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Leadership Observations

Remote working – Organisational Structure and Productivity

By June 22, 2021No Comments

remote working and being productive

The whole business world is in a state of flux when it comes to remote working, some want to return to how the office was pre-pandemic, others want to maximise the opportunity of removing dead wood and utilising the massive savings of having a (semi) remote (and flexible) workforce. But it’s not the same for employees who having tasted remote working want a better work/life balance and to mix it up a bit. Let me say this upfront it’s not about one or the other it’s about hybrid working. If staff want to work in an office 5 days or work remotely a few days a week, allow them to do so, whatever mentally works best for the employee not just the organisation.

So how does a business approach the whole return to work subject and maximise the opportunities in front of them?

Jeff Bezos said

“In today’s era of volatility, there is no other way but to re-invent. The only sustainable advantage you can have over others is agility, that’s it. Because nothing else is sustainable, everything else you create, somebody else will replicate”.

For some employees it’s been nearly Fifteen months since they went back into an office. For many the initial few months were a period of mayhem; learning new technology, juggling family (never work with children and animals) and work, joining video meetings – most of which were no more than ‘checking-in’ sessions, psychologically trying to ‘feel the room’ in Zoom sessions (almost impossible), and trying to understand how you were going to cope.
Fifteen months is a long time, habits and familiarity around the new way of working set in and much like how the smart phone passed control to the consumer, the pandemic has passed control to the employee, with some quitting their current employer and finding organisations that allow more flexibility and remote working.

There are pros and cons for both employee and organisation, but the clear thing is there’s no going back to the old ways of the office. The world of work itself is changing and the black swan pandemic event just accelerated the new world we’ll all soon be living in, automated, robotised, remote, diverse, agile and FAST.

In terms of pros and cons consider the following;

Employees

  • For those that work and live in the same small space that’s mentally very challenging. 19% of remote employees report loneliness as their biggest challenge. [State of Remote Work 2020]
  • 41%of employees who responded to a McKinsey consumer survey in May said they were more productive working remotely than in the office [The future of remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and 9 countries [McKinsey]
  • 25% to 30% of the workforce will be working from home by the end of 2021 [Global Workplace Analytics]
  • The average person can save about $4,000 per year by working remotely. [6 Ways Working from Home Will Save You $4,000 or More Annually [FlexJobs]
  • 97% of people say that having a more flexible job would have a “huge” or “positive” impact on their quality of life [Mental Health America]

Organisations

  • 74% of CFOs and Finance Leaders say that they will move at least 5% of their employees to remote working permanently after the pandemic. [Shifting Some Employees to Remote Work Permanently [Gartner]
  • 25% of respondent companies will move 10% of their employees to permanent remote positions post-COVID 19 (Statista)
  • U.S. companies that allow remote working have a 25% lower employee turnover rate [Owl Labs]
  • It costs employers 33% of a worker’s salary when someone leaves [Avoidable turnover costing employers big [Employee Benefit News]
  • Before the pandemic, employers [saved an average] of $11,000 per half-time remote employee. Extrapolate that to a full year and every remote worker is reducing company costs by $22,000 [In Defense Of Remote Work]
  • Rather than spending $18,000 per worker per year on office space they can provide the best remote setup on the planet for $2,000 per worker per year [Firstbase]
  • Carbon footprint reduction. 40% of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions come from buildings [Environmental and Energy Study Institute].

Maybe it’s time to re-think organisational structures and productivity in light of hybrid remote working.

Since 2004 there’s been talk about developing organisations as dual operating systems, one part looking at business as usual and one part looking at new opportunities (innovation hubs, corporate start-ups). We’ve written about smaller teams and organizational structures previously so not going to go in depth here.

From a team perspective developers need quiet spaces to code efficiently and work really well remotely (Buffer, BaseCamp et al). Creative teams need a mix of thinking time and highly engaging time to fertilise lateral thinking. Marketing and brand teams are much like creative. Finance teams can be remote just look at the more recent changes in the finance sector. *JPMorgan already has a plan for its 60,950 employees to work from home one or two weeks a month or two days a week, depending on the line of business. [McKinsey]

Hub and spoke models work really well as a framework for remote working. A business has a centralized small main office (hub) with more localized satellite offices (spokes) adding further mini spokes with home working [MIT Sloan]. The key is to ensure there’s good comms at the spoke and not all at the hub. It’s a bit like when you open in a new office in a new country, the person driving the new office can feel isolated. This then becomes more about leadership, communicating and facilitating.

Leadership

The skills and traits of successful leaders in an office-based environment differ from those needed to lead distributed remote teams.
Instead of valuing bravado, remote teams value leaders who are highly organised, delegate and facilitate connections between colleagues.
A lot more gets delegated to those closest to the action, that’s not unlike in battle where decisions have to be made ‘on-the-fly’ and not reported back through a lengthy chain of command for a decision.
Michael Hyatt outlined 5 Imperatives of Delegation of which the fourth imperative: Give these leaders responsibility and authority [skip to 10:30].
This allows a leader to be clear about how much authority is delegated:

  • Level 1: Do exactly what I have asked you to do.
  • Level 2: Research the topic and report back.
  • Level 3: Research the topic, outline the options and make a recommendation.
  • Level 4: Make a decision and then tell me what you did.
  • Level 5: Make whatever decision you think is best.

Think about this and how it applies to remote managers and teams vs ‘in-office’ managers and teams. Effectively you’re giving a lot more responsibility which provides that individual with a lot more satisfaction and ‘buy-in’ on what gets delivered.

In Chapter 13 of our book *Building the Agile Business* we said…

When an organization needs to move quickly, it is tempting for leaders to jump in and attempt to give teams what they believe to be the answers to particular challenges in front of them. An outdated style of leadership believes that all the answers exist at the top of the organization and flow down. Yet in fast-changing, complex, adaptive environments, the focus needs to fundamentally shift to seeing challenges as learning opportunities. So humility, and admitting when you don’t know something, as a leader, is actually a strength, not a weakness.”

And then there’s the whole subject of Individual vs Team and Being present (‘in-office’ command and control) vs Being productive.
KPIs alone no longer cut-it in the world of fast-changing, complex, adaptive environments. OKRs [What Matters] and MIT’s FAST [MIT] methodology provide a better way of assessing how an organisation’s people are making progress.

remote working and being productive

Because OKRs and FAST methodologies are based on meeting objectives (output) they’re more suited to supporting remote working where check-ins on progress ensure alignment, in a similar way to stand-ups but less frequently.

In Chapter 14 of *Building the Agile Business* we stated as a blueprint for flexibility

“Overly restrictive procedures and micromanagement kills and chance of creating a culture of ownership and responsibility.”

In a recent Linkedin post Dr Richard Clayden Chief Cognitive Officer @ EQ Lab said

“The future of work is not about place. Where you work is going to matter less and less…It is about how to work, not where you work.”

Three of his points in that post align to the work of others;

  • How do we ensure that all teams reach their full potential in the quickest possible time?
  • How do we identify which team practices are effective, and scale them across other contextually similar teams in the organisation?
  • How do we close down failing projects before they cost us significant money, and throw more resources at projects that show all the signs of being successful?

I think there’s another which is, Flex and Stretch – how teams expand and contract depending on the nature of the projects they’re working on. Complexity and the required skills will mean you don’t have all the skills in house (too costly) so hiring in and out will become a core skill (HR)…then you hit the war for talent (not enough to go around) and the importance of your organisational culture comes back into play.

Some of this has been suggested previously by John Hagel Learning and Strategy and Narratives to Drive Exponential Learning, along with the work of Josh Bersin – My Ten Principles Of Leadership  and The Calm Before The Storm: How The Pandemic Recovery Will Change Business.

Additionally maybe there’s a 4Ps methodology for remote working, after all these seem to be the four key considerations for remote working:
Place – Where and when you work
People – The skills diversity and adaptability of the people you hire, trust and their adaptive learning
Productivity – Output over being present and how that gets measured, recognised and rewarded
Performance – Leadership and team – Ability to communicate, connect, share and grow

We’ve already covered People (individual vs team) and Productivity (being present vs being productive). So what of Place (remote vs in-office’) and Performance (Leading vs Managing).

leading and remote working

Place
Does where you work really matter that much?
There’s been a lot of discussion about the potential lack of water-cooler moments and the spark that’s missing from face to face interaction.
For some remote working works better for them especially those that have ore space to work from,, but for younger generations it can be really tough living and working in the same space 24/7.
There are businesses that thrive on remote workforces, mostly these are technology companies [Remotive.io] with a few having written at length about it, Buffer’s Everything We Know About Remote Work and Basecamp’s REMOTE: Office Not Required
What is clear is that we need a hybrid model that draws talent from remote pool of workers as well as offering the ability to work in-office for those that need to.

Performance
Performance as leaders and facilitators rather than managers.
Start-ups and especially entrepreneurs are really good at leading and delegating, they have to, they have little choice at least in the early days of finding product market fit.
Performance and leadership go hand-in-hand. So the final consideration is the impact of hybrid working (remote working) on an organisations culture.
So if you’re a leader it’s worth also understanding a bit more about agile organisational cultures and what drives them.
In early 2019 we did some research into *Agile Culture* [Medium] How to make culture work and the four key elements of an agile organisational culture.
What surfaced as the four main areas of consideration were;
1. Recognition – recognising good or hard/smart work. One in five claim that there are never any personal development reviews inside their organization…and strongly disagree that there is a system of recognition. This is much harder with remote working since most of what gets done doesn’t surface regularly. Finding ways to recognise employees and contractors needs to be built into regular updates.
2. Communication – Organizational purpose, clarity of expectations and alignment of people. One in five companies claim that the organization’s values are not visible…and a similar number claim that the relationship between their role and the purpose of the organization is not clear. Pretty obvious that bad communication in remote working scenarios just results in slower progress and increased stress.
3. Trust – Trust in other people/ Organization. Trust is more likely to be associated with fellow colleagues rather than senior management. This has to improve as the workforce becomes more remote.
4. Learning – Investment in training. In controlling cultures there’s less investment in skills. This is another key area of consideration of remote or hybrid workers. An organisation needs to provide better learning provision outside of the day-to-day micro and macro learning.

Ultimately nobody likes change. But we’re at a cross-roads and it’s time to really think about what’s coming our way. If you think the pandemic was tough, automation, robotics, machine learning, IoT and super network marketplaces will drastically change the way we work, that includes how we’re structured, who we employ, from where, and how we get work done.

For more Observations and thought-leadership like this check out the book I co-wrote with @NeilPerkin *Building the Agile Business through Digital Transformation* published by Kogan Page.

 

Image source: Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

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