For many companies, the main challenge of remote working is to set up the right working methods and collaborative uses at a distance. For the employees it is to find the appropriate routines for remote work to be implemented at home. But for the whole thing to work there is still something missing, a kind of shared vision of work so that everyone plays the same part.
Remote Work breaks bearings into pieces
The best way to ensure that something will be done, done right and on time, is to monitor how it is done and its progress. This is, in a way, the historic job of the foreman, which was transposed almost identically to the function of manager when the economy became tertiary.
It involves one and only one thing: a visual check of the person and, occasionally, the possibility of talking to him or her. What could initially be a healthy and effective support system to help the employee progress has become a simple control system whose primary purpose has been forgotten.
Over time more and more managers have stopped really caring about the “how” which only becomes a concern too late, i.e. when things go wrong. They’ve been content to check the “what” which has two aspects:
1°) The person works
2°) The work is done
Only then is one concerned with what has really been produced (quality, conformity with expectations, results obtained) and if necessary the “how” if the result does not satisfy (and still some do not even help their collaborators to correct their mistakes.)
To put it another way, one controls the means. Not even the means of the employee but those of the manager: one makes sure that a person who has to work works. Work on what? How do they do it? That comes later.
So of course this has led to certain deviances, so one that is culturally rooted in France is that of presenteeism. The important thing is to be there and above all to be seen in the process of doing something. It doesn’t matter what is being done. If we finished an important task at 5:45 pm and we don’t have time to start another one before 6 pm, we’ll stay until 6 pm anyway. And we ask the person who leaves on time, ironically, if they’ve taken the day off. In short, anything that looks like evidence of inefficiency and poor organization in other cultures is valued. In the meantime it has generated, depending on the period, excellent players in Minesweeper or Candy Crush.
But, remotely, it doesn’t work anymore.
Visual management no longer works remotely
But once one no longer sees one’s staff anymore, this beautiful system collapses. Without eyesight one cannot see if a person needs help by the expression on his or her face (and that’s a pity) and one can no longer permanently control what he or she is doing.
There are two possibilities:
1°) Increase control and pressure
Harassing the employee to constantly ask him from a distance what he is doing, where he is at. This poses three problems:
- The employee is constantly interrupted at work and loses concentration and productivity.
- The employee perceives a lack or absence of trust and becomes demotivated and disengaged.
- The employee feels harassed, stress increases.
- The manager wastes an incredible amount of energy, even if it means putting himself under stress or becoming exhausted on his own.
And all this for a result close to nothingness.
The COVID-19 episode also saw an explosion in the sale of tracking systems that make it possible to monitor whether the employee is in front of his screen, which windows are open, and even what he types and where he clicks. Some managers have even imposed to always leave the camera on and to be permanently connected to a virtual meeting room.
Usefulness? Zero there too.
But make no mistake about it: even before dealing with the result, the primary concern is whether the person is working or at least in front of the computer!
And moreover, why is it that distant working, distributed between several sites of the same company, has been accepted for a long time and not remote working? Because in the first case, if the manager does not directly supervise, he knows that someone else does.
2°) Changing one’s approach to management
A second approach is based on a simple observation: you can only control what is controllable. So let’s stop controlling the means and focus on the result. Or in other words, let’s use the energy and time of managers to do things that have an impact. After all, honking the horn has never helped solve a traffic jam.
This is nothing new, companies that have long since adopted remote working or that are effective with teams spread over several sites have understood that work is not a place or even a time but an attitude, a state of mind and in the end a result. Some of them have been doing this for more than 20 years.
So of course the manager does not become an inspector of finished works but the method changes.
- Clearly, explicitly set expectations
- Not constant monitoring, but regular, scheduled progress points if the employee needs them.
- Being available immediately if the employee asks for help or explanations. This is a complete reversal of the relationship.
- The only thing that matters is the final result. It does not matter where or when it was produced.
A real paradigm shift for the manager who must move from a “command & control” posture to something more like “lead & help”, also known as “servant leadership“. Traumatic for some managers…but not only for them.
The employee exploits visual management too
Indeed, however critical he may be of the management, the employee often uses to his advantage the excesses of the manager he criticizes. Most often unconsciously, because he is only playing with the rules of a game that has been imposed on him.
He will have to learn to be judged primarily on his performance. “But I’ve spent a lot of time there” was an argument that worked before, or even that he didn’t even need to use because his manager saw it. And generally speaking, people confused effort with time spent.
In remote working it doesn’t work anymore. The only thing that matters is: “Did you do what you were told to do on time (which also applies to milestones) and “Did you ask for help when you saw that you couldn’t do it without waiting for the next meeting?
This system highlights the result obtained and the good management of the time needed to achieve it.
Remote working therefore requires a culture of results, but not only, as is often heard, only on the manager’s side. The employee also has to adapt and it is no easier.
But make no mistake: it is not remote working that makes this change in managerial culture necessary. As in many areas it only highlights dysfunctional practices that could still work in the office but do not survive the crash test of distance. This result orientation is fortunately the norm in many cultures and companies. Remote working will simply force those who were unable to challenge themselves to move on.
The only good practice in visual management that’s going to disappear
In fact, and we often forget it, “visual management” has one and only one good side: it’s when one does “management by wandering around“. This is the only case where being able to watch others work brings real value insofar as it is used in a quality perspective to improve things and not to punish. Given the few managers who practice it, the loss won’t be huge and that’s a real shame.
But the question of doing “MBWA” remotely is a real issue for anyone who really wants to understand how the company really works, how its teams work and how to improve things. It will be necessary to pick up other signals (as long as they are allowed to manifest themselves), on other channels (the enterprise social network?). This is a real lack and a real problem.