Remote Workforce Management

posted Feb 19, 2015, 12:14 AM by Desmond Seeley

by Jan Grobler, February  2015

 

Introduction

Most managers dread the thought of managing a virtualised workforce out of fear of losing the ability to track employee progress. Thanks to improved technologies and the higher price of transport, working remotely has become increasingly popular as is evident in the white and blue collar domains, providing less expensive options for both large and small work    forces.

This does not mean that the managers solved the progress tracking issue. Having teams or individuals roaming or on their own, representing you or your organisation in the work they are executing are and have always  been riddled with uncertainties.  Uncertainties that are  not easily resolved.

 

What is a Remote Workforce

So let’s start at the beginning and look at what we call those lonely warriors that are out there in the wild, representing us by doing work on our behalf, or doing their work but not in the office with the rest of the team. Most publications use words such as remote workers, telecommuters, work­shifters, distributed teams, flextime, flexiplace, career sabbaticals, zero­hours contract and flexible  work.

There is a tendency to use these terms interchangeably, though there are certainly subtle distinctions between them. However, the real interest and focus is on managing the tasks executed in remote locations ­ at some distance from the manager or the person responsible for controlling the process. What matters is the distance between  the  manager  and executioner of the task or process, not the label put on the job   category.

In essence there are two categories which are effectively the base reasons for work done remotely. The most recently developed category is where work that could have been done in the office, is done remotely. Various reasons for this development exist and included in this list are costs, travel and time, both to and from the place of work. This is impacted by the distribution in location of clients or prospects. Technology made this category possible in the forms of mobile computing and  telecommunications.

The second category however is the original reason for remote work ­ the location where the work needs to be executed. This mean someone needs to go to a specific geographical location in order to execute a specific  task.

It is important to note that to a large degree, the two categories have the same effects on the organisation, but, the reasons or objectives of the two categories   differ.


Issues with remote work

Many information  systems don’t have the capability to support remote workers at the outset  of a remote workforce roll­out. Addressing the uncertainties are not all obvious at  first, but includes:

      Are the team at the right location,

      Are they doing the right job/task,

      Are they scheduled to do the job at this stage,

      Did they start on time,

      Did they complete the job,

      Did they finish on time,

      Do they know where to go next,

      Do they know what to do next,

      Are we using the right person/team for the job,

      Are they efficient in their execution,

      Do they need assistance/resources, and

      Do they need to compile proof of execution and when is the proof available.

 

Practices

Critical practices for successful Remote Workforce Management   includes:

Going paperless ­ Committing to digital information flow and storage is the single most important thing you can do to enable efficient distributed work. People can be much more mobile when they don’t have to access paper documents that are by definition stored in only one location. The real magic of centrally stored digital information is that once it’s online it can be accessed and processed from almost anywhere. Most organisations already have formal document retention policies; they just need to learn to use   them.

Carrying the tools you need with you ­ One government agency we studied no longer has any desktop computers. Everything is portable, although all laptops have physical security devices and are assigned to individual employees. That makes it really, really simple for staff to pick up and go. This degree of technology mobility increases the likelihood that people will work wherever they are ­ because they  can.

Making time to practice new tools such as job­specific software applications ­ Give employees time to learn how to use new collaborative technologies well before they are expected to integrate them into their work style. We are talking about much more than a simple orientation to a new version of a program. Give the new tool to the team and let them play with it in offline mode before they are explicitly responsible for getting the job done with it.

Being contactable (i.e., published times when people are available) ­ When people work in a single central location everyone assumes that if they can see you, you are available to talk. When you are remote you should advertise your availability and set aside specific blocks  of time for calls and other real­time collaborative activities. One manager called these times his open­door hours.

Develop personal discipline, including knowing when to unplug ­ Gil Gordon (one of the thought leaders we interviewed) is famous for promoting the value of getting offline. In his view, many employees become overly connected and can’t separate work from the rest of


their lives. There is a psychological risk in being away from the direct supervision that helps people know when they are at work and when they’re not;  burnout can become  endemic among remote workers unless they learn how to   disconnect.

 

Remote Management

Primary attributes of effective remote  management:

Establishing clear expectations/goals ­ Set the goals early, put them in writing, and re­visit them on a periodic basis.

Knowing your employees ­ Optimise their individual skills and styles; get the right person for the right job at the right time in the right  place.

Establishing explicit Big Rules ­ Define acceptable etiquette, protocols, expectations of team members, norms, and values. Do not assume everyone will understand how things get done around here. Be explicit. For example, in one ad agency we know, managers actually assign someone to shadow new workers in order to help them learn the not­so­visible rules of the road.

However, as trite  as  it  may sound, the most critical skill in a distributed work environment  is the ability to establish trust (which in many ways translates into, or is equivalent to, employee engagement).

 

Technology

Utilising the right technologies to support a remote workforce is of utmost importance. No remote worker or team can operate in isolation. Fostering a remote workforce means not only hiring the right people, but also supporting them with the technologies that enable them to collaborate effectively. Working remotely do not foster esprit de corps with colleagues from the same organisation and surely do not allow for easy exchange of experiences  and knowledge sharing. This can be augmented through the use of technologies, depending on communication capabilities of devices and systems   utilised.

Comments