The distributed workforce of tomorrow, today

Today’s modern teams depend on the right people to efficiently and effectively achieve success.  Sometimes those people are not readily available in your local labour market. Thankfully with the use of technology there is the option of a workforce that is distributed geographically.

I have been working with distributed workers for over 20 years and I can confirm that it does require a different management style that some would say is less “natural”.  Before considering a distributed workforce, you need to ask yourself how dependent your management style has become on physical presence, social aspects and your observation of interactions or body language. None of those requirements are negative, but we do know that physical presence does not guarantee productivity (someone can look very busy), socializing can distract us from performance problems (they are a well liked member of the team), and people can learn to present themselves differently in work situations to mask reality.

Whether the workforce is working from home, a coffee shop or in another location of your organization, the requirements for the working relationship are the same.  Those requirements begin with management and require effort. Sadly, this is too often where the consideration of this option stops. I would suggest, however, that retrofitting your management style to work efficiently with a distributed workforce will make you a better manager of your local workforce as well.

Our first priority is to ensure that we have clearly defined practices of work allocation and performance tracking. We need details that both worker and supervisor agree clearly define the quantity and quality of work. These details include the methods or processes as well as reporting standards.

Second, we need a technology solution to enable these practices in the distribution and tracking of the work that does not necessitate a verbal real-time conversation. Our solution should support all of our requirements in a way that is reasonable to use in our daily workflows but could be simple technology with the appropriate categories, keywords and structure to match our agreed to practices.

Third, and perhaps more importantly, we need open communication about the progress of our work and a shared vocabulary to describe our work and performance. This means discussions between supervisor and worker, and possibly amongst the team, to confirm the definition of quality and tasks. The goal is to avoid surprises where either party considers feedback subjective. Regular discussions (real-time or time-shifted)  on quality and task details need to occur so that performance tracking is grounded on regular contact and communication errors are reduced or eliminated.

Finally, our agreement should also clearly indicate the arrangements regarding accountability for time in relation to compensation. It’s fine to pay a worker for daily hours worked, but gone are the days when an employee located at their workstation actually meant that they were “working”. We are no longer so naive to accept that physical presence is enough for compensation.  

At the end of the day, both the manager and worker have responsibilities to ensure that the distance between them does not impede the expected results. The organization needs the results of the skilled worker and the worker wants employment without relocation, thus both parties have an incentive to make the processes work well.

These are a few of the points that I consider important when considering or reviewing a distributed workforce and I look forward to finding new ways to further expand and enhance my skills and abilities in this area of my management toolbox.

I hope this text gives you ideas of your own that you can take forward. Like Asimov said to Roddenberry “I don’t know that I’ll have any magic solutions, but you know, some vagrant thought of mine might spark some thought in you and who knows.”

Thanks for reading my vagrant thoughts.