The New World of Management - Adapting a Management Framework for the Virtual World

Managing a distributed team is harder

In our last paper (“Is at-home working?”) we discussed some techniques that can be used to get a better grip on performance now that working from home is becoming the new standard in most organisations. As much of the business world has moved to at-home work, we’ve noticed that those who manage teams have been through some of the most dramatic change. They have not only moved to at-home work, they have also become separated from their teams and it’s become harder for them to connect with and observe their teams in action.

Front line supervisors are not only managing their own isolation but also having

to manage its impact on their team. Imagine being the coach of a sports team but not being able to see or hear those who play the game! That’s the new world for line managers today. The physical separation removes visual and aural contact within the team and adds concerns for mental health and well-being,

In many ways the change to management of work is more profound than the move of front-line staff to at-home work. The work to take calls, handle emails and process forms hasn’t changed much in an at-home setting. In contrast, team leaders and managers have had to re-think how they manage the team and the work. It’s less easy to see what work is being done, how it is being done and much harder to make contact with team members.

In this paper we’ll look first at some of the techniques and disciplines required to make front line management effective in at-home working. Then we will look at options to add flexibility in how and when staff work in an at-home model.

1. Managing virtual teams

Trust and associated prerequisites

A potential change in the move to at-home work is that management have to “trust” their team to work with less supervision. Trusting teams to work unsupervised runs in the face of some management trends that have tried to manage through measurement and control. Tools like visual management boards and team “ranking” boards are pushed by some consulting firms as the only way to manage productivity (see our White Paper on “Are Leader boards useful in business as well as Golf?”). The move to at-home work forces organisations to trust their staff more and makes these interventionist frameworks harder (and less effective if they ever were effective).

In the 1990s some stories emerged of teams that performed better once all formal measurement was withdrawn which seemed to align to the idea that trusting the team get work done had benefits. One of the most famous cases was a virtual bank (Egg in the UK). They took away all metrics from customer facing staff and obtained remarkable improvements in the metrics that they no longer used as performance goals. Staff were more productive even though productivity was no longer a goal. This appears to demonstrate that models of trust can outperform models of command and control.

This “trust” model appears more appropriate for at-home work. Having people work remotely necessitates greater trust that they will be productive and adhere to key processes. To make this work well the organisation needs a culture built around trust as well as a good definition of how staff should execute the work and associated training. For example, staff can’t be expected to get compliance processes right if the compliance needs aren’t clearly defined and documented.

In our experience productivity is a combination of “will, skill and process”. At-home work

puts an emphasis on “trust” to drive the will component but this alone is insufficient. To be productive, employees still need to be well trained and have well defined and documented processes that explain how they should do the work. A trust model of “make it up as you go” is a potential recipe for chaos and we are seeing enough process on the fly through the COVID crisis. Staff may also need guidance on other things like how they should manage their work and time. There has been an urgent need to provide OHS guidance on how to set up an at-home desk environment as an example.

The implication of a “trust” model is that managers are more in a “rear view mirror” mode around things like productivity. In a trust model, managers will only know tomorrow if someone had a bad day today. It means that team managers have to have the data and reporting to spot issues emerging in their teams and intervene. Effective reporting, insightful data (reports that show trends and anomalies as we described in our last paper) add to the prerequisites of well-defined processes and staff comfortable working in this autonomous way.

A framework that provides management with complementary controls

Trusting staff to do the work is one thing but in a world of unpredictable volumes of work and dynamic work places, management needs refined ways to manage. For twenty years we have defined three key elements of a management framework that can be adapted to a work from home environment:

  • A clear plan for the day

  • An approach to active management through the day

  • A defined model of observation and coaching

All three of these can also be used with a model of greater trust in staff to get their work done. The goal of all three is to make sure customers get a reasonable level of service, make sure the organisation uses their staff in an optimal way and provides support for staff to execute the processes in the right way. We’ll describe each in turn.

The plan for the day seems even more important in an at-home workplace than the office. At a macro level any operation needs to understand expected volumes of work, staff available, what’s unusual about today and what lessons and work are carried over from yesterday. The business environment at present is so dynamic in many industries that making clear plans for the day that can be adapted through the day, is even more important.

In our experience a daily macro planning meeting or huddle, is time well spent. With virtualised workplaces, this connects the management team and provides key context. A good huddle clarifies areas of focus for the day and makes the resource position clear. Then it lists and prioritises potential contingencies that reallocate resources or exploit surpluses. These meetings set up the virtual day and make each manager aware of his or her role and that of their team.

At a team level, a daily planning meeting will enable team members to be more effective if they know which types of work they will perform today, what’s a priority and what’s not. In a virtual world this level of connection is worth the investment. Investing time in both a “macro planning huddle” and then a team level huddle helps manage expectations and focus. In a virtual world it’s a critical way to formalise expectations and keep a sense of shared purpose for everyone. Tools like in office whiteboards can be easily replaced by Teams or Zoom meetings with presented spreadsheets standing in for the whiteboard, is very effective.

Active management techniques need to be re-thought in an at-home environment. For “call or voice” related work, queues and skill allocations need to be managed and monitored just as they would be in the office. Best practice is to have defined actions that kick in at agreed thresholds across their call taking staff. For example, which contingencies kick in if there is a deficit or surplus of staff. This works best when there is some flexibility in how staff can be assigned to different types of work or some flexibility in the available workforce.

Effective active management also includes defined points and mechanisms of intervention for individuals. This could be a threshold for a long call or email process that implies staff need help or who aren’t following the agreed plan for the day. This is a delicate balance with a model of “trust”. It requires mechanisms to enable supervisors to chat or message staff.

When intervention is managed well it becomes a valuable support mechanism to support staff with difficult customers or complex calls. Working from home and having a long and stressful call without support is more problematic than in the office where team members and leaders can help the staff member post call. Interventions done badly can feel like “Big Brother” and undo the sense of trust. Getting the balance right between intrusive and supportive management isn’t easy.

Active management can be harder with work like emails or form processing that is managed more autonomously by the team (in the absence of automated workflow and allocation). There are a range of techniques that give team leaders visibility through the day of how work is progressing. The key word here is visibility. Team leaders need some way of knowing how each individual is tracking so they can intervene if needed. Lack of visibility causes “surprises” and rear-view mirror management problems. Of course there is a balance between heavy handed intervention (see Attila) and techniques that make staff feel motivated and supported in their work. It’s not unreasonable for team leaders to want to know how their team are tracking two to three times through the day. Good workflow tools create that visibility automatically. In more manual environments there are many ways to provide periodic tracking.

Observation and Coaching are also harder in an at-home setting. We’ve already described that team managers need information on team member performance. However, we find that information and reports are just indicators. To understand why performance has changed and how it can improve, the supervisor needs some form of observation to make sense of the information. A coach who just says “swim faster” or “kick it longer” is not much of a coach. Observations provide the insights of an effective coach. If a manager doesn’t know how you work, how can they help you to do it better?

In at-home work, observation is harder as the manager isn’t with the team. Listening to calls is still possible in this setting. Observing how people process forms or handle emails can be a little harder but often looking at the outputs of their work and talking to staff about how they do their work, can reveal many inputs to coaching. For example, a recent chat sample showed quickly that some staff just weren’t getting to the bottom of the customers query causing rework and poor service. This was obvious from a quick sample of the email dialogues. It was an obvious and immediate trigger for coaching around questioning and investigation techniques. These observations and coaching work even better if the supervisor can compare to an agreed best practice as we described above.

Summary: In an at-home environment, managers can use an extended trust model but that needs well trained staff, well defined processes and clear expectations. At-home work means that managers need to revise their management approach. The three management framework elements of daily planning, active management and observation and coaching can be adapted to work well in at-home work settings. These techniques are even more effective when there is some flexibility in the way the work can be performed so we’ll discuss that next.

2. Adding flexibility in a virtual model and exploiting it using the management framework

The management framework we’ve described above becomes even more effective as work and resources become more flexible. The greater the flexibility the more options there are in planning the day or managing the team through the day. The greater variety of work that staff do, the more they may require coaching to improve. At-home work provides more potential for work flexibility in several ways:

  • Part-time work becomes more viable for many people no longer facing a commute

  • Shift patterns (when people work) can be varied more with at-home work and many staff need more flexibility for at home schooling or pick-ups and drop offs

  • There is greater potential for ‘real-time’ flexibility and changing shifts more dynamically

  • The mix of channels customers use is changing so creating a flexible workforce across channels has become a necessity

  • Companies have had to

create new and temporary workforce models like concierge pools or single transaction specialists to handle sudden changes in workload.

The common component to all of them is that they can add greater flexibility and choice for staff as well as organisations. Staff can benefit from greater flexibility in when they work or greater work variety in the work they do. The combination of these flexible options and at-home working, opens up possible new pools of recruits and add workforce flexibility in other ways. We’ll explain each of the flexibility options.

Now that at-home work has become the norm, working part-time is more attractive for many people as there is no commuting time. This adds the flexibility to work “parts of days” in different configurations. Shorter shifts may be attractive to employees who want part of every day free for other things and may help companies solve problems they have often had for part of the day. For example, it may be a great help to have a lot more staff work a morning shift or through the middle of the day.

We have commented before that at-home working enables very different shift patterns. Commuting to the office meant that staff wanted contiguous work. Work from home means that staff may be very happy to work split shifts or even several shifts through an extended day. There may be many options that help a company align the workforce to arrival patterns and give staff greater flexibility in the way they want to work. This can also combine with part-time work.

For example, rather than working blocks of 6 or 8 hours it may suit some staff to work more two 3-hour blocks of time. We acknowledge that some enterprise agreements and workforce planning models may not be well set up to take advantage of these options. However, if staff want to work like this and it suits the organisation then everyone wins so the opportunity is real.

By “real time” flexibility, we mean that companies may now be able to alter shifts through the day “in real time”. With staff in the office, companies could never ask staff to say take a two or three hour break or flex in other ways. In at-home work, there are more options and companies can start to plan for these with their staff.

For example, there could be a “pre identified” group of staff who have declared a preference to flex through the day. The active management function we describe above can action these agreed "options”. For example, this could include asking staff to work split shifts “on the fly”.

Greater cross-channel flexibility has been enabled by the proliferation of more contact channels (chat and messaging) combined with the recent reduced need for face to face sales and service. By necessity, through the pandemic, banks and others have re-trained branch staff to handle chat and call work. We often recommend these multi-channel or hybrid teams because they create flexibility by enabling a company to arbitrage different service levels (e.g. turnaround forms in a day compared to 30 seconds responses on chat or calls). The company can gain flexibility by moving staff between chat and emails or calls and emails through the day. Adding other discretionary work e.g. outbound campaigns or enabling contact teams to do some processing work can add further flexibility. These options produce their greatest benefit when combined with the active management process described earlier.

New concierge models and flexible work pools have also been used to handle sudden extra volumes through the pandemic. In a recent example, a wealth management business knew that contact volumes would increase because of government approval for superannuation fund withdrawals. They needed to increase capacity quickly. They created a “concierge team” who were trained on a limited transaction set and a triage process. They completed some work themselves and then used well-structured questions to ensure work was better filtered and screened for other teams. They were able to mobilise this team in weeks and leverage the experience of the rest of the workforce. Through this change they handled the increased volumes without degraded service levels and using a lower cost workforce. This kind of model can also be combined with a temporary at-home work force e.g. students, who can be dialled up and down to add further flexibility in the model.

Conclusion

In this paper we have described some additional challenges for management presented by at-home working but also some proven solutions. It’s a great opportunity to add flexibility to how work and staff are organised. We’ve proven that the combination of these management techniques with more workforce flexibility can make at-home models very effective in giving staff the flexibility they need and organisations cost effective and sustainable solutions.

For more information email us at info@limebridge.com.au or call 03 9499 3550 or 0438652396.

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