How To Manage Employees In A Work-From-Home Distributed Environment

The COVID-19 crisis, which sent most white-collar workers to work from home, changed the way people work. Over the past few months, it proved viable and even advantageous in many respects. We now face a permanent shift in how work is performed. It will be in a far more distributed environment than we ever anticipated. Therefore, we now we must deal with management and operational constraints at the company and the personal level so we can ensure the desired organizational performance.

How long will work from home continue?

Before the COVID-19 crisis, companies experimented with the WFH model, ran into constraints and then pulled back. It was like the tide coming in. A wave would come in and then go out, only allowing enabling a slow adoption over time for WFH. But COVID-19 brought the tide all the way in and kept it from going out.

Now in early November, most companies conclude that the distributed environment and WFH model will continue for a protracted period. We all moved from unrealistic hopes of getting back to the office within two or three months, or by US Election Day, or the end of the year and even by March of 2021.

Right now, many of the companies with which Everest Group is speaking are telling their employees that they will not be back to work in their offices in a similar form to when they left until June or July of 2021. (And some of the medical scientists predict it will be even later.) Their reasoning is that it is uncertain when a vaccine will be approved and then prove its efficacy for protecting people. Plus, there is uncertainty around how many months it will take to inoculate everyone in a triage fashion of treating the most vulnerable people first.

As I blogged previously, the WFH model proved advantageous in several respects. So, even after early next summer, most companies now anticipate that they will maintain a larger workforce in the WFH model than they did before the pandemic. Even after the return to the office is possible, many companies will continue a distributed environment with much more work delivered from home. 

I hear from CEOs and other senior executives in many companies say they are worried about a degradation of innovation and collaboration, which happens because people are separated from our colleagues. Yet, they plan to maintain a distributed environment at least until June 2021 and maybe even after that.

Additionally, although productivity went up (at least more work got done) as employees worked from home at the beginning of the shutdown forced by COVID-19, companies found the increased productivity was a bit of a false positive. People were spending more time on tasks, but the productivity was lacking.

Clearly, companies must evolve their underlying management techniques for a WFH distributed environment.

What are the problems in managing a WFH environment?

Management issues in the beginning focused on deploying technology and equipment in houses and how people could create a secure personal workspace at home and develop personal disciplines for operating productively. At this point, these are no longer issues for most firms.

Undoubtedly, there is more to do on the privacy issues, but companies demonstrated that the WFH model works. It will continue to evolve as we learn more and new technologies come into the picture. But it is adequate for now.

However, there is a huge operational problem in this environment: Managers no longer can walk around and personally observe employees working. Sure, they can schedule a call on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or another video-call platform. But they lack the observational capabilities they had in the office.

Most management best practices are based on an office environment. The ability to monitor, coach, or manage employees and associates is at least somewhat grounded in the ability to meet them, observe them, talk with them in formal and informal situations, and provide guidance, mentoring and instruction based on those observations. In a distributed environment, a significant amount of work occurs away from observation.

Poor morale and lack of trust. Some companies have gone down the path of trying to replace the observational capabilities with a desktop system monitor that allows them to observe what employees do on a computer. But no one wants to be monitored with their boss seeing every action they take on a computer. It also raises substantial privacy concerns because people often use those computers for both personal and work.

Software observational tools put most organizations in a place where they do not want to be. This is not to say that, in some limited situations, such tools are not appropriate. But in most instances, it can create poor morale and create an environment in which employees feel their boss does not trust them.

Alternative approach for managing WFH distributed environments

We at Everest Group investigated the challenges of the new work environment and believe that there is an alternative management approach that substitutes the need for casual observation of employees working.  

First, break the function of work into teams. Each team should determine what “good” performance is for the team. The team then should develop a set of metrics that measure the results of the team’s output, not their activities.

The team-developed metrics must be objective and based on results. Exhaustive metrics are not necessary. The temptation is to come up with a huge laundry list of what is “good.” The team should just select three or four factors that are at the center of excellent performance.

As the manager, you must trust a team to improve their results. Avoid monitoring and giving advice around activities. Encourage the team to work in a collaborative manner, helping each other to improve, and viewing team success as personal success.

Then break down work activities into initiatives that the team can accomplish ideally within a month. Review with the team every month the progress they make toward performance improvement. Support the team as they execute initiatives to improve and as they ask for resources (including training) or suggest different approaches. This tells your team that you trust them to focus on actions that will make a difference.

In addition to continuing work on their assigned tasks, at least every month, ask them to develop and undertake at least one new initiative to improve their performance as a team. They may come up with ideas for initiatives that management thinks are not the most important. But you will benefit by trusting the teams to undertake initiatives that they believe are important.

Over time, you can feather in top-down leadership initiatives; but even then, you need to allow the teams to take ownership of their results. You also must support them with resources to execute the initiatives. Resources should also include research that helps the teams understand the types of activities that help them improve performance.

The new management approach I described changes the dynamics and creates a workable, long-term process for organizational productivity. You will be amazed at how fast the teams improve their performance and how collaboratively they act as they move into natural team building and team dynamics to close performance gaps. Return on investment from using this approach potentially will include teams outperforming how they worked in the office.

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