5 Techniques to Manage Your Modern Workforce

by Matt Donovan, on Nov 25, 2020 4:19:31 PM

Who is the Modern Workforce in the New Normal?

The world of work is more dynamic today than ever before. Essential workers are wearing masks and gloves, and are often surrounded by plexiglass shields. As a result of limited occupancy, the tops of aisles are adorned with one-way signs; painters tape arrows point the way along the floors. Conversely, among knowledge workers, those who have greater flexibility in their work arrangements, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of remote work policies.

Knowledge workers may have the luxury of working remote, offering a depth of personal safety and the privileges of working from home, but many organizations still struggle to effectively manage these workers. The problem is that every team is unique. The applied management techniques and needs of a development team may differ from a creative team. In a similar way to which culture drives team dynamics for a distributed workforce, the type of workers on each team also significantly impact communication channels, management techniques, and how work gets done.

The Modern Workforce is comprised of three main cohorts of workers: Onsite, Hybrid, and Remote. These three classifications run the gamut between essential workers and knowledge workers. Between these two ends of the spectrum is the Hybrid Worker: a person who can do their job remotely but must also report in person to a workplace. While a number of companies indicate they will remain remote indefinitely, others have voiced their desire to return to the workplace whether it be for increased innovation, compliance purposes, or efficiency gains.

Believe it or not, worker location still has an impact on managerial support and supervision. Among knowledge workers, the key behind innovation and efficiency is communication and collaboration. For an onsite team, communication patterns and collaboration spaces have been designed into the physical space. The office layout encourages frequent and efficient behavior at every turn and now, the same must be done for a fully remote workforce. Virtual tools to encourage frequent communication and collaboration must be intentionally designed and purposefully built.

The risk is that hybrid workers will straddle two modes of collaboration and communication. They will have to work with a team that is still largely distributed, maintaining their reliance on virtual collaboration tools. This shift provides managers the opportunity to double down on how they are managing remote employees and reinforce those same techniques with their onsite and hybrid workers.

5 Tips for Effectively Managing Your Remote and Hybrid Workforce

1. Set Clear Objectives

In an interview with CNBC, Kate Lister says, “One of the biggest holdbacks of remote work is trust — managers simply don’t trust their people to work untethered. They’re used to managing by counting butts in seats rather than by results.”

One way of combating trust issues between remote employee and manager is by setting clear Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) by which the manager can introduce increased accountability among their staff. Rather than focusing the conversation between manager and worker on how long they were logged into their VPN, a focus on Objectives shifts the conversation between employee and manager to one of productivity and how it relates to the broader goal of the firm. This has the additional benefit of easily scaling across onsite, hybrid, and fully remote teams; it creates a consistent standard to which all workers can be held.

This new, reframed conversation has the potential to not only support remote staff and managers in their communication but to improve staff productivity across all types of workers they need to manage. Which leads to:

2. Promote Flexibility

In an interview with SHRM, Brian Kropp dives into a very real problem for remote workers: “A lot of workers are parents with kids at home or taking care of an older parent. A kid will show up crying during one of your WebEx calls. It's going to happen, so companies are relaxing the constraints around what 'professional' and 'office-like' means.”

Management must promote flexibility among their team. Remote employees have other demands on their time – some silly distractions yes, but also unavoidable responsibilities; this doesn’t mean they aren’t being productive. If productivity is measured in terms of objectives and key results, it doesn’t matter as much when the work is taking place.

If a father working at home watches the kids from 3-6 pm every afternoon, he might choose to adopt a flexible work schedule, splitting his time between the morning and evening. By measuring work in terms of objectives and promoting flexibility, this employee can meet the demands of his job while also delivering for his family.

3. Embrace Agile Practices

Organizations have long known the positive impact of incorporating agile into their software implementation projects, but the framework can be adapted into broader management practices. The basic idea behind agile is to break down large tasks into smaller ones and to organize a team around the execution of these tasks. The team then organizes their tasks into a series of Sprints, typically lasting a couple of weeks, where they complete their assigned items. The team hosts daily Standups, where they discuss their progress and flag any issues. The basic principle behind agile is increased team-based communication to remove roadblocks and increase productivity.

4. Lean into Asynchronous Communication

“More and more, I’m finding that mastering asynchronous communication is key to managing a remote team. And to be effective, it’s crucial to settle on communication tools to be utilized by your entire team”- Aytekin Tank, Medium

Back in March, as my team was vacating our offices, we ensured the appropriate platforms were in place to maintain collaboration with our client and with each other. These tools leveraged the concept of asynchronous communication to maximize our virtual communication. The concept of asynchronous communication is that feedback and collaboration is not instantaneous; rather it can occur over hours, days, or weeks. This differs from the traditional communication patterns of onsite workplaces, where informal, synchronous communication (instantaneous collaboration and feedback; e.g. meetings) has been optimized. By embracing tools that enable this kind of collaboration, business leaders see increases in workforce productivity.

Tools like Slack and Smartsheet enable teams to collaborate across multiple threads and projects by providing an organized, deliberate shared workspace for the team. These platforms link key business areas where collaboration is necessary, allowing teams to move forward with clarity. Additionally, by providing a central repository and collaboration framework, workers can embrace the flexibility provided from working remotely. Similarly, when hybrid workers begin to reenter their physical office space, they will continue to collaborate with their distributed teammates.

5. Adopt Better Meeting Practices

There is a common sentiment – particularly during the pandemic – that about half of all meetings are a waste of time. You may have seen a popular meme circulating over the past few months poking fun at the “meeting that could have just been an email…” However, this trend was an issue long before COVID-19: it only took a few seconds of searching to come across a similar article from Forbes written in 2018!

An apparent effect of COVID-19 is tha remote workers are starved of human connection and a sense of community with their coworkers, so meetings are also used to catch up. The problem with this is that when a meeting is held without clear action plans, assignments and communication, a single meeting can spur a long, inefficient trail of follow up emails and calls throughout the day. Unfortunately, this pertains to the medium of communication: you can’t read body language, only one person speaks at a time, and usually members are multitasking.

The keys to running tight, effective virtual meetings are the same as running effective in person meetings. However, some steps can be taken to mitigate current environmental factors to ensure a more focused meeting:

  • Appoint a business leader to be in charge of the meeting tasked with:
    • Sticking to the agenda
    • Enforcing time limits
    • Encouraging participation from relevant team members
  • Send out an agenda ahead of time along with any content the team should review to give attendees a chance to prepare for the meeting
  • Schedule 5 minutes at the start of the meeting for small talk and catching up
  • Keep minutes, including action items, and send out (or post on team forum) as soon as possible following the meeting
    While there are endless ideas on how to run more effective meetings, these four tend to be the most pervasive. By appointing a leader to run the show, setting up the agenda for success, scheduling time to catching up, and action items are written and distributed, any manager can easily run a more energized and effective virtual meeting.

Applying Remote Management Techniques

With the way we work today, it is quite realistic to have a customer success manager working from home, accessing her company’s ERP system from her iPad through a Virtual Private Network to check on her team’s results. Her team, might be a combination of hybrid, remote or onsite workers. Her team is increasingly burnt out, and is starting to miss deadlines, in spite of near perfect attendance.

Realizing her team is worn out, she decides it is time to make a change. First, she meets with each team member to define their contribution in terms of Objectives and Key Results and works with them to design a flexible work schedule. Second, she adopts an agile approach and breaks down the team’s work into a series of Sprints, and starts holding a daily stand up where team members can voice any impediments to achieving their key results. Third, she realizes the need for increased asymmetric communication and decides to implement Slack, to allow her team to collaborate. Fourth, she adopts streamlined and consistent meeting practices, so her staff knows what to expect every meeting.

Now, the manager’s team has the tools and practices in place to achieve efficient and effective collaboration and communication regardless of work location, and as some employees begin working onsite, they have clear expectations and accountability measures in place.

Every team is unique in how they rapidly adapted to and adopted remote work during the pandemic. As the workforce prepares to return to some semblance of the “New Normal,” managers need to realize the role they play in helping their teams achieve their goals.

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Topics:Digital TransformationCOVID-19SAFE Return to WorkProject Management


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