Managing remote teams is an opportunity to create value

The strict and necessary government advice about social distancing has enacted one the largest and most rapid workforce transformations ever seen and even when these measures relax, it’s likely to have permanent changes to flexible working HR policies.

Organisations within the knowledge and service-based economy have had far greater ability to shift and adapt to this structure compared with other sectors such as catering, retail, logistics, construction or healthcare.

While many have been running successful flexible working practices for years, none have faced their entire workforce working from home fulltime. It’s a new working paradigm that required a rapid transition with little time for preparation, meaning HR teams are still playing catch-up.

As those who help lead or run the HR or OD function clamber out of the aftermath of the rapid workforce restructure, they will now be turning their attention to how they help their workforce return to a safe work environment, which will have many variables to consider, including some employees insisting they wish to continue working from home for health or other reasons, particularly with the prediction of a second wave.

Remote working can be fantastic and offers us a lot of flexibility, but as social beings, many of us also rely on the physical day-to-day social interactions we obtain through work and the subconscious effect this has on helping us develop skills and experience.

Remote video conferencing certainly eases the feeling of being isolated but it can’t replace the dynamic nature of physical social interactions and their subsequent interpersonal benefits.

So what does this mean for workforce development and soft skills, a lot of which happens informally without staff competency frameworks to help structure the interactions?

Well, it means there’s a gap that many OD, HR or L&D professionals will be starting to realise. This gap is really a challenge for the organisation and workforce development initiatives since it requires the adoption of agile HRprinciples to help problem-solve during uncertainty and deal with constant change.

The Art of Meaningful Conversations

While we can’t replace the social interactions that only happen in the workplace, we can influence the meaningful interactions and conversations that happen between people even when they are working from home.

Never has peer feedback been more critical to employees development and personal wellbeing. Feedback helps us grow, improve and develop our capability and confidence as people.

Feedback is essential for doing your job and ensuring you’re doing it well, providing a mechanism for your peers to support you in a more formal way, but also develop you through the different milestones of your career. It can be big picture ambition focussed on a promotion, or it can be at a more micro-level engaged around a specific skill, competency, or piece of work.

As part of the readiness for any of these changes, comes a discussion about the type of organisation structure that can support this way of working to enable improved conversations and feedback.

Hierarchical vs. Networked Workforces

Before we look at the different types of feedback approaches, it’s important to understand how they might fit into the different organisational models. Networked and decentralised workforces, also referred to as flat structures, are increasingly becoming a new goal and objective of organisations to help them respond to market changes more rapidly.

The book ‘The Network Imperative’, by Barry Libert, Megan Beck and Jerry Wind, help layout the modern challenges faced by economies, markets and organisations, with digital transformation affecting every business sector, fuelled by investor capital, top talent, and customers shifting toward network-centric organisations. In the book they dissect the ingredients of what’s required to become a network-centric organisation.

Although the diagram below only compares a traditional hierarchical structure with a network-centric model, it’s worth stating that there’s a hybrid organisation structure that exists between these. The whole organisation doesn’t necessarily need to be a fully networked workforce, but certain parts of it will need to support this way of working. Digital product teams are normally already operating in this way.

A secondary element to this structure is the culture since the culture needs to support and encourage a new type of behaviour, which of course needs to be set by the leadership. This then opens up a wider conversation about the visibility of strategy, reward structures, skills gaps, workforce capability, performance management, development and talent management. Traditional leaders will need to become ‘networked leaders’ who need to lead and manage teams in a different way to conventional models that enable the new behaviours to manifest and surface.

From Commander to Co-Creator

In the world of feedback there are two models:

  • Push model: a centralised distributed structure that is run and initialised during key points throughout the year by the organisation around key corporate strategies and annual events
  • Pull model: decentralised network effect, offering a more genuine culture that encourages co-value creation. This is initialised by the employees themselves whenever they feel they would benefit from feedback

In the culture of decentralised feedback, it’s people who provide high quality and constructive feedback that become the most valuable commodity of the exchange, because it’s these people that help nurture interdisciplinary teams and rapid skills development, done without a formal CPD programme and within existing Human Resource costs.

The value creators are the producers of feedback, while the consumers of feedback help self perpetuate the culture and development of the organisation since they too can become producers of feedback to other people.

Interestingly new research shows opening up feedback to be given by non-conventional peer positions, can actually provide completely new perspectives, but also nurture talents not normally written in the job spec of the person. Again this is another great approach to help develop interdisciplinary teams and it’s this main innovation model that provides the canvas to enable the idea of being ‘boundaryless’ and how powerful it’s effect can be if organisations embrace it, rather than being restrictive due to political pay levels and seniority.

Network Leaders and Managers

Quite often it’s the leaders and managers who hold the keys to strategy, working planning and task distribution. Tasked with assessing performance and ensuring their teams or departments are producing the work the organisation needs they are also responsible for encouraging new behaviours to surface to enable outcomes to be achieved as opposed to output. A leader’s job is not to do the work for others, it’s to help others figure out how to do it themselves, to get things done, and to succeed beyond what they thought possible

A leader’s job is not to do the work for others, it’s to help others figure out how to do it by themselves, to get things done, and to succeed beyond what they thought possible— Simon Sinek

What’s one of the best ways a company can maximise its resources, but also the output? The answer is through an innovation model that suggests it’s beneficial to unbundle company assets and share them out. Again a decentralised feedback system encourages this type of behaviour and culture across the organisation. In this case, the assets are the people.

The term ‘Network Orchestrator’ was first used in 2001 by the authors Remo and Julian “The Future of the Networked Company”, which has since sparked the concept of a ‘Network Leader’.

I can initiate feedback whenever I want throughout the year and about whatever I want (within reason). I’m able to choose the topic, whether it’s a project or niche piece of work. The key thing is, it allows me to seek constructive feedback about areas I’m trying to improve or develop. I can then write reflections based on the feedback I receive.

The most powerful concept of a network leader is the idea of the person being an orchestrator of value creation across the business. Network orchestrators invest in different assets, create different relationships, and manage people differently because they have taken on a different way of thinking about the world and a different mental model.

What Do Workers Want?

Millennials entering the workforce, and many of us a bit older, have become accustomed to autonomy, choice, and influence. Individuals can interact with and influence their favourite brands through Facebook and Twitter, so why wouldn’t they expect to be influencers at work as well? Why can’t they have input into the strategy? Why can’t they contribute in a wider way outside their job description?

In some cases they do, but only a few enlightened employers are providing what employees need to feel empowered, developed, and influential in their jobs. A decentralised feedback system is one tool that can certainly support this.

Praise, recognition, stretch goals, new skills, new experience; surely every employee wants some of this, rather than an annual process that doesn’t always look deep enough beneath the surface to understand who the true contributors of value are to the business. The loudest person in the room isn’t necessarily the one who contributes the most value.