Well, the genie is out of the bottle now. Millennials (and others) have been asking for more options to work from home, and now reluctant businesses have had to grant that wish. How does this new paradigm affect managing?
The pandemic has pushed recalcitrant businesses into finding options for getting work done without physical presence. I get the feeling that even once this pandemic is over, workers will want to continue this option, and businesses might well find some financial reasons to reduce their physical footprint.
What does this mean for managers, though?
If you think about it, most of the value that a company produces is created by the front-line. All those tiers of management are there to support these most valuable workers and make sure they have the processes and resources that they need to create that value. (The other side of the position that we call “management” is leadership, but that is a topic for another time.)
So how does a manager support their workers who are working from home?
First, make sure you have success metrics in place for what that worker is supposed to do. Every job should have its metrics of success defined, so that the person performing it has feedback on how they are doing and can adjust accordingly. (If you are interested in learning a little more about this, you can read or watch a video called Hoshin Kanri - Making Organization-Wide Metrics.) Further, a key job of the manager is to be entrusted to intervene in a process when it is not allowing an employee to produce what is required by the business. Managers are there to protect the worker from the process that the manager has given them and to allocate the resources to make the process work for the business and employee. Without metrics, this mission is difficult if not impossible.
That does mean that for distance workers, managers have an even harder time telling how things are going with the process. With good metrics in place, a manager can use them to make sure that the work is getting done and to tell if the process needs to be changed. (A caution here though – these metrics are probably not individual performance metrics. They should be metrics that measure the output of the process, which is often somewhat or even mostly beyond the span of control of the worker themselves. For more on this read or listen to my earlier blog Business Metrics and Performance Reviews)
However, we can’t just rely on a manager or supervisor to make things better. Their metrics are often lagging indicators. Necessary, but not timely. The real source of continuous process improvement is the people who are working the process itself. If they have the right metrics in place, who else would have a better idea of what is working and what could be improved?
That is where a solid Daily Management system is going to help. (To learn about the model I use for Daily Management, you can read a paper I co-wrote called Daily Management and Six Sigma: Maximizing Your Returns) If you don’t have such a system, this strange time gives you an opportunity to build one with your employees. Once it is up and running, a Daily Management system consists of empowered employees defining, standardizing, measuring, controlling, and improving a process with data. It often looks like a weekly meeting of the people executing the process with their manager, where they review process performance and opportunities for improvement. These opportunities are prioritized, and resources are allocated for sub-teams to work on those improvements. This meeting also provides a great format for raising issues with how we work from home together and how to improve that over time as well.
This raises the issue many of us have already experienced, which is that there is still a need for distance collaboration tools that work more like humans do, rather than require us to work like a computer.
As wonderful as the written word is, people don’t collaborate well via email or IM. It is just not how we evolved. Somewhat better are video conferencing platforms, like Zoom or Skype, but those are really to replace meetings, not the day-to-day interaction with our fellow workers.
What about the future? I’ll let you in on a secret – a long while ago I heard of a collaboration tool concept that was designed to take advantage of how we humans interact and make the computer present information in a way that is more in line with how we keep tabs on each other. It was called Holocene Chat (patent 7124372) and was invented by physicist, futurist, and science fiction author David Brin. Unfortunately, it never got the backing it needed, but who knows – maybe this is the time to bring it back?
Basically, the idea is like when you are in a lunchroom at work. You might be talking intently with one person about that problem you had earlier, but you happen to hear a conversation nearby about something related, so you might turn your attention to that conversation to participate. This is called “gisting” or getting the gist of a conversation, and humans are remarkably good at this.
The Holocene Chat demo I saw allowed for both synchronous and asynchronous interactions like the lunchroom, where the location and orientation of your avatar signaled the computer to provide varying levels of the gist of what was being discussed by other users.
There is a lot more to it, but I am struck at how well this concept would work in this enforced social distance age for online work collaboration.
Who knows, maybe one of you will resurrect the concept and contact Dr. Brin. I would love to have such a collaboration tool, since I think it would be superior to anything currently out there. That would be one small mitigation of this huge tragedy.
In the meantime, implementing Daily Management is the responsibility of front-line supervisors and individual contributors, but they need to be supported in this by their management. The work they do will lead to metrics that have real meaning and relationships up to what the company is trying to accomplish.