With the Covid-19 virus far from eradicated, the health need for managers to work from home is expected to continue for at least another 6-12 months.  Companies large and small are now advising their employees that remote work will continue through summer 2021.  This situation is indeed, after all, going to be “a marathon and not a sprint.”

Many businesses have been successful in the work-from-home model, and by and large the results have been surprisingly acceptable.  While many of us expected simple negative effects like workers slacking, in fact a recent Bloomberg survey of 26,000 companies found that the average workday lasts 48.5 minutes longer under the new arrangement. (And has more meetings!)

So, is there a problem?  One real concern of working from home is the impact on productivity that is dependent on superior teamwork and creativity.  Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported on teamwork-intensive projects suffering from lack of in-person communications and the ills that accompany being disconnected, including reduced innovation and sagging motivation.  There have also been reports of decreasing creativity even in long-time telecommuting environments at companies such as Aetna, Yahoo, AT&T, and IBM.  

What all this means is that companies will need to figure out how to move to a Work-At-Home 2.0 model.  As I wrote in Forbes last month, even organizations that are doing well in #WFH will eventually suffer a slowdown in their “cultural momentum.”  For a company to stay productive—and handle the stresses of the economic down-turn forecast for the next year—it must instill the skills and practices that boost remote work.  These skills, as shown by experience before the pandemic, do not develop rapidly by themselves.

What are examples of such skills and practices?  Experienced manager (SVP of strategy, pricing and business development at LexisNexis; Executive Head of Market innovation at Bloomberg) and consultant (EY, McKinsey, and BCG) Rob Docters of Abbey Road Associates notes, and I agree, that companies must identify the range of substitutes for in-person practices deployed by superior managers before the pandemic: ideation and critique/review sessions; in-personal collaboration “at the whiteboard”; and the potential for serendipitous “creative collisions.”

From his consulting work, Rob cites the example of a top sales leader at Verizon who advocates a breadth of tools for communicating and monitoring priorities with workers who do not enjoy being closely managed.  These are important because while the most basic ritual—meetings—still continues via video, more subtle forms of connectivity like leaving a note on an employee’s desk, or talking over a coffee break or an after-hours drink, are no longer available.

Also absent is the spark of informal and impromptu discussion.  Creativity has been closely linked to brainstorming, rapid problem solving, straw-men scenarios, and serendipity of ideas.

Also absent is the spark of informal and impromptu discussion.  Creativity has been closely linked to brainstorming, rapid problem solving, straw-men scenarios, and serendipity of ideas.  Sadly, formal processes like reporting in and status checks seem to be the enemy of those kinds of creativity.  Managers have learned to be short and to the point during reports to superiors.  They have learned that team meetings can be battlegrounds for attention and favorable reviews.  “Thinking outside the box” and trial-testing new ideas do not serve ambitious and smart managers well, and in a virtual environment creative solutions can meet with incredulous calls for hard evidence, or are excluded by a narrow focus on an immediate solution—resulting in a partial, but at least readily accepted, answer.

One cure for resistance to new solutions is for senior managers to move their subordinates’ objective from one solution to several.  If you ask for a single solution you will get a single solution, and probably the most politically palatable one.  If you ask for two solutions, then there is room for more than the most prosaic.  Rob described a moment of insight when working with Shiseido, a leading cosmetics firm. The executive responsible for one of its large regions deliberately ran two dialogues with product and channel managers, each with a mixed functional team of two or three managers.  The teams were asked for an action plan to address neglect of a key product by retail channels, and each team was allowed two recommendation.  The result of a lot of informal dialogues between team members was a set of tactical and branding solutions—as well as a suggestion to sell the neglected product line.  In this case all the solutions were adopted over time.  

Many executives will respond that they “don’t have time” for this sort of “elaborate” decision making.  That’s a mistake.  These are exactly the kinds of dialogues and group learning activities that were most effective before the pandemic.  Furthermore, there’s not really a choice: rapid or glib answers, unsupported by real strategic thinking, just means that the problem will require future re-examination, costing more time and probably implementation delay as well.

Starting tomorrow, your company must empower leaders with a fuller toolkit for incenting and guiding managers during work-at-home.

Starting tomorrow, your company must empower leaders with a fuller toolkit for incenting and guiding managers during work-at-home.  To begin with: don’t treat all managers identically.  Most senior managers know which of their reports are “meat and potatoes” grinders, which are inspiring and motivating, and where others fall on that spectrum.  They also know who are confident and who are sensitive and how much attention each needs.  We need to start re-thinking management because of this pandemic, and that rethinking will bear fruit when we are back to “normal.”  The best customer-centric companies learned long ago to succeed by empowering decisions at the point of customer contact.  Managers need the same empowerment to make decisions at the point of employee contact, devising the best way to manage as the situation demands.

The best Work-at-Home 2.0 techniques will be subtle, and they will avoid the error of applying the wrong practices to the wrong people.  For instance, time spent in (video) meetings has uniformly increased since the pandemic.  Often, when an insecure middle-manager cannot see eye-to-eye with his boss, that manager will spend more time preparing (often needlessly) with his team—wasting everyone’s time.  The solution is to be more specific in asks of this manager.  Instead of “give me X,” which will provoke a lot of meetings between the insecure managers and their team, divide your requests between problem-solving and executional tweaks.  Try, “You and I need to discuss problems Y and Z in the near future” and then “Please see that your team does more of A, B and C.”  

In the case of more capable managers, including those whose span of control is broad, make a practice of bypassing chain of command and speaking directly to the execution team without the manager.  For many organizations this is a good practice at any time, but during remote work it can improve efficiency since less information is lost.  For instance, one information services company found that middle managers were imagining a pricing problem, when the sales staff was able to confirm it was the delivery timelines.  (Rob describes this case study in his book Contextual Pricing.)

“The only thing constant is change,” as the philosopher said, and challenges to effective management are never-ending.  The companies that prosper despite trying times are the ones that can and do adapt rapidly—and these are the ones most likely to accelerate out of the pandemic.  Lagging now or hoping things will “return to normal soon” just means that you’ll have more to make up when things improve.  

Do you dare wait that long?

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