“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.”

– Stephen Covey

“One of the secret benefits of using remote workers is that the work itself becomes the yardstick to judge someone’s performance.”

— Jason Fried, Basecamp

“You can never over-communicate enough as a leader at a company, but at a remote company, nothing could be truer. Because you don’t physically see people in-person, information doesn’t spread in the same way, so leaders need to do the heavy lifting for evangelizing the message.”

— Claire Lew, Know Your Team

“We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in.”

– Ariana Huffington

“When you can’t see someone all day long, the only thing you have to evaluate is the work. A lot of the petty evaluation stats just melt away. Criteria like “Was she here at 9?” or “Did she take too many breaks today?” or “Man, every time I walk by his desk he’s got Facebook up” aren’t even possible to tally. Talk about a blessing in disguise. What you’re left with is “what did this person actually do today?

– Jason Fried

“Keep a team chatroom open. There is nothing more important in a group remote project than casual communication. Not just official emails and work updates, but the ability to sit back and chat.”

— David Rabin

“You’d be amazed how much quality collective thought can be captured using two simple tools: a voice connection and a shared screen.”

– Jason Fried

Remote, or now “hybrid”, work is something almost entirely new, yes? Umm … not really. I misspent a few youthful years as a field sales engineer (nuclear instrumentation) covering Canada’s four western provinces. No Zoom. Landline phone contacts from hotels and restaurants. Actual face-to-face meetings whenever I got back to the office – once a week at most. Seemed to work fine, except for the largely wasted time in the office. What I would have given for a cell phone, laptop, and Zoom (among other modern joys).

Managers have managed remote workers effectively (or not) at least forever. When I was a project group leader on the huge Bougainville Copper Project (Papua New Guinea), I had team members on three continents (U.S., U.K, Australia) as well as among the thousands working on the Bougainville Island project site. The thing got built on schedule but had a very unhappy operating life.

So, remote work and managing remote workers are nothing new. These are simply different from managing workers in a common office. Very different.

Compared to managing remote workers in the distant past (aka pre-COVID), the job today is so much easier and potentially more effective. But it is still very different from managing mostly-office workers.

Managing remote workers is the same in essentials but different in practices

The difference here gets into the core of managing itself. No matter where workers are located, managers are generally responsible for:

  1. Planning and goal-setting
  2. Organizing and staffing
  3. Decision-making and problem resolution
  4. Tracking and reporting performance

These few primary functions can be elaborated endlessly but they capture the essentials of managing. Note that leadership is quite different from managing.

None of the essential functions are location-specific, or even time-specific. An effective manager simply gets each function done using whatever tools, people, and situations that are available.

Managers themselves are of course different in that they bring varied skills, talents, experience, knowledge, and so forth to their particular assignments. Each becomes part of the manager’s currently available or accessible environment, just like the people, tools, systems, and resources.

What’s available in turn determines the practices that can be used and their relative effectiveness. This is where the remote/hybrid work vs. in-office distinction comes into play. Practices that are effective in one working environment may be ineffective, or worse, in another environment. A big part of the manager’s job today is matching the current environment (resources) to the essential tasks at hand.

Remote workers are different so the manager’s practices must be different

Nothing surprising in any of this. Unless the manager decides to use the wrong practices for the current work environment. The manager is responsible for the practices chosen in most cases. Bad choices or execution lead to bad results and a manager-worker conflict situation.

Most managers are given a set of tasks for which they are responsible and a set of resources that are available to handle those tasks. The management job is to structure the practices so as to best utilize the available resources. A bad set of practices may lead to vital resources walking away.

The task set and resources set are what the manager must work with. They are largely givens. If the manager chooses to bring everybody back to the office and this causes any number of resource (aka people) problems, the manager has created a problem that should not have happened. If the manager chooses to allow most or all of the workers to work remotely and finds that serious problems have arisen in collaboration, coordination, culture, training, and so on, the manager has created a different but also unnecessary problem set.

Does it matter which one a manager chooses? It sure does. The right choice is situation and task dependent. What works great for one situation and task set may be a complete disaster in another.

Matching tasks with resources effectively is the key to success

Since task and resources sets vary all over the place, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription here. The main requirement is to get an effective match for whatever situation you have. You will see immediately that this is indeed the tricky part.

One likely source of mismatch is a manager who does not, or cannot, change practices to match well with the current tasks and resources. This manager expects resources, aka workers, to change instead. Not a good move.

Another source of mismatch is a manager who focuses on minutiae like days-a-week in the office or frequent “check-in” calls. While these may be part of a decent solution, they may well be digressive and effectiveness-damaging (at best).

Or, you may have a situation that requires close, real-time activities coordination – something that can be done effectively only where workers are in close and constant proximity (aka, the office). Catering to a workforce that wants mostly remote work probably isn’t going to be effective here. Since you probably can’t change the task requirements, you may well have to begin changing (replacing) the workforce. Good luck with that today.

Somebody has to change: in most cases, the manager changes

There are usually many more workers than managers. If you have a workforce that strongly favors remote work but the manager is strongly in favor of back-to-the-office-for-all (BTTOFA), who wins? My bet is on the workers.

This situation gets really messy when the BTTOFA dictate comes from the top. Lower-level managers may be willing and able to accommodate a hybrid workplace but are not permitted to do so. Conflicts of this sort typically get resolved the hard way by the business failing or at least stumbling seriously. Some businesses seem to specialize in doing things the hard way.

The good news is that many managers today are trying very hard to make the necessary work and workplace changes. From my reading, there are quite a few very solid successes among these examples. This tells me that the required changes are both feasible and widely available if the manager is the right person.

Managing successfully through what appears to be an inevitable transition may well be a major career win for many strong managers. This is a huge transition that will challenge even the best. Winners will win big.

Arguments in favor of BTTOFA

Advantages in going back to the office for all seem to focus on what I see as “fuzzy stuff” – not unimportant but stuff that can be handled just as effectively in a hybrid workplace. Three examples:

1. Art Markman in a recent Harvard Business Review article “Why You May Actually Want to Go Back to the Office” identifies three important benefits:

  • Culture: People learn how to navigate a workplace’s culture by watching other people and how they interact – how work works. A great deal of essential learning takes place in face-to-face interactions.
  • Collaboration: Brief, informal interactions and conversations in the workplace result in much vital information sharing. Quick questions – much harder to do when interactions of any kind must be scheduled or handled as text exchanges. Zoom fatigue is real. Serendipitous exchanges are rare.
  • Purpose: Being around a group of people who are working toward a common mission reinforces that goal in everyone in the workplace. The phenomenon of goal contagion is a reflection that, when you observe the actions of other people, you often adopt their same goals.

2. Jackie Martin writing in Real Simple lists several mental benefits from in-office social interactions: “Why Returning to the Office Could Benefit Your Mental (and Professional) Well-Being”:

Social interactions foster happiness and empathy. Social interactions are crucial to grow our social brain and social skills.

  • There’s a new appreciation for work-life balance. Getting back into the office will give people a chance to change the monotonous or lonely at-home routine they’ve gotten used to.
  • You’ll get back into a healthy routine. Physically going back to work will help facilitate a healthy daily routine—getting up, going to work in a different setting, and coming home—that’s conducive to a more creative and active work-life balance.
  • There are opportunities for growth, confidence, and creativity. When we’re in a social space, we expose ourselves to all kinds of wonderful, important, and interesting possibilities.
  • There are clearer windows for career advancement. The office environment can give a new or restructured psychological perception about the life and career of the individual.
  • You gain inspiration and validation from coworkers. Spending so much time together, and sharing work goals and projects, your managers, team members, and other coworkers play a big role in reaffirming our sense of value, appreciating our work, and supporting us to grow professionally.

3. Tracy Brower writing in Forbes emphasizes belonging: “Missing Your People: Why Belonging Is So Important And How To Create It”:

  • “The pandemic has played havoc with our mental health, and a significant factor in our malaise is that we’re missing our people—terribly. We long for friends, family and colleagues. We are hardwired for connection, and with the need for social distancing and the reality of being away from the workplace—and everything else—for such a long period of time, we are struggling.”
  • “It’s all about our need for belonging—but belonging is more than what you might have thought. Understanding it can help contribute to our emotional wellbeing and it can pave the way toward a more fulfilling year ahead. Here’s what to know and how to create it.”
  • “Engagement and Social Identity. Belonging is, of course, that feeling of connectedness to a group or community. It’s the sense that you’re part of something. You feel attached, close and thoroughly accepted by your people. But belonging is more than just being part of a group. Belonging is also critically tied to social identity—a set of shared beliefs or ideals. To truly feel a sense of belonging, you must feel unity and a common sense of character with and among members of your group.”
  • A Fundamental Need. Belonging is a fundamental part of being human: We need people and this need is hardwired into our brains. A recent MIT study found we crave interactions in the same region of our brains where we crave food, and another study showed we experience social exclusion in the same region of our brain where we experience physical pain. Work at the University of British Columbia found when we experience ostracism at work, it can lead to job dissatisfaction and health problems. In a similar vein, a study at the University of Michigan found when people lack a sense of belonging, it is a strong predictor of depression. In fact, it is an even stronger predictor than feelings of loneliness or a lack of social support.”

Now you just know that all of these important things can only happen if everybody is huddled in their cubes or wandering the halls looking for respite or belonging. [Sorry].

Remote workers have problems too – like loneliness

While this post is concentrated on managing remote workers, it seems appropriate to take a quick look at what remote workers are facing. An empathy thing, I think they call it. Managers today have lots of empathy, so I read. Never met one of these but I’m sure they exist. You probably know a bunch.

Leaving snarks aside for the moment, it seems that remote workers have to be part of the overall change design and implementation. Some folks simply do not work well alone. They are people-people. This suggests that managing remote workers will involve shifting the lonely or belonging-deficient types to office positions. Or maybe sending them off to a new life.

Dealing with culture, collaboration, communication, belonging needs

Despite my comments, these four factors are usually very important no matter what the overall business workplace structure may be. If you have many remote workers, the mechanics for replacing office-bound versions with ones that accommodate remote-work realities must be carefully designed and implemented. Mistakes here can be costly and hard to fix.

You probably want to do this as part of a team that has both remote and office workers involved. But you knew that.

Culture, collaboration, communication, and belonging needs all seem to have personal interactions at their core. If personal interactions in-office are generally weak or discouraged for any reason, then CCC&B needs are going to suffer. If personal interactions between remote and office workers are weak, same result. Those that occur more or less naturally in an office must be specially facilitated and encouraged when distance intervenes.

Culture is a tough one in this respect since it depends heavily on regular face-to-face contacts. Zoom calls and texts don’t have a lot of culture content so far as I am aware. So, what to do? The best ideas that I could find involve regular gatherings of a team-building nature. Training, problem-solving, and ideas-sharing kinds of interactions. These typically need a strong leader present (not a boss).

Collaboration is somewhat the same but it can often be handled largely by communication tools. There are a zillion of these at last count. Trello, e.g..

Communication, although central to all of these, needs to be broadened into many channels. Zoom and texts alone won’t do the job. Coordination meetings, office-based, may help. From what I read, the key is “lots of”: Communication in as many ways as possible and as frequently as possible are needed so long as each interaction is of value. Phone and Zoom “check-ins” don’t qualify here in general.

Belonging? Well, as they say somewhere, “If you want a friend, get a dog”. Absent a friendly pooch, people who really need to “belong” should probably be steered to office jobs whenever possible. Some clever folks can surely improve on this real-but-difficult remote worker need since I am a dog person in this respect.

Challenges of remote work mechanics

Not sure where I ran across this list but it seems to capture the challenges:

“The question of how many days in office per week are best is the most obvious one to answer, but it isn’t the only question, and it may not even be the right one to answer first. There will likely be a bevy of questions to address: What work is better done in person than virtually, and vice versa? How will meetings work best? How can influence and experience be balanced between those who work on site and those who don’t? How can you avoid a two-tier system in which people working in the office are valued and rewarded more than are those working more from home? Should teams physically gather in a single place while tackling a project, and if so, how often? Can leadership communication to off-site workers be as effective as it is to workers in the office?”

Mechanics will obviously be different for each organization and workgroup. The big problem that I see in this is an obsessive focus on the mechanics. How many hours? Are you paying for hours or measurable output? What exactly is the remote job anyway? Have you defined it operationally?

Productivity and accountability

These are vitally important concepts but so easily lost in a myriad of rules and procedures. If I, a remote worker, have a particular task or output to do – which has to be clearly defined, does it matter if I do it in an hour, a day, or a week? If I am especially productive relative to my coworkers, why should it matter?

This gets into work design and productivity expectations. It helps to have a bunch of folks who can provide reference points for both jobs and outputs.

The first step is job or task definition. For folks like myself who have consulted extensively, this is a way of life. Goals, deliverables, timeframes. But most real people – both managers and workers – are not very familiar with this way of working. I recall projects that ended up requiring huge amounts of time and effort because no one knew upfront what would actually be involved, and other projects that I completed in hours instead of the workplan’s weeks. Nice when the compensation was deliverable-based.

Can you clearly define what each remote worker is supposed to produce? Can you actually track their output? If not, then you probably have a remote worker job design problem.

Accountability is a separate but also important aspect. What happens if the remote worker fails to deliver or delivers unacceptably late? Remote workers who cannot or will not accept responsibility for failures or delays are not effective remote workers. Assessing blame elsewhere doesn’t work in so many cases. You are simply accountable for getting the job done no matter what happens short of the world ending.

Managing remote workers is like managing freelancers and contractors

After way too much reading on this currently important subject, I have come out in favor of treating most remote workers as employed, in-house “freelancers” or “consultants”. You have to be able to define and measure their output. They have to be able to deliver whatever it is they do in a timely and competent manner, and to accept responsibility for fails and delays.

Is this practical in enough situations to make it workable?

Seems like it should be for, say, remote sales workers or customer service workers. It sure is for designers and developers of most flavors. Ditto creative folks like writers.

Perhaps the real answer in all of this is that you have to be able to treat the remote worker as a kind of freelancer or consultant. If you can’t, then the position or work may not be a practical one for remoting.

More on this in next post

Remote workers, whether virtual or hybrid (you know the difference, yes? … I didn’t), and whether employees or independents, have very specific and different management needs. With so many “employees” becoming partially or fully remote, this has become a serious challenge today for nearly every manager.

Bottom line:

Covid has changed the practice of managing hugely and permanently. The new “hybrid workers” – partially- or fully-remote, and often time-flexible – cannot be managed effectively using past practices. Most simply don’t work any longer. What does work is still being developed or evolved. Managers appear to be well behind in this transition. We looked here at some ideas for this new work world. Using the ability (or non-ability) to function as inhouse “freelancers” or “consultants” may offer a way to identify potentially effective remote work situations and workers.

Related Reading

The good news is that many executives and managers realize this challenge and are developing ways to adapt. AT&T CEO Jeff McElfresh put this situation very concisely:

“’The leadership component of big business is going to be stressed [by remote work] at a level that I don’t believe most executives appreciate,’ AT&T CEO Jeff McElfresh said in a 2021 interview with IBM.”

“It’s unclear to me that anyone has cracked the code on how to operate the distributed workforce model that COVID has accelerated us into. Not all leaders are comfortable managing in a distributed model.”

BHP CEO Mike Henry offers another take for his company:

“Global mining company BHP, founded in 1885, had already leaned into remote-work options for employees prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

“’We were a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of investment in flexible work infrastructure,’ BHP CEO Mike Henry told Insider in April 2021. ‘I suspect that what we’ll see is that even once offices are enabled to come back to 100%, we won’t see that happen. We’ll probably see occupancy moving back to somewhere between 40% and 60%. If that hypothesis is correct, then we’ll look at consolidating some office space and probably change some of the internal infrastructure.’”

CH Robinson CEO Bob Biesterfeld supports the growing idea of mostly-remote:

“CH Robinson, along with companies like XPO Logistics and FedEx, are among the third-party logistics providers occupying the most significant amount of industrial space and crowding out smaller companies.”

“Just 5% of transport provider CH Robinson’s workforce worked from home prior to the coronavirus pandemic. ‘Now we’re at 85% fully remote,’ CEO Bob Biesterfeld told Insider. ‘We’ve learned that whereas in the past we probably didn’t think we could, we’ve been able to maintain and even improve productivity across the organization.’”

Joe McKendick writing in Forbes offers an interesting picture of these changing times: “Business Leaders Are Changing Their Minds About Hybrid And Remote Work”:

“Among knowledge-worker-intensive companies, there’s a big question of whether work-from home/work-from anywhere arrangements will remain in place in the post-Covid era, or whether management will get too nervous and reel everyone back into their offices. A recent survey suggests executives have seen the light when it comes to supporting at least partial remote work arrangements.”

“So, hybrid work arrangements are getting the green light — for now. That’s the word from a survey of 1,500 executives released by Riverbed and Aternity, which shows that 97% are comfortable with at least some employees working hybrid for the long term. A majority, 83%, expect at least one-quarter of their workforces will be working longer term in a hybrid model. Last year at this time, only 30% of executives held this view.”

“Furthermore, 42% of these respondents from knowledge-worker-intensive organizations, say the majority of their workforces will be hybrid. Only 16% accepted this possibility a year ago.”

“The top five barriers to adopting a hybrid work model found in the Riverbed/Aternity survey include: employee motivation and well-being (35%) technology disruptions (32%), poor home/remote network performance (31%), collaboration and virtual relationship building (31%), and expanded security risks (31%).”

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index in March 2021 argued that the hybrid work trend is both major and here to stay: “The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?”:

“We’re on the brink of a disruption as great as last year’s sudden shift to remote work: the move to hybrid work — a blended model where some employees return to the workplace and others continue to work from home. We’re on the brink of a disruption as great as last year’s sudden shift to remote work: the move to hybrid work — a blended model where some employees return to the workplace and others continue to work from home. We’re experiencing this at Microsoft, and today we shared how we’re evolving our own hybrid work strategy for our 160,000+ employees around the world.”

“We’re all learning as we go, but we know two things for sure: flexible work is here to stay, and the talent landscape has fundamentally shifted. Remote work has created new job opportunities for some, offered more family time, and provided options for whether or when to commute. But there are also challenges ahead. Teams have become more siloed this year and digital exhaustion is a real and unsustainable threat.”

Major employment website Indeed.com had a brief take on the difference between remote and traditional work: “11 Tips to Effectively Manage Remote Employees”:

Failing To Differentiate Between Remote Work And Traditional Work. Several elements make remote work different from the traditional work structure. Thus, remote work requires different skills from those needed in the typical work arrangement. For instance, remote work calls for better time management, the ability to follow written procedures, and the knack to communicate using information and telecommunication technologies effectively.”

“Both the employees and the manager may not have remote work experience and assume that the rules that applied in the office can be taken as they are and transferred to the remote environment.”

“The differences between remote work and typical work imply that managers may need to start looking at how to hire employees effectively and how they onboard remote workers. If this is not taken into account, managers may find themselves with employees who would be great in the co-location environment, but struggle in a remote setting.”