Managing mobile workers

Managers of mobile workers have the responsibility in ensuring that their staff are performing their tasks efficiently, effectively and productively regardless of their location or even their working hours. Some managers embrace mobility while others struggle to let go of the 9 to 5, at your desk mentality. This Mobile Insight series by Craig Mathias covers best practices for mobile user management that you can put to work immediately.

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Managers of mobile workers have the responsibility in ensuring that their staff are performing their tasks efficiently, effectively and productively regardless of their location or even their working hours. Some managers embrace mobility while others struggle to let go of the 9 to 5, at your desk mentality. This Mobile Insight series by Craig Mathias covers best practices for mobile user management that you can put to work immediately.

 In this series:

  Managerial styles
  Mobile employees and team-building
  Mobile worker strategies

 

Managerial styles  

I spend a lot of time working with managers at many levels across a broad range of enterprises, organizations, missions and industries, spreading the gospel of mobile and wireless and helping organizations take advantage of these. But one question -- unrelated to the mundane issues of technology, networks and computers -- comes up repeatedly: how to manage a mobile workforce. With an increasing number of key staff essentially "out of the office" on what is effectively a permanent basis, this is a fair -- indeed critical -- question. Many people, especially those in sales and service, really don't need (or even want) a regular spot in the office. Others, from engineers to call-center staff, can be quite productive working from home or even (OK, for some) a coffee shop. And yet management still has the responsibility to make sure that needed  activities are performed and that work is indeed getting done efficiently, effectively and productively.

Some managers naturally take to mobility with little encouragement. These people like the freedom that mobility implies and probably grew up with cell phones, wireless LANs and iPods. On the other hand, some managers require -- um -- a bit more encouragement.

A lot of managers suffer from what I like to call "Moses Complex," and they are easily identified by the fact that they refer to their staff as "my people." They define themselves and their role in the organization by the boss-worker relationship they have with their staff, and they tend to get nervous when said staff members are not in the office during normal working hours. Those who suffer from Moses Complex are the most likely to resist mobility in any form – they want people at their desks, where they can be easily found and -- well -- managed.

Mobility is fundamentally at odds with this decidedly less contemporary view of management. Today's themes are worker empowerment, decentralized decision-making and, most important, work as something you do and not a place where you go. I first started preaching this gospel many years ago, but I must confess that it has been only recently that advances in technology, most notably broadband wireless networks and powerful subscriber units, have allowed such a philosophy to be realized. We can now have mobile access to the Web and the enterprise network from almost anywhere, at broadband speeds, minimizing the need for knowledge workers to be in the office at all.

I'll discuss some of the techniques one can apply to mobile user management in my next section, but I want to leave those who still suffer from Moses Complex with a thought. Management theories to date have usually centered on management by objectives (MBO) with a corresponding carrot-and-stick reward system. Goals are set, tasks are assigned, and butts are often kicked. Contemporary workers, especially those under 30, have a serious problem with this style. My thought is that a different technique, often called management by commitment (MBC), is much more appropriate today. Indeed, I have used this technique since I founded Farpoint Group 17 years ago, and I have never had a problem managing a highly distributed (in fact, global) staff.

Here's how it works: Staff are offered opportunities to produce a deliverable. If they accept the assignment, they commit to a schedule, budget, and level of quality for the deliverable. Weekly meetings, usually via phone or Web-based conference, are used to monitor progress and milestones. Those who meet their commitments gain points; those who don't, lose points. It's really simple -- more points mean greater value to the organization, and fewer points mean someone may be in the wrong job. But, most important, it allows workers a high degree of freedom in terms of how, when and where they work. I've found that contemporary knowledge workers value this freedom -- fundamentally enabled by mobile information technologies -- above almost everything else in their work lives.

Next section, the nuts and bolts of mobile user management.

 

Mobile employees and team-building  

 

In the last section, I introduced some basic thoughts on how to manage a fundamentally mobile workforce. As I noted, work is now something you do, not necessarily a place you go. Modern communications and networking technologies, services and products allow us to be productive almost everywhere, if we develop the right habits and take advantage of the available tools. The savings on real-estate-related costs can be a big plus. But, of course, we also need to adapt management styles to fit a model where staff members aren't always collocated with either management or one another.

Let's start with individual work habits. I know a number of people who decided that they really could work from home or the road, convinced their management of same, and then ended up being -- umm -- less than productive. Surfing the Web, taking care of personal business, hanging out at the coffee shop (laptop open, of course) and checking the refrigerator occasionally are all necessary tasks, but getting the job done requires a commitment to self-discipline and self-management. So the first thing to do is  have a level-setting discussion with your employee -- is your personal psychology in tune with mobility, or do you need the reinforcement that a formal office brings? Be honest, because poor results have the same consequences no matter where you work.

With that out of the way, enterprises are, after all, about the team. But it's often hard to feel part of a team when you're off on your own. Relationships with co-workers in a mobile setting are more resource-based; they are not the location-based interdependent relationships that typify most traditional work environments. In other words, when you need something, you call or email or IM someone; you don't stop by to see them. Teamwork is defined by availability and responsiveness to needs, no matter where the requestor may be -- this implies that we need to make it easy for highly distributed staff to communicate with one another for both leverage and essential camaraderie.

The first step here is to make sure everyone feels part of a team. New field or off-site (or otherwise mobile) team members should make a visit to the company's main office to meet with and get to know the people they'll be working with, albeit remotely. Teams function better when there's a face and a personality behind the voice or email message. I also suggest regular (at least quarterly) one-day training and update sessions (yes, with lunch -- sharing a meal really brings people together) at headquarters, and not at a hotel, unless the group is really big. In addition to company, product, competition, industry, and other updates, it gives the field staff a chance to reinforce relationships with those at headquarters. Invite the local people in. Be sure to build unscheduled networking time into the event. Bottom line -- people who know one another work better as a team, no matter where they are. Being able to trust people you don't see every day makes all the difference.

A couple of technology elements can assist as well. First, make sure your company's shared-calendar/task-management/groupware software works on mobile devices. I'm particularly interested here in purely Web-based approaches because they're easy to roll out and run on a broad range of handhelds and notebooks. For an example, take a look at 37signals.com, which focuses on small business. I think Telepresence (or what I like to call videoconferencing 2.0) tools are invaluable, with shared-workspace tools like gotomeeting.com making the distance essentially disappear. Be sure, though, to keep your policies, monitoring and control systems up to date. Especially important is having in place an acceptable-use policy for all mobile devices and network access and facilities.

In the next section, I'll talk a little more about my personal approach to managing highly distributed teams. That is, after all, the essence of how I operate.

 

Mobile worker strategies  

Many years ago, when I was part of the team working on the first laptop computer at GRiD Systems Corp., we used (very early) floppy drives manufactured by Tandon Corp. Jugi Tandon, the company's founder and CEO, paid us a visit one day, and I remember him offering what he called the secret of his success: "Learn to operate distributed," he said. Of course, he was referring to having global operations, and he was way ahead of his time here. This was, after all, 1982.

But such is the norm today. We -- anyone in any business -- need to go where the action is: to customers, suppliers, new opportunities -- anywhere, anytime. That's what mobility is all about. And we need to take our IT arsenal with us, wherever we go, because we can't really be productive when we're away from the computational, informational and personal resources on the 'net and in our own shops. And, as we've seen so far, there's a lot to consider in making all of this work.

As I've discussed, an understanding of goals, objectives, schedules, budgets and methodologies must be in place before any other steps are taken to implement a mobile user management strategy. This is what management by commitment (MBC) is all about -- everyone involved must agree on the elements above with respect to every deliverable and objective. Trust is essential, as is  the right personal psychology to make highly distributed operations work.

But communication is essential too. It is important that folks in the field and on the road feel that they are not on their own and that they remain part of a team. Regular status meetings -- even if by phone or a shared, Web-based conferencing service (document conferencing is now a must) -- need to serve at least in part to reinforce this message. There are so many mobile tools available today that I could fill several columns with listings, commentary and reviews. I tend personally to favor open source products today, but whatever your choice, keep the toolset simple, functional, reliable and available. And, finally, look into mobile device management tools to make sure that network access and related polices are enforced.

A final cautionary note: We are still in the early days of mobile tools. Many assume that a wireless connection and the familiar basic desktop productivity suite are enough. As I've stressed above, communications, trust, reliance on a team whose members may not see one another more than once a quarter (and do invite everyone in for lunch at least this often, as I noted last time), shared access to schedules, marketing materials and a responsive help desk function are also critical. But I'd be remiss here if I didn't point out the possibility that wireless access and mobile computing can also be a form of tyranny.

Many mobile staff members that I have spoken with have complained about issues with "work/life balance," which is simply not knowing when the workday ends. Mobility has redefined the very nature of work, and this problem is real for many (and even sometimes for workaholics like me!). It seems we have pushed productivity to the limit; stories about sleep deprivation and working vacations are common, and I fear too much mobile IT may be driving us crazy, or at least to illness. Wireless and mobile technologies are supposed to make us more productive, not necessarily to make us more productive more often. As I often remind clients, every mobile device has an off button, though not necessarily in an obvious spot, and it is always a good idea to learn how to use it.

No matter what, though, distributed operations and mobility are becoming the norm. Successful enterprises in the future will, in fact, derive a greater part of their success from the effective application of the tools, technologies and management strategies that I have discussed in these columns. One other point -- you have probably noticed that I did not mention mobile information security in this series. That's because this topic is so important it deserves its own collection of articles, and we will start in on mobile security policies in our Mobile Insights series.

About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.

This was first published in April 2008

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