Flexible work updates
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There is never a good time to launch an anonymous public assault on the people who work for you. Still, some kind of price for bad timing should go to the faceless UK ministers and officials who complained about the performance of remote officials in the late stages of an exhausting pandemic.
“There must be a suspicion that some people have worked from home for the past 15 months but haven’t done much,” a cabinet secretary told the Times last week. “It’s hard to say who deserves a promotion when people are working remotely,” added another source.
Such comments, part of a clumsy attempt to force and persuade employees into their offices, say less about the workers and much more about their bosses. If after 15 months you only “suspect” what your people are up to and it is “hard to see” who your top performers are, you are guilty of neglect at best, and mismanagement at worst.
The concern is that if you manage people this way, you probably did it before the pandemic and will continue to do so after it, whether or not your employees return to the office.
Carly Moulton of Zapier, a workflow automation company whose employees work entirely remotely, said before a panel discussion at the latest annual meeting of the Academy of Management: doesn’t work from everywhere. . . ‘Most of the time, they’re wrong. It’s not remote working that is the problem. The management is missing something. . . from the culture that made remote work unsuccessful. “
Fortunately, managers have the option to sit back and relax. Finance directors sometimes have a zero-based budgeting policy and each year seek new justifications for funding each department. Executives should practice zero-based management. Are you wondering if you had to start from scratch, would you run your team or company this way?
Phil Libin, former CEO of Evernote, now runs All Turtles, a product studio that has taken over distributed working. He told me that large companies trying to bring knowledge workers back into the office are “delusional”. There is no point in believing that making your employees commute is a great way to instill loyalty and creativity.
However, this is not a column about the vices or virtues of being able to work from anywhere. You don’t have to be an evangelist like Libin or Moulton to understand that management techniques that help hybrid or remote work run smoothly are the same ones managers should have used in the office.
Distributed work is nothing new in and of itself. As a foreign editor at FT, my first experience in management, I once headed an editorial team. But I also had to monitor, speak to and reassure hundreds of correspondents around the world. Having worked overseas myself, I see the same mixed feelings among today’s Anywhere workers: appreciation for the convenience and productivity of flexible work and paranoia about how that work is perceived.
Then as now, trust is based on proper training, occasional personal discussions, regular performance reviews and clear guidelines. GitLab, another remote workgroup, has an extensive online manual that sets out rules for distributed work. The Advanced Workplace Institute, an information exchange body for companies, prefers to speak of “collaboration agreements”.
The truth is personal, office work has always been the subject of such agreements. The problem is, they were mostly silent and sometimes toxic. “In the old model, the person hanging in front of the boss’s door might have been preferred,” says Ann Francke, director of the Chartered Management Institute, a professional organization for managers. Perhaps another unspoken agreement dictated that employees who matched their manager’s hours worked the hardest, or that the loudest colleagues were the most valuable.
Zero-based management means rethinking all of this, including those encounters that are believed to be better face-to-face. For example, Libin asks, “Why do you think the best way to get a mentor for a young person starting their career is from their creepy boss in the office?”
It’s easy for managers to take a pink look at how great they have been at leading teams in person. But, by definition, knowledge workers’ accomplishments and emotions are rarely displayed. It is therefore the duty of managers to apply the communication habits, clarity and compassion that they have learned under lockdown to all future agreements. You should think twice before blaming the location of your team for mistakes, the cause of which is often much closer to home.