As more and more knowledge workers work remotely at least some of the time (telecommuting increased 79.7% from 2005 to 2012), "casual Fridays" are likely to take on a whole new meaning. Sales of fuzzy bunny slippers are expected to surpass dress shoes before the end of the decade.*
Seriously, though, statistics (real ones) show that 50% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible for some telework, while 79% of employees would like to work from home at least part of the time.
Other estimates say that by 2016, more than 63 million Americans (43% of the workforce) will be telecommuting and that white-collar workers plan to increase their time working remotely by 50% over the next 5 years.
The rapidly changing nature of work today begs two essential questions:
Why wear pants?
How can you keep team members aligned when they're spread out geographically?
While the first question must be answered on an individual basis, the following five tips will help you address the second question in your organization, making it possible to overcome the "lack of physical proximity, shared context and spontaneous communications" (according to one academic study) that can pose problems for geographically dispersed teams.
1. Practice Alignment Company Wide
Research shows that nine out of ten companies fail to execute their strategic vision and that 95 percent of employees, on average, are unaware of or do not understand their company's strategy. Effective alignment is rare, even on teams that share the same physical space, but that doesn't make it any less essential.
The first step, obviously, is for the organization to have a clearly outlined strategic vision for individuals and teams—remote or otherwise—to align themselves to. Employees can't get in synch with something they can't see. In a recent blog post, Katpa CEO Alex Raymond explains that alignment "requires a common understanding of the mission of the organization, and consistency across each and every objective and plan" which allows the "linking of the goals of the organization with the personal goals of the employees." This is true whether team members are seated across the room or across the country from one another.
2. Standardize Work Request Practices
PMI reports that organizations with successful work performance measures (on time, on budget, and goals met) are almost three times more likely than organizations with poor work performance (36% vs. 13%) to use standardized practices throughout the organization, and have better outcomes as a result.
When workers must wade through excessive information in order to find, organize and prioritize work requests, time and money are wasted. Consider the following statistics:
28 billion hours are lost each year due to information overload
100 email messages can occupy over half an employee's day
66% of workers don't have enough time to get their work done
94% feel overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation
These problems are exacerbated when most work takes place via email, which is by far the most common means of communication for dispersed teams. But it doesn't have to be this way. When all requests are made in a centrally accessible location, executives, managers and team members (at the home office or abroad) not only eliminate wasted time—for example searching for an emailed work request that is now buried in the inbox—but can also see clearly all the work needing to be done and can prioritize more effectively what work, in what sequence, will deliver the highest business value.
3. Harness Technology to Increase Collaboration
Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype, HipChat and other online collaboration tools have played a big part in enabling the rise of telecommuting. But if the tools are disconnected, unarchivable and unsearchable, they aren't nearly as helpful as they could be. You don't want important information about projects to be taking place in threads that disappear as soon as you close the chat window.
In a recent case study about NRG, a Fortune 250 energy company that saved $1.6 million by using Workfront to streamline project management and collaboration, the company's creative director said, "If I want to find out what happened with a project that someone's complaining about, I can just pull the job up and go through all of the comments, and I can quickly and easily see how many rounds of revisions [there were, and] where there were problems. That, more than anything, has helped foster collaboration. Because it's such a transparent system, it means that everyone has to work together, or it's really obvious that you're the problem."
Cloud-based work management systems make this kind of "asynchronous collaboration" possible, collecting and capturing all conversations about a project within the project itself—no matter how geographically scattered a team may be or how many different time zones are involved. Every comment, question and request is not only visible to all team members but also searchable and permanently archived.
4. Rely on a Single Source of Truth
A close observation of enterprise departments shows that work processes become more efficient and effective when there is a single system of truth, or in other words, one tool that consolidates information and allows everyone access to the same underlying data and processes. This enhanced visibility leads to improved productivity by allowing organizations to:
Detect, evaluate, and solve problems in real time
Provide meaningful communication and collaboration within the context of work (see tip 3)
Adapt work priorities and resource planning to ensure strategic alignment (see tip 1)
Justify the resources needed
Improve performance management tactics to reward the right work
Empower employees with more knowledge and autonomy
The final bullet is especially essential for geographically scattered teams. Autonomy in remote employees is a wonderful quality, but only when it's accompanied by alignment to organizational goals.
5. Manage Effectively
Even with the most powerful work management tools on the market, the human element is still critical for success. Managers still have to check in, review deliverables, provide feedback and, well, manage. In fact, leader engagement may be even more critical in a dispersed team than in an onsite team, according to a scholarly study in Organization Science, which found that:
"Though the importance of self-management in teams is often emphasized, the results of this study imply that certain aspects of leadership may have a pivotal role for influencing important outcomes in geographically dispersed settings."
Taking a less scholarly (but no less relevant) approach, Liquidmatrix founder Dave Lewis puts it this way:
"The real problem with remote workers is in not managing your people. Review the logs, provide guidance, communicate and take responsibility for managing your people."
Managers need to be able to answer the following six questions to effectively manage work, no matter where or how it's being done. Luckily, modern work-management solutions make all of this easier than ever before:
Who is working on what?
Are they working on the highest priority projects?
Do they have the resources they need?
Do they have the information they need?
How is work coming along?
Will work be done on time?
Dressing for Telecommuting Success
Dispersed work teams and remote working are here to stay, given that 46% of CFOs report that telecommuting is second only to salary as the best way to attract top talent—and 33% said that the ability to work remotely was the top draw. While alignment is never easy, even when you sit 10 feet away from every member of your team, these five tips will help ensure that everyone on your worldwide workforce is in synch with your organizational goals.
One parting thought about the pants debate: while it's certainly true that what happens above the desk is more important that what's worn underneath, you never know when you'll be called into a last-minute video conference call. So when you're working from home, go ahead and rock those slippers and sweatpants like a boss, as long as you look professional from the waist up. Most of the time.
*Not a real statistic. Yet.
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