The future of work and the workplace itself is indeed changing.
State of the American Workplace, a report released by performance management consulting company Gallup, shows that up to 43% of US employees spend at least some of their time outside of the office. And the trend is growing.
In South Africa many large companies are catching on, creating so-called “hot desks”, and allowing people to work from home or a third space and “visiting” the office from time to time – or not at all.
Obviously not all work is suitable for remote working, but industries like construction, professional services, the hospitality industry and even healthcare workers hardly ever spend time glued to a desk in an office.
Graeme Codrington, futurist at TomorrowToday Global, says there is sufficient research “which shows decisively that productivity improves when people are given more flexibility to work from home or a third space”.
He is always baffled by companies who have the potential for flexibility in workspaces and places, but who then still keep their employees bound to an office.
The critical part of managing a remote workforce is communication and the creation of an “electronic water cooler” environment where people still get the “office vibe”, according to Codrington.
Mechanisms and communication channels should be set up where remote teams or individual workers can make small talk with the manager, or exchange ideas about the tasks at hand.
Codrington says companies with offsite employees use a combination of technologies such as WhatsApp groups, or apps such as Slack – a cloud-based set of tools and services for teams – to communicate.
Gallup consultants Adam Hickman and Junko Sasaki note in an article, drawing from the Gallup workplace report, that managers have to assume an active role in connecting with employees to ensure that remote workers stay engaged.
“Managers must be more deliberate about when and how they communicate with remote employees,” say Hickman and Sasaki.
These check-in’s need not be lengthy, but they must be constant – with phone calls, email, messages or videoconferencing.
“Meaningful communication can help establish an environment of trust and accountability, while still giving remote employees a sense of independence.”
Bob Drainville, president and founder of TimeSheet Mobile, says managers with remote work teams should set up monthly meetings to discuss the latest accomplishments and milestones.
Quick response and feedback
Working remotely requires the employee to be more pro-active about what they need and when they need it.
Managers need to be responsive to requests for assistance or guidance, says Codrington.
Remote workers tend to move quickly from one task to another, so immediate feedback is important.
There has to be some form of “rapid prototyping” where it is possible to change and move on when something is not working.
Remote workers who do not receive feedback, or receive it too late, might become frustrated, feel alienated, and could even become disengaged when a workplace culture of quick responses and feedback is lacking.
Needs and tools
Managers have to understand what their workers need when working remotely and should enable them to access it comfortably.
People who are working from a home office should ensure they have sufficient bandwidth, data and the right technology, for example. (There is a reason why people say your true self emerges with slow internet speed.)
Codrington says checking in regularly to report on progress, or lack of it, is critical.
This should not only mean checking in professionally, but also personally.
Let the boss know when you are struggling with a task, but also let them know when you are celebrating a personal achievement or when your kids are performing well.
Red flags rising
People seldom realise the potential distractions when working from home or from a third space, affecting normally productive people’s ability to stay focused.
It can also become extremely lonely at times and people who are not ready for this may find it difficult to adapt.
Codrington says managers should be aware that not everyone’s personality, character or even skillset is suitable for working remotely or off-site.
“Your instinct might tell you that introverts would be better working from home because they do not need the energy supplement that they get from working with other people.”
People who are self-starters by nature, self-disciplined and self-motivated would be more suitable to work away from the office.
Codrington says a sure sign that people are getting lost or need some guidance is when they are not communicating. They no longer check in with the team, they are not delivering on time, or they are constantly expressing frustration.
One thing that managers should really not consider is surprise visits to their offsite workers. It’s just weird, says Codrington. Either you trust them, or you don’t.
Manage the flags
“We cannot expect everyone to be good at it. We need to allow people to come back to the office if it does not work for them.”
Codrington says it may be necessary to get the team together for a few “core hours” per week or per month.
It is necessary that they not only come in to do their normal work, but that they have face-to-face meetings with the manager about what will make their remote working experience better.
Drainville says it is necessary to set individual goals that are easy to understand, achieve and measure. Managers will do well by getting to know their remote workers’ personal growth goals and to help them achieve it.