In the recent Corona Virus lockdown, work-from-home(WFH) has become a global trend. While jobs like a bank-teller can only be done at the workplace many others can be done remotely. In the last 10 years, the convergence of a set of technologies has made WFH practical at a large scale. The set of technologies are: low cost high speed internet, cloud/virtualised office IT infrastructure and easy availability/adoption of collaboration tools including voice/video conferencing.
While WFH became technically feasible, it didn’t take off on a large scale because it involves overcoming a cultural mindset, i.e. “...things happen only when co-located people work under direct supervision..”. The corona virus lock-down forced organisations to cross this barrier.
While there are, several articles covering nitty gritty of making WFH successful, the kind of management culture a company practices makes a big difference. Some of the office dynamics followed by traditional organisations are:
Managers like to track the work hours of team members more than their deliverables. Team members tend to stay in office if their managers are around. The monitoring is more physical in nature rather than quality of output, speed, etc. This style of management leads to a breakdown in areas like trust and accountability. It also creates a socialistic environment in which intellect, speed and work efficiency isn’t given due credit.
Accountability is managed weakly in many organisations. Managers prefer to keep a lot of things to their themselves and consider it a sign of weakness to delegate ownership responsibility. This often results in delayed project completion and uncertain quality.
Office communication isn’t handled well. Some examples of poor communication are project members don’t have the bigger picture on objectives and know only the bits around their tasks, feedback sessions on work quality aren’t held regularly and bad news like bonus delays aren’t informed and discussed.
Interdependence in teams is required in most operational matters or in project deliveries. Adequate effort isn’t put to get teams to interact in informal settings that could release tension when project complexities arise.
While the above factors negatively affect office culture in normal times, during WFH these issues can severely impair productivity. The productivity loss will be wrongly attributed to Corona virus instead of innate issues that could have been addressed.
Listing a few management principles that are foundational and universal. In the earlier non-WFH scenario companies may have ignored this, but can’t afford to do it any longer.
Every individual is a leader
This means that every employee from the new hire college graduate to senior team members are responsible / accountable for tasks/work assigned to them and know how it fits in the organisation. While this may sound obvious organisations don’t empower or train employees to work independently. They maintain an unnecessary supervisory layer, and such supervision is harder to do in a WFH setup.
Trust based system
Many organisation policies and processes assume a lack of trust in employees. There are controls to monitor work hours, complicated approval processes, etc. Lack of trust slows things, introduces inefficiency, and adds an unnecessary cost. In WFH enforcing non-trust based processes is difficult and would need a separate department to manage it. There are new software tools to monitor people’s computer activity at home. Using such tools reflects poorly on the organisation.
A flat organisation makes it easier for every employee to work cohesively towards common organisation goals. A hierarchical setup gives a false feeling of control, and makes team members overtly dependant on others to take everyday decisions. This slows work, erodes employee competency, and creates redundant supervisory layers. In the WFH scenario these issues magnify and hurt organisations.
Communication: Putting in extra effort to ensure all forms of organisation and project communication is done regularly without fail is a key aspect of a healthy organisation. A bad news for office staff, isn’t half as bad notionally if the managers and leaders put in time and effort to convey it with empathy, maturity and ahead of time. Poor communication is a big reason for the office grape vine and gossip. This poor communication leads to a simmering unhealthy office management-staff relationship and with staff members WFH there won’t be visible warnings to take action in time. Such issues result in lower work productivity, attrition, and heart burn of staff members.
Work planning is essential
Estimating and distributing work among team members requires significant time and effort. Often managers are worried about team members appearing to be free or not being adequately loaded with work. The key reason for people being free without adequate work is because managers aren’t putting sufficient effort on planning and balancing tasks evenly across team members. Managers don’t have a daily routine or discipline of tracking the completion status of work tasks and if needed take steps to alter plans and update stakeholders. Good work planning involves creating measurable tasks/sub-tasks, and ensuring the team members understand what needs to be accomplished and the priority. A work outcome based approach to monitor instead of work-hours is better and fits well in WFH situations. Outcome based approach account for interdependencies and minor course corrections that makes meeting milestone deadlines more predictable.
Promote a networking mesh type culture
Office work is highly interdependent. Teams knowing each other and speaking to one-another can break down silos and make things move faster. Organisations typically like to funnel communication through nodal points/persons. This could appear to be structured but it’s bureaucratic, slow and results in staff members taking less ownership (blaming delays or issues on other teams). In a total WFH the workforce is distributed and a direct communication (with team members) approach is essential. Funnelling communication will slow down work.
After this lockdown one can expect several articles and research on WFH on factors like productivity, team dynamics, office infra savings, etc. But any such analysis is bound to be flawed without organisations putting an effort to introspect and fixing their work culture. The basic management principles explained above are essential for any healthy organisation to adapt and be prepared in these uncertain times.