers like the dials in an aeroplane cockpit, enabling the pilot to scan for signs of abnormal functioning and to keep critical performance variables within pre-set limits. As long as the readings remain within the limits, employees have good autonomy in how they decide to do their jobs.

  • Boundary Systems
    Boundary systems at first glance may look like bureaucratic control techniques, but the difference is that they don’t tell people what to do, they simply communicate what not to do.

Conclusion

If you are looking to expand the availability of home working, considering how to adapt management systems will bring benefits for your organisation, your managers and your employees. Management systems tend to grow organically in line with personal style. In reviewing your approach, you will also ensure that your people management style reflects your organisational culture and values.

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