Remote Work & Digital Transformation: Asking the Right Questions

A recent article by Adam Heitzman on the Inc Magazine website, Inc.com, explored the good and the bad of remote work and asked if the pros really outweigh the cons. While I thought Heitzman covered the key challenges of remote work very well, I’d like to take the opportunity to reframe his negative points as questions that might help change the paradigm by which you explore how to both improve your team collaboration capabilities and take advantage of remote-work capabilities. I believe every business leader must do a reality check—and ask themselves key questions—in order to stay competitive and digitally evolve regardless of whether you’re considering or further exploring remote work.

As with everything in life, remote work does, in fact, have both advantages and challenges. Note that I didn’t use the word “disadvantages.” I don’t consider the challenges associated with remote work to be “disadvantages” any more than I would the challenges of traditional office setups. Any time organizations explore how to optimize human behavior and output, leaders must come face to face with human nature. Part of being a leader or manager is learning to inspire teams and provide the digital tools to execute successfully in order to achieve measurable results. This is true whether your team is sitting in the same physical location or not.

The Reality Check and Paradigm Shift:

If you are leading an organization doing business across cities, states or multiple countries, it is highly likely you’re already leading people who don’t sit in your same location. Whether it’s because you, as the leader, spend considerable time on the road (or simply off-site with clients) or because your agencies or vendors are located elsewhere (even when in the same city), you are already dealing with the challenges of partially remotely located teams and human resources.

Technology has opened up opportunities to research and select the best people no matter where they are physically located—whether they be new hires or potential vendors. And even when doing business within one metro area or market, modern business success requires strong partnerships with outside organizations and resources—remotely located team members.

So, when a new potential hire or a long-time employee ask you for remote-work flexibility, or your recruiter brings you a non-local, top-performing talent that isn’t willing to relocate, consider whether your concerns about the “negative” aspects of remote work should simply be treated as an opportunity to optimize your team’s processes, tools, and resources.

The Right Questions:

Are you providing a clear, strategic objectives or priorities?

The biggest source of team dysfunction is miss-alignment or lack of clarity around objectives. Patrick Lencioni, author and business thought-leader, proposes this is the single biggest reason for the problems of silos in most organizations today. In his book, “Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable about Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues Into Competitors,” Lencioni explains that silos occur because executives fail to give their employees a compelling context for working together–what he calls a “rallying cry”.

Without this context, everyone moves in different directions, often at cross purposes . It is only human nature that everyone assumes their own activities are in the best interest of the company and don’t understand why others aren’t doing the same. This results in conflict, breakdown of trust, and resentment.

Lencioni describes the challenge: “…my view of silos might not be what some leaders expect to hear. That’s because many executives I’ve worked with who struggle with silos are inclined to look down into their organizations and wonder, “Why don’t those employees just learn to get along better with people in other departments? Don’t they know we’re all on the same team?” All too often this sets off a well-intentioned but ill-advised series of actions—training programs, memos, posters—designed to inspire people to work better together.”

Lencioni goes on to describe what every professional on a team knows–these issues usually start at the leadership level.

“The problem is, they can’t do anything about it. Not without help from their leaders. And while the first step those leaders need to take is to address any behavioral problems that might be preventing executive team members from working well with one another—that was the thrust of [Lencioni’s] book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team—even behaviorally cohesive teams can struggle with silos. (Which is particularly frustrating and tragic because it leads well-intentioned and otherwise functional team members to inappropriately question one another’s trust and commitment to the team.)”

This is going to be true even if your whole team sits next to each other, or around the world. Team health and cohesion comes from strong leadership with a clear vision of what matters the most. Strong teams are strong teams because they are clear on what is the priority, and have strong leadership that is engaged in setting the direction and communicating it often–regardless of whether they sit together or not.

How can I improve communication across functions and teams?

All companies struggle with opportunities to improve interpersonal and team communication. Whether its communication between management in the top floor and functional team members on the first floor or between a field sales team and their supporting on-site marketing team, every company has to have the right tools to enable easy communication no matter where you sit.

Making sure your communication tools are mobile-enabled is a good place to start. Ensuring that accessing and logging in to these tools is easy while maintaining appropriate security levels is essential to ensure high adoption and use of the tools you provide. And finally, consider communication soft-skills, emotional intelligence and collaboration skills when you’re evaluating new hires or training programs.

When you start identifying the challenges and applying the right corrective actions, you’ll find that where the team members sit won’t matter as much. This has the clear potential to open up new benefits and strategic advantages for your organization in retention, recruiting, productivity, and digital transformation.

Am I mastering the technology tools needed to improve team productivity?

Even if you don’t have remote or co-located teams, you’re likely already using tools like WebEx, email, cloud-based project management tools and video conferencing. Most companies don’t use these tools as well as they could. Most employees are not properly briefed or trained on these tools. And many times, the tools or technology have not been set up correctly for maximum effectiveness and adoption.

When you’re physically located in one place, team members likely develop behaviors to compensate for any gaps. These behaviors could hinder your company’s growth and productivity. And once you start working with people located somewhere else, the gaps become more obvious and challenging. This should not be an excuse to take a pass on remotely located employees; rather, it provides an opportunity to address gaps in your technology tools that will ultimately help your organization grow and improve.

How can I help my team members build closer, stronger interpersonal relationships?

Everyone knows that getting along with teammates is a priority and important to both keeping your job and getting others to help with what you need. Strong leadership is rooted in effective followership and trust building. This means that leaders are faced with constant opportunities to identify hidden relationship problems and to continue to grow and improve the relationships that exist. Building interpersonal relationships does not come easy to everyone. Inevitably, you’re going to have employees who struggle building strong, close interpersonal relationships, but their talents and strengths make it worth the extra effort.

This is where investing in the right team-building gatherings is essential. It is unfortunate that, when things get tough during downturns, relationship- and team-building efforts are often laid aside. When launching important big projects, consider how much you’re investing in the early team-building phase of the project before you get further into the effort and friction and emotions start running high.

Authors Kimball Fisher and Mareen Duncan Fisher talk about key practices that can help you build trust with team members over distance and provide practical tips on how to kick off projects being executed by co-located teams. They suggest that there are various types of meetings that warrant face-to-face presence. Many if not all of these practices could help you improve relationships and build trust regardless of the type of team you’re leading. I’ve observed too many projects skip essential kick-off, milestone, or wrap-up celebration meetings; whether the team members are remote or not becomes secondary to the essential things you should be doing as a leader to build trust and followership, and improve your chances of success.

How can I build a culture of collaboration among my teams, and what tools should I be providing to foster better—and easier—collaboration?

Many people think of communication as the same thing as collaboration. And while it takes effective communication to have strong collaboration, one can do a lot of communicating and still struggle with collaboration. As with the first question, every team leader needs to consider whether his or her team has the right tools to collaborate and share work output easily and effectively. You’ve most likely heard of popular new file sharing and collaboration tools like Slack or Salesforce Chatter. There are hundreds of different options designed to fit every unique situation and for companies of every size and budget. Here is the bottom line: Email is not a collaboration tool. Companies and leaders that don’t understand this end up punishing their employees and teams with overloaded inboxes, and reduced productivity lost in managing excessive email volume. Recently, Thierry Breton, the CEO of Atos, announced their intention to eliminate email as a communication and collaboration tool. In a Forbes magazine article, he is quoted as having outlined three examples of how email results in wasted time:

  1. The “deluge” of information that plagues organizations.
  2. The need to review “useless” emails and the time it takes to get focused again on important tasks
  3. The “pile” of email that employees end up sorting through after hours and the associated drain on employees’ personal time

He also points to research showing that reading irrelevant emails is bad for concentration and that “it takes 64 seconds to get back on the ball after doing so.” He is correct that, when email use gets out of control, it can be devastating to productivity and moral.

Considering email is an antique tool by tech-development standards, it is worth considering whether you are providing your employees with alternatives to email that are more effective at collaboration and project management.

How can I provide team members with better structure and processes?

Does your organization have effective structures and processes to support your employees in their work? Or, if one of your key top performers leaves, do all the processes leave with him or her? Regardless of whether you have remote team members or not, leaders need to ensure that structure and processes are documented, that the tools to manage and enforce them are in place and that employees find them helpful and useful.

The goal is not to create red-tape but to provide structure. Structure can include the use of dashboards that people can view anytime and from anywhere and gives your employees the confidence that their contributions are being measured and that leadership is paying attention. Make sure your organization is not under-estimating the value of best-in-class project management practices, process improvement tactics, and the tools to support these. Even if you’re running a small operation, having these in place early in your business development can provide a more effective growth runway and set you up for continued success in the years to come as a larger organization.

How can I provide all employees of varied personalities and interpersonal needs with the ideal environment in which they can thrive?

If you browse the web for any amount of time, you’ll discover that many companies are experimenting with various formats and setups of their physical spaces. I’m excited to see organizations slowly turning away from the traditional “prime corner office” setup (that sits mostly empty because the executive is on the road a lot). Great organizations now set up their leadership members in the same collaborative spaces as the rest of their employees, fostering a sense of equality, transparency and accessibility. But whether you test out open seating areas or want to give different employees diverse options to foster optimal productivity, retaining top talent in today’s market requires proactive efforts in the area of work-space innovation.

For many of your employees, letting them work from a Starbucks will result in better output. For a working mom, knowing she can be steps away from her kids in a home office will give her the peace of mind to dedicate more effort to the company’s success. And considering no country, city or region has an exclusive lock on the variety of talent you’ll need, opening up your organization to remotely located employees can be a source of a significant competitive advantage.

At the end of the day, regardless of how your employees are set up, Heitzman hit the nail on the head:

“The real takeaway is to be flexible in accommodating the needs of different employees to cater to their strengths and offer and environment of productivity, regardless of whether that’s in the office or out of the office.”

What is your experience in driving greater collaboration and breaking down silos in your organization? Do your tools work? I’d welcome your insights and comments below!

* Survey from ConnectSolutions

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