On being mobile and remote

Last week I started to get to grips with being a fully remote worker for my new company. I am one of the very few (only?) employees who is not tied to an office but is home based and also mobile. Also this past week I facilitated a webinar on managing mobile workers for my previous organization, and so it seems like I am eating more dog food (see previous post on eating dogfood) but this week's is about mobile/remote working. The session I facilitated was the first in a series of monthly sessions targeted at managers in one organization. Each month there will be

A one hour input webinar for managers on a specific topic with hints and tips, guidance, ideas to apply
A guest speaker from an external organization giving a case on how they are tackling the topic, also an hour

Topics for the next 12 months are:

  • Overview of managing a mobile workforce
  • Setting up your team for success
  • Setting and managing performance expectations
  • Managing effective communication across mobile and on-site team members
  • Introducing new employees to your mobile environment
  • Building trust among and between mobile workers, managers, customers, etc.
  • Managing the work flow
  • Managing customer expectations
  • Managing employee issues with the mobile environment
  • Managing employee stress in an 'always-on' environment
  • Developing your team members skills for mobility
  • Support for you as a manager of a mobile workforce

This first webinar drew around 70 people from all across the organization's US offices and my part was to:

• Give some background into the factors which are now enabling mobile working
• Explain why organizations are interested in developing a body of skilled mobile workers
• Discuss the reasons why managers are often cited as a barrier to the introduction of mobile working

As I've spent the last two years working in this arena this was fairly straightforward. The interesting things were doing it by webinar (practicing what we are preaching), and opening up the discussion with managers on why they are seen as a barrier to the spread of mobile working.

One of the skills in a webinar (in our case Webex) is about encouraging people to speak, but how do you do that so people are not all trying to speak at once? We've tried asking them to raise their (on-line) hand to speak, putting their point in the chat box then the facilitator calls on the person to talk more about the point, asking one of the participants by name to speak, all of which have varied success.

We've also been learning things about the various ways the polling feature can be used to encourage participation, and the importance of putting some Webex protocols at the start of each session (e.g. put yourself on mute, change your phone number to your name on the list of participants, listen attentively, speak clearly and start by giving your name, and so on).

The piece about the managers being perceived as barrier to the extension of mobile working we vested in the things we've heard employees say about their managers, for example:

  • He won't promote me if I'm not on site meeting him daily.
  • She doesn't believe I'm really working when I'm teleworking.
  • He won't support my case for a home printer.
  • She thinks we'll get isolated and the team spirit will go.
  • He isn't comfortable using the collaborative technologies.

This we translated into organizational issues that managers need to develop the skills and confidence to address and resulted in a lively discussion around

  • Career development which is a concern for people
  • Measuring productivity and tracking progress that can cause challenges
  • The various policies and practices that can make supporting teleworking an issue e.g. whether or not a stipend will be given towards equipment
  • Employee motivation, connecting, and engagement that all need paying attention to
  • Interacting with teleworkers which requires good IT skills and being deliberate in managerial your actions

We concluded the session by focusing on what managers can do to develop their skills in managing a mobile workforce, the outcome of which was a short list of key points

  • Prove people wrong: show how you've learned to embrace mobility
  • Model new ways of managing: command and control gives way to cultivate and collaborate
  • Build on-line/on-site community with your teams: the collaborative platforms help
  • Develop protocols for keeping track of performance and productivity
  • Interact and communicate using a variety of media channels

Many of these topics are developed in the materials available from the Telework Research Network (US) and Fexibility.co.uk .

A useful article on remote worker teambuilding (of the multitudes available) is Rethinking team building in geographically dispersed teams: One message at a time by Rama Kaye Hart, Poppy Lauretta Mcleod Organizational Dynamics (2003). Volume: 31, Issue: 4. Here's the abstract:

This article focuses on how virtual teams build relationships among members based on the early communication that transpire within such teams. Prior work on team building has discussed the importance of focusing on relationship building in teams prior to working on tasks. The authors present evidence, at least with the virtual teams examined in this study, that a task focus in early conversations may be equally important to the development of virtual teams. The authors discuss the lessons learned in building virtual teams.

Two Linked-in communities which also cover the new ways of working are Big Bold Shift, and New Ways of Working/Impact

As mentioned, this past week was also my second week in the new job and the first week of being a totally remote/mobile worker – nearest office from me (in Washington DC) is New York. So as I was facilitating the webinar on mobile working I was reflecting on my own experience. The first thing to notice is the amount of equipment needed to be mobile working. My list currently reads – USB ports extension, mouse, external hard drive, headset and softphone, BlackBerry, laptop, USB flash drive, chargers x 2 (BB and laptop), power socket converter for international travel, spare batteries. So far so good. (I'm writing this in the UK now. I arrived here this morning).

But I'm also noticing the slightly adrift feeling – I need to find a better photocopier, scanner, how do I build community with my on-site co-workers who are 3000 (this week 6000) miles away? What should do on my business card – home address? What area code do I want my cell-phone/business phone number to be? In fact, several hours in the week were spent on setting up my phone system. In my new company on the softphone if you make a call out of the area code on the phone it is counted as 'long distance' and needs a project code before it will go through – this means call forwarding is problematic, etc. etc. Anyway, thanks to the incredible patience of the phone help desk person, and the ability to change phone numbers relatively easily while we experimented with the best set up I think it is all now working.

Next comes the task of helping colleagues help me e.g. on Webex and teleconferences by saying their names when they are speaking on a conference call, by encouraging them to remember that people on the call can't hear the introductory chatter going on in the room, or see the powerpoint being circulated, or eat the cup-cakes (no that was a joke – there were no cup-cakes last week as far as I know), and by following up with the follow ups because we won't be meeting randomly in the coffee area, and by using IM in lieu of the random meet-ups in the hallways, etc.

So last week I was giving the low-down on managing mobile workers and getting to grips with being truly mobile/remote myself in a new company. Is a week enough of face to face before going it alone? I think it could be particularly as I'm used to doing it over many years albeit with the safety net of an office within striking distance by bike. However, I'm reserving judgment for the moment. Meanwhile I'm calling the truly mobile/remote person I worked with in my previous organization for her helpful tips.