Manager: how well do you master the art of remote work, on a scale of 0 to 4?

Apr 20, 2020

8 mins

Manager: how well do you master the art of remote work, on a scale of 0 to 4?
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

With the Covid-19 lockdown and crisis, telework is now talked about in a rather binary way. There are jobs that allow it (those behind a computer) and those that don’t (healthcare, logistics, transport). Therefore, either your team is teleworking or it is not. In between are only two options: unemployment or permanent cessation of activity.

Yet in normal circumstances, telework, like management, is not a binary thing. There are multiple ways of organizing the work of your team remotely and countless tools. Covid-19 aside, telework is actually more like a spectrum: you can choose to have a small dose of it, or a lot of it. There is a world between a day of remote work every now and then, for which a manager’s explicit permission must be obtained, and working where you like when you like with complete flexibility and autonomy.

When it comes to organizing work, cultural differences are critical. We are not equal when it comes to teleworking. In order to ensure the continuity of their business activity, many managers have had to propel their team into full-time teleworking overnight. But the culture, processes, and tools that these teams had before put them in very different situations today. Many of them merely replicate the (face-to-face) organization of office work… without the office to do so.

To help you understand where you are on the telework spectrum, here’s a description of the 5 different levels. For those of you who like martial arts, it’s a bit like judo belts (from white belt to black belt), but I’ll call them level 0 to level 4. Depending on where you were on this scale before confinement, your experience of forced telework will necessarily be different. For each level, I examine culture and management, tools, and the reality of work as perceived by those who do it.

(Please note that this scale concerns office jobs that can’t technically be done remotely, not service jobs that require direct contact with clients, nor delivery jobs).

Level 0 of telework: “Work has to be done at the office, period.”

Culture and management: Level 0 fits companies in which hierarchy is particularly strict. If you can’t watch your team at work, then nothing will happen. They won’t work. To understand level 0, it’s useful to read Douglas McGregor. In a 1960 landmark book titled The Human Side of Enterprise, he wrote about “Theory X” which is based on a series of assumptions about the typical worker. He/she has no ambition, avoids responsibility, is lazy, prefers to be led, and chooses to deploy their intelligence only to circumvent regulations. He/she doesn’t like working, so it’s best to watch them or threaten them if you want the work to be done. For level 0 managers and companies, telework is for people who want to sleep in.

Tools: Data security is a major concern. There is a deep mistrust towards cloud-based applications. So the tools used by the team do not allow remote work. Everything has to be decided by the IT department, which generally makes long-term plans. And when you’ve just sunk several hundred thousand pounds into a tool, you’re not going to abandon it overnight (see our article about “The deceitful impact of the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ on your decisions”). (This is not to say that cyber security is not often a legitimate concern! It is.)

Reality: Even though it’s not officially recognized, there is always a bit of informal telework going on in the team. Most people have personal smartphones and will do emails during their commutes. Also, some exchanges between colleagues will take place on tools that aren’t provided by the company (Whatsapp, in particular). Whenever possible, workers will in fact bypass existing systems. Sadly this telework comes in addition to the mandatory presence at the office and generates no recognition.

Level 1: “We’ve started a test phase on 1% of the staff. After an 18-month study, 15% of the staff will be allowed to work remotely for 1 day per month starting in 2022”

Culture and management: Pyramids and silos remain a reality, but the company is making itself ready for a “transformation” because times are changing. Theory X is still in the company’s DNA, but you are aware of it and want things to change! You know that for the company to remain attractive to candidates, you can’t afford to look too old-fashioned. You love talking of “transformation” all the time. Perhaps a bit too much. This could be a case of “transformation-washing”…

Tools: As with level 0, there are some constraints when it comes to tools and cyber security. Everything must be decided by the IT department and nothing can be improvised. But you know things should be more flexible. The company is working hard to find promising solutions by 2024. In addition, some teams are testing a few cloud-based tools… because you know that startups do things differently.

Reality: Between what’s formal and what’s informal, there is a huge gap. From one team to the next, things are done very differently. Individuals are already using SaaS (software as a service) tools in their private lives (in their professional lives too, but unofficially). Presenteeism is a drag. You have to take a day off if you need a plumber to come to your home. And frankly, it’s ridiculous because you could have worked half a day at home!

Level 2: “We telework regularly … but the culture of the team is so important that we spend most of the time on video calls”

Culture and management: Telework is a reality. We must all face the fact that new work tools, the internet, and smartphones have given workers the gift of ubiquity. You can work anywhere. But when you’re not physically present in the office, you have to be present online, all the time. Work, real work, is done at the office. Without an office, how would you preserve your culture and team spirit? You like to collaborate, and collaborate you will! So, when you telework, you replicate the organization of office work… online. Your workers feel constantly compelled to prove that they are indeed working. They are always connected to their coworkers. And a lot of meetings are held via videoconferencing. In theory, to be able to do telework, workers have to request permission from their managers. So there are some hints of Theory X at play… You don’t really take full advantage of the possibilities offered by teleworking.

Tools: People have some freedom when it comes to choosing teleworking tools. In fact, there is a collaborative tool in the Microsoft pack called Teams. Anyone who has the Microsoft pack (i.e. everyone) can use it. You have a good command of videoconferencing tools because you have tested a lot of them.

Reality: Many of the companies propelled into teleworking by the Covid-19 crisis are at level 2. It is not easy to switch to 100% teleworking overnight! Many workers experience higher stress levels. They have to spend more than half their time on calls and may feel that they can no longer concentrate on their work. The more introverted personalities may feel even more frustrated than usual. In some cases, it’s as if they were combining the worst of office work (with the feeling of not being in control of their time) and the worst of telework (communication is diminished by a lack of physical rituals, people feel isolated and stressed). They are experiencing Zoom fatigue. But hey, they are doing their best to keep doing good work…

Level 3: “Deep work is important. Let’s work asynchronously at least half the time!”

Culture and management: In your team, work is divided into deep work (concentrated creative work) and shallow work (more superficial work, like emails and meetings). You still have an office because there is no better place for team meetings and rituals, but you and your people don’t have to be there all the time. You go there if we have meetings or client appointments, and also for the sheer pleasure of seeing your colleagues and drinking coffee with them, or brainstorming with them. The rest of the time, you prefer to work asynchronously, to get the most out of telework, which is first of all a great way to concentrate on a creative task, like writing, thinking, building… Telework is not really an issue, because you lean towards what Douglas McGregor called “Theory Y”, i.e. control and punishment are not the only ways to make people work and you assume your people are internally motivated, enjoy their job, and work to better themselves with a direct reward in return. They have a growth mindset. They tend to take responsibility for their work. They don’t need supervision to do quality work. You prefer to let them self-organize.

Tools: You’re quite familiar with all sorts of tools. You know the best SaaS tools like the back of your hand. Everything you do is in the cloud. In fact, it’s your business because you’re either selling SaaS or cloud services, or you’re advising companies on how to use SaaS and move to the cloud. You know that your team’s agility comes with successive iterations. You change tools often. It is your users or your people who drive innovation bottom up.

Reality: The problem is that you often tend to work a little too much because the boundaries between work and leisure are blurred. That’s why people like to practice digital “detox” from time to time to recharge their batteries and improve their cognitive abilities. The ubiquity of work offers great flexibility in the management of people’s time, but they don’t always find it easy to do so. It helps to create artificial boundaries (and rituals) to maintain a separation between work and life.

Level 4: “We don’t have an office. We never even had an office”

Culture and management: Culture and management have a lot in common with level 3, but without an office. You are used to managing distributed teams on a daily basis. These teams are sometimes in different time zones. Your “people” are not necessarily employees because many of them choose to be self-employed. You use the dispersion of your team and the fact that you have no office to promote your employer brand and access the best talent across the world. You communicate a lot about remote work and like to promote new ideas about management.

From time to time, you and your people like to meet in the flesh. So you travel and rent a coworking space whenever you need to. Twice a year or more, you organize a company retreat in a charming place so your whole team can get to know one another. Even onboarding you can do remotely. To make sure everything goes well, you’ve devised a buddy system so that no one feels abandoned. There’s a role buddy who can answer questions specific to the newcomer’s role in the company, a leader buddy (you don’t like the word “manager”), and a culture buddy who makes sure that the new recruit is a good fit.

You’ve read all the books by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of Basecamp and authors of Rework, Remote and It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work. In fact, you know them by heart or you could have written them.

Tools: Like the level 3 teams, you are natives of remote and collaborative tools that enable remote work. In fact, you’ve invented everything in that area. You are the pioneers of open source and collaborative work. You are… Basecamp, Buffer, Gitlab, Automattic, and the like!

Reality: For a long time, companies without an office remained extremely rare and marginal. They were seen as somewhat extreme “hippies”. But today, with the Covid-19 crisis, these companies are seen as pioneers who are one step ahead. Also, this crisis comes with a major economic crisis during which many companies are struggling to control their cash to survive. The absence of high fixed costs like those associated with having an office is a considerable advantage. It is easy to imagine that more and more companies will choose not to have an office. It is always possible to rent meeting rooms or offices “on demand” when you need to meet and see your colleagues “in the flesh”. Even without an office, you can still appreciate the valuable moments you spend in the physical presence of your peers.

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