The pandemic has motivated many organizations to allow, if not urge, their employees to work from home. However, even when working from home is possible for individuals and teams, it is not a given that the results will be positive. We studied remote work in a Fortune 100 company and learned that a substantial factor in the success or failure of working from home is determined by how supervisors assign tasks.
Leading remote workers and teams was already common pre-COVID-19 for multi-site organizations in which managers supervise workers and tasks that are distributed across the globe, particularly in locations that managers cannot easily and physically access. These days, the reality of the coronavirus pandemic has forced this to become the default way of work for many more managers – and the significant aspect to this is that many are managing from afar for the first time.
Working together at a distance imposes unique challenges for both managers and workers. Those who have tried it consistently point out three main problems: reduced communication bandwidth, loss of immediacy or delayed feedback, and limited interactions, both socially and in regards to tasks performed by others.
Researchers have proposed several solutions to substitute for the lack of face-to-face interaction, such as establishing clear engagement and communication guidelines, frequently checking in with remote workers’ progress, fostering social online interaction, and providing emotional support.
But communication might not even be even the biggest problem in regards to supervising remote work. In fact, we studied this phenomenon in a Fortune-100 technology and consulting services company where 76% of tasks are executed by remote workers. Our analysis of nearly 13,500 tasks shows that a key issue in success is how managers are matched with workers as well as how workers are matched to tasks.
We have identified four keys to boost the efficiency and success of remote work:
Assign simpler tasks to remote workers. When separated from their managers, the productivity of workers executing simple tasks does not normally suffer, but it falls substantially with the execution of complex tasks because these often require more communication about the requirements of the given tasks. Some things are simply best done in person. Reading body language, for example, is important in determining whether a worker has understood the instruction or is following an explanation. This is difficult to assess even during a video conference. Complex tasks also require problem solving, which in turn demands more frequent and extensive interaction between workers and supervisors, not to mention within the team as a whole. Understanding the problems that a subordinate is experiencing often requires context that is difficult to glean from a distance. Imagine a worker that is afraid of communicating to her supervisor that she is having difficulty executing a task. This is something that a manager could very likely pick up on quickly if meeting with her in a traditional face-to-face environment.
Thus, if the task assigned to a worker is complex, things are going to go better if the worker is in a physical location near the manager.
Reduce task interdependency. When tasks are highly interdependent and therefore require more coordination amongst workers, a remote worker in this situation performs better when collocated with the manager, because the manager can help facilitate the flow of information across various co-workers and stakeholders. Conversely, when the majority of a team is physically in one place while working on an interdependent task, there is less of a need for the manager of that team to also be physically present.
One way to deal with this challenge is to restructure the worker’s task such that it becomes less interdependent from other tasks. For instance, in the context of software engineering, managers can divide work into loosely coupled subroutines that can be devised independently by different specialists, provided that they meet certain interface constraints such as pre-defined information exchange protocols. Alternatively, if only some workers operate remotely, tasks with high interdependency should be assigned to those workers that remain collocated with the manager.
Spare expert managers for collocated workers. Remote supervision seems to reduce the effectiveness of experienced managers. This seems counter-intuitive because one would assume that experienced managers are better at handling remote workers. However, if a good digital workflow system is in place, a lot of the technicalities of leading remotely are ensured by the system rather than the expertise of the manager. Not only that but the seasoned ability of an experienced manager to motivate subordinates is actually reduced by remote supervision. For example, a skilled manager can sit with a distressed worker in the privacy of her office, get to know the worker’s situation, and provide advice that helps the worker move things forward. A rookie manager might not necessarily know how to do this and furthermore, remote location prevents inexperienced managers from excessively micro-managing workers, a behavior that is common among the recently promoted. The implication, therefore, is that if some workers remain at the office, it is better to have them collocated with seasoned managers while remote workers will do just fine at the hands of rookie managers.
Make sure your digitalized workflow system is up to speed. What if an organization has not created a digital infrastructure that supports task assignment, monitoring, and collaboration? Contrary to what we found in organizations with sophisticated IT systems, organizations with poorly defined digital workflow systems can be safeguarded by experienced managers. This solution only works as a temporary fix though, because these managers are a scarce resource and should be implemented wisely. In the long term, it is paramount that organizations put both resources and time into restructuring workflow processes and developing digital infrastructure that supports activities distributed across collocated and remote workers.
An activity as methodical as getting the digitalized workflow system in smooth order is not a flashy endeavor, especially when compared to the implementation of the latest trends in machine learning and artificial intelligence – but it is an essential one. In fact, a good digital process is a necessary stepping stone to more sophisticated digitalization and effective remote work. The pandemic has shaken the way many companies operate and what has become clear is that those companies that already had a well-established remote work system in place are the ones that have adapted smoothly to this new situation, with minimal disruption to their work operations. These are the companies that are thriving now and – because we are unlikely to return to a pre-COVID work environment – these are the companies that will be successful in the future.
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