2020 will almost certainly go down in history as the year of Covid-19, the year when a pandemic got people all over the world isolated, forbidden from mingling, seeing friends, colleagues and family. On every continent, people are to “self-isolate” for periods from a week to several months while politicians scrambled and argued as to what was the best way to contain the virus and health professionals worked overtime to try to find a potential resolution.
The World Health Organisation representative stated in a conference:
“What we have learnt with the Ebola outbreaks is that you need to react quickly […] you need to be consistent, you need to be coherent, you need to look at the other sectors impacted, […] the security, the economy. Be fast, have no regrets, you must be the first mover. If you need to be right before you move, you will never win; perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to […] management; speed trumps perfection. And the problem we have in society at the moment is that everyone is afraid of making a mistake, everyone is afraid of the consequence of error. But the greatest error is not to move; the greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”
From a business point of view, it is a real crisis. Many small organisations will cease to exist as people stay away from shops, bars and restaurants. Larger companies have to learn to work without using the office, managing teams that are working from home, each team member isolated, yet expected to work together.
In the beginning, we had mechanistic management, in which the manager needed to maintain visibility on the unskilled workers, continuously checking that they were doing as instructed and not taking unauthorised breaks. Towards the end of the previous century, a more systemic style of management came to light. Management focused on interdependencies between functions and skills, the value of employees as skilled and trained assets begun to be understood and we got rid of the old concept that you can replace anybody with anybody else. Within this area, some remnants of mechanistic attitudes remained, particularly with the creation of the most counter-productive “open plan” offices with its noise levels, interruptions and workers isolated behind earphones.
The time has come to reinvent the way we collaborate and interact based on remote working and distance learning. The technology is ready, but many people are not. This state presents a significant number of problems and challenges to resolve and questions to answer. However, it also offers you a unique opportunity to rethink and reorganise your business to be more efficient. I would like, in the following paragraphs, to make some suggestions and recommendations as we move towards a new management style.
2 The Challenges
Are people accessing your company data remotely? Are you sure that they have the security levels that you would expect in your business transactions? The penalties for a GDPR infringement are costly and you could be putting the future of your organisation at risk if you allow one of your home-workers to access personal data over an unsecured home wifi network.
It is not difficult to implement a firewall that only allows registered computers to access your network (white-listed) to stop employees from downloading customer information unto their personal devices and placing you at risk.
2.2 Work Space
When working from home, you need to have a dedicated workspace. You cannot expect people to work efficiently if they are working from a couch with a laptop on their knees, or at a kitchen table that must be cleared away three times a day for meals.
The business should offer to subsidise, within limits, the creation of a home office. I do not expect you to pay for all your staff to have a home extension, but they should get support in the setting up of a good quality desk, an office chair, appropriate lighting, and whatever they need to be able to do their job.
2.3 Team Meetings
Team meetings are valuable: you need to be able to exchange information and keep each other up to date with what is going on regularly. There is no excuse not to have remote team meetings today; the technology for this is easy to use and cheap. Skype and Skype for Business, WhatsApp (including desktop version), Google Meet, Zoom, Discord, Slack, Microsoft Teams, MeetUp to name only some of the most common all allow quality communication and exchange, sharing and presenting, as well as audio-visual interaction.
Team meetings should be organised at regular hours, included in people’s calendars, and compulsory unless they have a valid excuse, just as if they were in the office. Also, just like in the office, the meeting’s facilitator needs to ensure that people remain focused and participating.
Online meetings are more challenging than face-to-face because you cannot necessarily see if team members are listening, participating or reading their emails.
When you are in the office, you can see that one of your colleagues is not well, not happy. They appear depressed or distressed; they are not joking anymore and don’t want to talk to anyone; you can see that something is not right and offer them support, friendship. You can reach out to them or make sure that someone who is usually close to them does.
When you are on a conference call, will you notice the person who does not participate? Will you realise that one of your team needs additional care and support? It is easy to miss in the best of times, but when you are only communicating through devices and phone lines, it becomes a challenge. Additionally, when at the office, team members call in to say they cannot come in because they are not well; when working from home, that warning signal no longer exists.
We a manager, you bear a responsibility to some extent for the mental health of your team.
I would recommend that you set up some sort of “buddy system” – teammates who are in contact with each other at least once a day, making sure that their colleague is OK, physically and mentally through informal banter.
One approach to implementing this is through daily peer reviews: every day I will have a call with team member X to review what they have done, and a second call with team member Y to present/explain/test what I have done. This approach creates an active chain of best practices, lessons learnt and continuous improvement of the work, while time ensuring that no one is left isolated and there is a dynamic check on all team members. Depending on your business, these daily calls could also be mentoring calls or have another defined purpose.
Even more, I would recommend that, whatever tool you are using to keep in touch with each other, you allow for informal chat, jokes, “water-cooler” conversations between team members.
2.5 Mental Health
Working alone, not going out, whether it is because of a crisis like Covid-19, illness or the need to care for children or parents can be very stressful. Cabin-fever is a real problem when you are locked up continuously. When working with a remote team, management must ensure that their people are not suffering unduly from their isolation.
You need to encourage them to take breaks regularly. Remind them that the objective is to achieve the results, create the products, deliver the services and not to sit at your desk from 09:00 to 18:00 every day. Some might prefer to work early mornings or late nights and take time off during the day. You should not penalise them because they run an errand or have a nap during office hours.
You should also encourage them to get out of their home if that is possible. Go for a walk or some other exercise they can do; if they cannot go out, remind them to open their windows wide at least once a day, even in the coldest winter, to air out the place. They should be encouraged to go to a gym or do yoga. “Mens sana in corpore sano”: if you don’t take care of your body, your brain will suffer.
How do you motivate team members who are working on their own, isolated in their homes? It can be very demotivating to have no one to whom you can speak, not seeing a colleague for days.
2.6.1 Maintain Relationships
We are social animals, and our society is not one of individuals, but an intricate system of relationships. Our sense of self is derived from our social interactions, and when one is socially isolated, it can be extremely soul-destroying.
Building on what I wrote above, it is critical that, as a manager, you keep communication lines open and active with every individual in your team. Your position requires that you regularly have personal communication with everyone in your team – not necessarily daily, but at least weekly. There are different ways to achieve this contact. The “Agile” software development methodologies recommend daily “stand-up” meetings with the whole team to review what each one has done, is going to do next, and what problems or concerns are blocking them. As a team leader or manager, you should enforce these meetings and ensure that you can identify anyone who might be struggling.
2.6.2 Critical Thinking
One of the best motivational tools is coaching people to discover the solution themselves rather than telling them the answer or deciding for them what they need to do, how and when. Your role as a manager is not to bully your team into obeying your orders, but it is about helping your colleagues embrace critical thinking and decision making. When and working from home, it becomes more challenging to decide to call in to ask whether they are allowed to do something and wait for the response.
The Socratic (or elenctic) method is a method of verifying and validating someone’s ideas and assumptions by questioning them and presenting them with cases when their concept doesn’t quite manage practical reality. A good leader will seek to ask the right questions rather than demand to be respected.
As in so many other areas, frequent small rewards go a long way to motivate and encourage. These rewards need not be complicated; public recognition can be enough in many cases.
To assist with performance and productivity, the usage of frequent small rewards may become more habitual. When working from home, team members may remember that they are free to decide their working hours and methods but must remember that their objective is to complete the tasks to match expectations.
Of course, it may not be as simple as paying them based on results you are already using salaried members of staff. Still, you must consider how to reward individual members of the team for continued quality work.
2.8 Social Life
Many companies know the value of social life, regularly organising a Friday social drink or a lunch to celebrate some event. Events can also be arranged online, with a regular meeting to which everyone is invited, but no work-related agenda is set. Team members join with cup or glass of something and just chat, socialise for half an hour.
Of course, all team members should be encouraged to invite their colleagues to meetings or chat directly through one of the many tools available.
Another aspect of this is the community social responsibility of the organisation. Many companies have a charitable department in which employees volunteer to organise fund-raisers or support a local charity. Corporate social responsibility should be encouraged, allowing individuals to participate and organise remotely, alone or in groups.
2.9 Tasks and Objectives
If team members are going to work more or less independently, they should have a clear understanding of their tasks, roles, objectives and limitations. The management team (at every level) must ensure clear, coherent and consistent messages at all times, in what they say, write and do. Team members cannot just walk over to a colleague and ask “what did she mean by that?” They now have to contact someone online and will be more careful about asking “stupid questions” in writing.
As a consequence, it is required that all communication, from the company vision statement down to the assigning of tasks, be known, understood and accepted by the people concerned. An approach such as OKR (Objectives and Key Results) facilitates the aligning of objectives and needs in a clear, quantified manner. If the final aim isn’t understood and measured, you may safely expect your team members to deviate from their task and deliver something that does not correspond to expectations (whether over or under). Tom Gilb’s approach to value planning and his “Planguage” also allows refining requirements and expectations beyond common misunderstanding.
2.10 Planning and Discipline
Team members need to share their detailed plans and must strive to respect them. If you want to work from 06:00 to 08:00, then have a break until 10:30, that is all right, but should be communicated in your schedule.
It is essential when working alone to have a clear routine.
Within that schedule, one needs to ensure that work can be completed without excessive distractions. When working from home, you potentially have a spouse, children and pets to interrupt your work; you have the opportunity to take a nap or start cleaning; you may decide to go shopping or sit on the couch and watch television for hours. These are all real temptations for the home worker, and there is little management can do about it other than remind them about the need to deliver on time.
One additional time-waster is the vast array of “social media” that are available. You should encourage (not enforce) team members to switch off all social media when working, except for those required for business reasons. You do not need to read your emails as soon as they come in, you can read them two or three times a day and be up to date. You should not be tempted to jump every time an acquaintance posts a meme on Facebook.
2.11 Right to Fail
When working alone, you may go down the wrong path and completely misunderstand an activity or task. It might only become apparent when the work is complete, time and money invested, and the results of various team members are consolidated into a final product or service. Failure should be considered an opportunity to learn and not a cause of castigation.
“Fail fast” is a recommendation in most cases. You should not hesitate to try something new, but test it to determine its viability and eliminate the solution as rapidly as possible if necessary.
The object of science is not to find the ultimate solution and the perfect answer; it is to identify the smallest number of assumptions that allow you to explain, through deduction, the largest number of observable phenomena. When finding a solution, it becomes the duty of anyone following a scientific process to test it and determine whether it is valid. If you identify a case in which your assumptions do not appear to support the evidence, it may be that they are false, or it may be that you have identified the limit of their applicability.
Encourage team members to fail as quickly as possible.
3 A New Way Forward?
The 2020 global crisis has had many consequences and an enormous impact on the way people work all over the world. While it has undoubtedly created hardship in many places, it has also had an amazingly beneficial effect on the environment and the rest of the world. The problems raised are primarily due to the lack of preparation and the surprise factor.
We need to learn the lessons and start implementing a new approach to the way we conduct business with remote management options. For many jobs, there is no need to work in a given location or at specific times. I regularly come across IT professionals who have left an idyllic country life and moved to a crowded, noisy, polluted city to find work. This move should not be necessary in the age of satellite communication and high-speed internet.
We have an opportunity to rethink our businesses and management techniques. We can move our new management firmly into the 21st century, respecting employees and promoting a global community-based culture in which family and work can merge and support each other.
I do not believe that we need to throw out everything; I am not saying that we should condemn all office buildings and make everyone work from home. However, I do believe that these buildings can be used more effectively by reducing the space required, have more meeting rooms and better layouts for workers who do not come to the office every day.