In my last column, 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.
Next time, 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.
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