The rise of digitally connected distributed work — where instead of everyone commuting to a shared office, people work from home or other locations — has improved the work-life balance for many, but it's raised new challenges for the organizations they work for. How to keep people aligned on goals? How to maintain a sense of shared culture? How to make sure everyone is performing at their best?
When I last looked at these questions, it was in conversation with Phil Libin, CEO of All Turtles and mmhmm, who advocates a high-trust model in which individuals are left to manage themselves:
If I'm just working I shouldn't be checked up on. I shouldn't have to do status updates. I shouldn't have to prove that I'm working other than through the results.
This works for Libin’s companies because the high-tech startup can pick and choose its recruits, but it's not an approach that works for everyone. Other companies adopting a distributed teamwork model have found that these teams seem to work best if there's an explicit management structure and lines of accountability. Last month, to coincide with the launch of new features in Zoho Workplace, I spoke to two of its customers, who have been operating virtually even before the pandemic brought this pattern of work into the mainstream. Each of them had evolved new management and reporting structures to help their distributed teams achieve their best work.
Blue Beyond, a management consulting company with over 100 employees spread across the United States, has always had employees working virtually since the firm was founded in 2012, even though it also had a corporate office where people would frequently meet up. It was able to keep working without a pause when the pandemic arrived, but it found the lack of personal contact created a need for a more formal management structure. It put in place a three-layer model, with individuals reporting to one or two managers who interact with the leadership. Lynn Martin, Head of Finance & IT Systems Process, explains:
We went from a fairly flat structure, not having tiers of management. Everybody was flat, and everybody did their own work. Over the course of the pandemic, we decided that we needed to put all those processes into place ...
In order to make people be efficient at work, and really understand what that expectation was for them, we decided that they actually did need to report somebody. Somebody did actually need to say, 'This is good work,' or, 'This is good enough,' or, 'Sorry, but you missed the mark. This is what we expect.'
ABA, which provides accounting and tax services to physicians and small businesses, had gone through a similar process. The company, which has 135 employees spread across 30 states in the US, plus three who are based abroad, has been working remotely for six years now. It found that as it expanded, it simply made sense for employees to work from home rather than taking on extra office space to accommodate them. But although workers had supervisors who reviewed their work, there was no oversight of performance. Robert Craig, COO at ABA, says:
We found [supervisors] were growing in their management skills. [The question was] how do we help? How do we help them become the managers that they need to be, communicate what we're wanting them to communicate, as well as the employee actually understanding what our expectations are?
The company created an infrastructure using Zoho for measuring results, which then gave it a framework for setting those expectations. He continues:
We were able to pull those numbers and look at our resource utilisation. We were looking at the number of projects completed, the number of clients that were staying, and the number of them that were leaving ... and we were able to make better decisions from a management perspective ...
Not only did we develop management training, so that we could set the expectations with them. But we also learned that we needed to communicate — there's some things that directors need to communicate, versus some things that managers can communicate.
Regular check-ins help keep everything on track. Craig says:
What I came up with was this weekly check-in. The two things that we're focused on the most is our positive corporate culture, and is production getting done, because that makes clients happy. So it's just a two-question weekly check in. Every manager, every supervisor, completes those for every employee that reports to them. And then we set the expectation of what that communication is supposed to look like ... It's very simple and very easy.
Although Craig says this process does help to weed out backsliders who try to “fly under the radar” in a remote work environment, the main point is to provide a touchpoint for both sides. The company also has weekly calls for teams and supervisors. He adds:
I think that everybody needs to be productive and interacting, and be part of the work environment. We've set up weekly calls with the teams themselves — the supervisor, and then their teams, and then weekly one-to-ones.
We supported that with, here's what management's looking for, here's how you're going to hold your team members accountable. All that information is right there and easily shared with both sides through Zoho.
The one-to-one relationships are the crucial element. He adds:
It's really relationship, it's personality. It's understanding what they're working on at the time, which happens during their one-to-one. The formal piece is the weekly one-to-ones and the group one-to-ones each week. Those are the formal pieces, but then at the detail level, it's just the daily interaction, it's questions, it's submission of work that is expected to be done within that period of time.
Blue Beyond’s Martin agrees with the notion of building relationships. To help build up a team spirit, the company has a regular “lunch roulette” where people are randomly paired for a virtual meeting with a colleague they may not otherwise meet. She says:
It's on the company's time to meet for a lunch date with somebody, to talk from anything from work to not-work, your kids, your social life, to let people get to know each other better.
Building these relationships helps create a sense of loyalty to the team. She explains:
Getting to know that connection, which helps foster the core [sense of], 'I'm letting my team down if I'm not doing my all. Somebody's going to notice that I'm letting my team down.' So we really work on building that team atmosphere — you are something bigger than yourself.
Despite all of these mechanisms, remote work doesn't suit everyone. She comments:
A lot of the people that we hired definitely came from water cooler, they came from office structures. They love the idea that they get to work remote, but what does that really mean for them to set their own hours for them to deadlines, what that expectation is? ... Some people, while they like the idea of working in their pyjamas at home at first take, they don't really like that much freedom, that much autonomy ...
But definitely attrition in our company does occur for people that are like, 'I want to go back to an office. I didn't realize how much I missed connecting with other humans.' And then we have people that are like, 'If I never see or meet any of you in 3D, I'm totally happy with it.'
When new recruits join, it’s important to give them ways of feeling part of the team and getting up to speed with how the company works. She says:
We partner people up right away with a buddy on a different team to help them. We really spend time teaching our culture, what are our best practices?
Clarity, which Libin also emphasizes, is a key quality. Craig says:
You can't hold somebody accountable for something unless you set the expectations first. You've got to tell them upfront what you're expecting. Accountability is easy after that, because you've already set.
Now, you have to communicate it multiple times, in multiple ways, because people learn differently, they hear differently, they have all these things going on, personally and then in their business life as well. So you need to understand that people need to have it communicated multiple times. Communicate it, set the expectation.
Management then at that point is, 'Well, what did you do on these three points that we talked about? Here's the expectation. So how did you perform in these areas?' It's made the accountability piece, even in a remote environment, so much easier and made those conversations so much easier.
Enterprises are still figuring out how to manage digital teamwork across a distributed workforce. It requires new disciplines — the old models that were designed for people rubbing shoulders in a shared office don't cut it. In particular, fuzzy guidelines and instructions don't survive the transition to a distributed context. Clarity comes through as an essential principle, ensuring that expectations are fully communicated. At the same time, special attention must be paid to building up the relationships and team spirit that happen implicitly in a shared office but need to be specifically nurtured among those working remotely.