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.
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.
The key components of any effective management control system are:
‘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.
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.
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:
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.
For organisations that seek to dictate how employees work, methods include:
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.
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.
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.