How to manage an agile workforce
Stuart Duff, Head of Development, Pearn Kandola
Agile working – or flexible working – is a hot topic in the modern workplace.
The vast majority of research into the effects of flexible working shows that it goes hand-in-hand with increased productivity, engagement and commitment to an organisation. Agile workers also feel a greater sense of personal wellbeing. A recent survey by Virgin Media, for example, found that nearly three-quarters (71%) of employees felt working from home noticeably improved their work-life balance.
Agile working poses several advantages from a business management perspective too. In order to reduce expenditure on office space, we’re increasingly seeing businesses asking employees to work from home.
The technology is certainly in place. Most workers would argue that with only a laptop and an internet connection, they could do their job just about anywhere. Indeed, a third (31%) of employees already spend at least one day per week working from home.
However, many leaders lack the necessary skills to effectively lead a remote team. An employee’s line manager has the strongest influence on their career progression and development, but remote workers run the risk of being “out of sight, out of mind.” When it comes to promoting or choosing staff to work on important projects, those who have the weakest connection with their leaders can be easily forgotten.
The first step to avoiding this problem is to simply raise awareness of it, as many managers won’t even realise that they are allowing this to take place. However, there are some practical measures that leaders can implement very easily.
Know your team
You might assume that introverted people, who are more comfortable spending time alone and working under their own steam, are more accustomed to working flexibly than extroverts, who feel a much greater need for social interaction. The reality, however, is that extroverted people are much more likely to adapt well to agile working.
It’s vital that remote workers remain in touch with their wider team, and this is something at which extroverts excel. They are much more likely to proactively make contact, while introverts find it harder to initiate conversation and risk becoming even more detached.
I would encourage managers to get to know their remote workers as well as possible. If you know that you have an introverted person on your team, it’s likely that you will need to provide that extra bit of encouragement for them to communicate.
Don’t rely on email
The vast majority of managers over-rely on email. It’s a great tool for communicating facts and figures but hearing someone say something is very different to reading it, and this has the potential to create all sorts of underlying tensions and confusion. Indeed, our own research at Pearn Kandola has found it to be the biggest source of workplace conflict.
Consider the following scenario. Your manager has asked you to carry out a task, but in a way which you know is not the most efficient. You send an email, explaining that you are happy to carry out this task, but that you would suggest doing so in a slightly different way. Your manager replies with an email that simply reads, “OK. Fine.”
If this conversation was in person, or even over the phone, you might know from the tone of your manager’s voice if they are happy with your suggestion or frustrated that you have questioned their instructions. It’s much more difficult to interpret how they might feel when you’re reading their reply in an email, and I would advise all managers of remote teams to pick up the phone as much as possible.
Find time to socialise
It might not always feel so, but the workplace is an incredibly social environment. Whether it be the comradery that comes with sharing a joke or simply taking turns to make a round of tea or coffee, when you’re working remotely, you miss out on these interactions. This might not appear to have a huge impact on job performance, but it does affect inter-team relationships.
One way that leaders can encourage more interaction within their teams is by factoring social time into teleconference calls. Try to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of the call for social exchanges, or if there is time, even invite colleagues to dial into the call early for a quick catch-up.
Where possible, it’s even more beneficial to communicate with video-conferencing facilities such as Skype and Facetime. The ability to make eye contact, and to read facial cues and body language, adds an additional layer of connection which can’t be achieved over the phone.
One of the key challenges when it comes to managing a remote workforce is that of establishing trust. This hinges, in part, on understanding that there are two types of trust. The first is cognitive trust, which is trust in someone’s experience, knowledge and ability. This can be developed remotely, through means such as conference calls and emails. The second type is emotional trust, which determines how much one person likes and believes in another. Emotional trust can only be grown through face-to-face interaction and is therefore much more difficult to establish in a remote workforce.
Leading a team of people who you can’t physically see working requires a great deal of trust. Leaders must, therefore, build an atmosphere of psychological safety, in which their team can work without fear that their managers don’t trust them. It’s vital that leaders understand the mechanics of trust, in order to identify where it might be missing from their team.
It’s clear that from a business management point of view, agile working presents a significant opportunity for businesses to both improve their bottom line and make work more enjoyable for their staff. However, in order to make this new way of working successful, leaders must be trained on how to manage remote teams. The simple fact is that this style of management requires an entirely different skillset. We must make sure that our leaders are equipped to deal with the challenges posed by a modern, agile workforce.