Are you REALLY ready for a remote workforce? Part 1 - Culture
I am sitting here writing this on April 2nd, 2020 wondering what to make of everything that is going on around me. This COVID-19 panic has put us truly into unprecedented territory and no one has any answers for what comes next. I cannot help but think that the world as we knew it is forever changed, but I am really not sure what that means yet. I have been struggling with my own emotions. As a small business owner, I worry about my people, including Tia Eberline, who just started a few weeks ago. As a parent, I am gravely concerned at the decisions my oldest son is making and yet I am nearly powerless to do anything about it. I worry about my health, my sanity, and my own well-being. How is Kristina, my wife, holding up? Now, she won’t get to see her elderly mom with potentially the onset of dementia or the like once a week since both Georgia and Florida are on lockdown (mom lives up in Brunswick, GA – an hour and a half ride from here). So, my pressures have persisted beyond the work domain and I am sure many, if not all of you reading this, are in the same boat.
My creative juices have barely been a trickle until recent days because of all of this. I have things to say, but just haven’t been able to muster the energy and the creativity to get these things written down or the videos shot. But that has changed, at least for now, so here I am writing to all of you who work in the manufacturing and heavy industry sector like I do.
This pandemic has affected all of us. Most manufacturing plants remain open, although “non-essential” workers are being told to work remotely. I know global companies who have large teams of subject matter experts who typically travel globally quite extensively who are just grounded right now and have been for at least 4 weeks, if not 6 weeks. I can’t help but think that true productivity is taking a massive hit right now. However, it is my hope that EVERY manufacturing plant, power plant, or anyone in the heavy industries that we work in are rethinking their readiness for what has happened. Sure, who really could have predicted what we are seeing now 6 weeks ago? It just seemed like a far-fetched nightmare and “it won’t happen here.” But, it is here. My suspicion is that a LOT of companies were caught figuratively with their pants down. They weren’t (and probably still aren’t) prepared to have a large amount of their workforce work and actually be productive remotely.
In this three-part blog series, I would like to address 3 issues that I think every company is facing with regards to having an effective remote workforce. One is obvious, and the other 2 might not be so obvious. To have an effective remote team, you have to have:
A culture conducive to remote work and remote workers
Technology that supports these workers (obviously)
Tools so that people can still be effective doing their jobs
I would like to address culture first, as I think it is THE most overlooked, but by far the most critical component. In “traditional” businesses, culture is built often around a physical place of business. Everyone goes to physical locations where they can be trained, taught, coached, and mentored as they do their work. Managers can physically observe what their direct reports are doing. In a remote culture, that is much more difficult to do. How do I know Fred is really working as hard as he should be? Is Sally still happy and feeling challenged or is she looking for a new job? You can’t just drop by someone’s office, cube, workstation, etc. and see how they are. You can’t make eye contact or observe body language. So, how do we know all is well with our workforce, especially now when people can’t be together? You can know these things, but it takes more work.
I am going to give you 5 key pieces to building a good culture with a remote workforce. I have worked remotely since April 15, 2013 when I went to work for OSIsoft. I have worked for a culture that I thought did a great job with a remote workforce (OSIsoft), a company that was built around physical locations and admittedly struggled with the idea of a large remote workforce (Logical Systems), and have now run Industrial Insight for 3 ½ years, which has always been strategically designed around a remote workforce. So, I can speak to what works and what doesn’t, as I have experienced a lot in the last 7 years.
I have found that it can be very difficult for a company to make the transition to having a large remote workforce from having almost all people be present at physical locations, as I found out at LSI. Now, bear in mind, LSI really has a great company culture, a solid management team with great people on it, and lots of really great people at the company. So please, if anyone at LSI reads this thinking I am being critical, please don’t as I am not. It is just what has made this company extremely successful is around mostly teams working together around physical locations. I am just using my experiences there and from my observations of 25 plus years in manufacturing to steer people away from certain things and toward others specifically as it relates to a largely remote workforce. The way you manage a workforce at physical locations is just drastically different than managing a large, remote team.
With that said, here are the 5 critical areas you need to focus on if you want a GREAT remote workforce:
I think that this is an incredibly overlooked and undervalued piece of the puzzle. The team at OSIsoft went to great lengths to make sure all new employees understood the mission, vision, and values of the company. I had to travel to San Leandro, CA twice for two different training classes where I was taught these things – what we made, why we made it, and why it was important. It didn’t matter if I was an account manager, a tech support engineer, an HR representative, or any other position. I would have to go and learn all of these things so that I would feel connected to the mission of the company. I am not sure if I ever felt more connected to a company’s mission (other than the one I run now) than I did there.
OSIsoft went to great lengths to make sure that all of its new hires knew WHY they were there, felt connected to the mission, and also felt connected to people within the company. Everyone was introduced to all different parts of the company – development, tech support, the management team, legal, HR, and the like. We knew people’s names and faces. These people that came in sat down and ate with us and got to know us as people during these two training sessions.
I also distinctly remember that my laptop, business cards, and other items I needed were shipped to my house well before my first day. When I logged into my email for the first time, I had a bunch of emails as there was an announcement of my hire and when I would be starting. My manager told people to reach out and say hello. Boy, did they! He had told the company of some of my interests, so some people connected with me on those interests. As an example, I was invited to the morning running group at the 2013 User’s Conference, where I would spend the first week of my tenure there. It was there that Carol Jackson, who would teach those two training classes in San Leandro that I mentioned above, introduced me to one of my customers, who I ran 6 miles with. To this day, Chip and I remember that run and remain on very good terms.
So, literally, before my first day I was made to feel valued and important. The company took time to invest in me and tell me all about its mission and made sure to let everyone else I was trained with know how we could each contribute to that mission.
In contrast, my first day as a Rockwell Automation Sales Engineer (ironically, I was not a Rockwell employee at the time), I had no laptop (took at least 3 days to get it), no business cards (that I remember), and other than a some quick paperwork and a meet and greet of the folks in the office, I was pretty much left to my own vices for several days. Did they not know I was starting that day? At least, that is how I felt. It was boring and left me feeling a bit hollow. However, I did work around great people, had a great boss, and really ended up enjoying my experience there despite the rough start. However. the onboarding experience could have been much, much better.
In that light, every hire I have made has had on or before their first day (among other things):
6 company shirts
Their computer and all associated equipment with all software licenses required and all accounts ready to go
I have made sure that we have spent time together as a company and as people in those first few days. I tell them about our mission. I get to know them as people and I truly try to make them feel valued.
If you don’t do this well, when people have to work remotely, they are MUCH more likely to drift than when they know the mission and their part in it. Find a way to make sure that all new hires feel a part of the mission and that they buy in. Heck, they should be bought in to the mission before they walk in the door, but that is another subject.
This one is certainly logical right? We have to talk and communicate with our people right? Well, as a remote workforce, you can just see someone in the hall and say “Oh yeah, George, I meant to tell you…” and you can’t just drop by a cubicle or an office and say hello. It is really easy for me to burn a whole day working and other than a few work-related emails, I didn’t connect with my team. So, I purposely try to communicate with my team as much as possible, but without being bothersome, which is a delicate balance. Feeling wanted and valued versus feeling smothered are really not that far apart. You have to make communication a priority and it has to have a purpose, if only to make a stronger human to human connection.
With Ben and Tia, we communicate by Teams, Zoom, or phone several times a week and sometimes, several times a day depending on what we are doing. Eric is dedicated to a customer and he is busy with customer meetings and customer demands. With him, I try to connect once or twice a week by phone or Teams (with video), and we often chat through texts or Teams messages. That way, he can answer at his leisure. Eric is a 30 year veteran in this field and Ben and Tia haven’t reached age 30 yet. So, what they need from me is also different. So, you really have to cater to the communication needs and styles of your team.
I also try to make sure that a fair amount of the conversation is directed at personal matters or just talking as people and not about company business. Remember, you can’t just drop by and see a sad face or watch someone walking with slumped shoulders down the hall. You have to listen well, and you have to learn when your people sound happy, tense, stressed, relaxed, or any other myriad of emotions as you can. I use video as much as possible and try to read their eyes and body language. You have to know your people and your people have to know each other. That way, your team can pick each other up when one of them is down.
On the business side, I ask how I can help. I ask them if they know what they should be doing. I ask them if expectations are clear. I follow up on things I have asked them to do, much like any other leader would. However, as a remote team, it is easy to have a day (or days) go by and realize that I haven’t talked to my people. I literally have to go out of my way to make sure that I stay connected. Today, I was excited to hear how much Ben and Tia are collaborating, but I also asked them to reach out to Eric once a week collectively and check on him. You see, the day is coming fast when I simply won’t have the bandwidth to touch everyone often enough and I want to make sure that the culture is one of inclusion and of caring. You have to breed a culture where you put people in situations where they have to work together or collaborate, and sometimes, you just have to make them feel uncomfortable and reach out to someone they don’t have a common thread with work-wise. You have to realize that a new project or initiative may come up and two people who generally don't work together or communicate much suddenly are working closely together. So, I try to encourage people to reach out now and then to others, even when they aren't working together. That way, no one ever feels alone and there is at least some familiarity when people who have never worked together suddenly have to work together. Also, it makes sure that no one feels alone.
When I was at OSIsoft, the closest employee to me was a 6 to 8 hour drive away. I talked to my boss on average once a week, but I NEVER felt alone. Sherwood Pilgrim was assigned as my mentor (more on mentoring later). He talked to me almost every day. He introduced me to people that I needed to know in the company and helped always make me feel connected.
When you have a remote team, communication has to be on purpose, because there just is no opportunity to communicate by happening by someone’s cubicle or running into them in the hall.
Working at Industrial Insight can afford many freedoms of when and how we work. Eric and I stay locked in at our remote offices most days. Ben would much prefer to work at a coffee shop (so this stay at home order is driving him mad). Tia will figure her rhythm out. Eric and I are usually online early and finish early. Ben will often start later and work later, and he often takes extended breaks during the day between intensive work times.
Each of us have different work methods and styles and most often can work our own flexible schedule. However, with that freedom also comes responsibility. We actually have to get work done efficiently and expediently. So, I try to set really clear expectations of work output, when things need to happen (when that is truly in play), and I really try to set clear expectations as to what any next steps are.
When you have a remote team, you have to make sure that you establish very clear expectations and guidelines and that they are followed. You have to communicate what is due by when and follow up, just as you would if you were in an office. You can’t simply drop by someone’s workstation to talk progress and clear up expectations. For whatever reason, it is easier as a remote team to not follow up, to not ask questions, and to drift. So, setting clear expectations of quality, timeliness, and completeness are even more critical.
As I just stated, we get lots of flexibility in what we do at Industrial Insight. Often, our assignments can be done at any hour of the day. I do set a clear expectation with my people, however, in that we do all we can to accommodate our customers’ schedules. We have way more flexibility with our time than they do. So, if a customer needs to meet with us at a normally “inconvenient” time for us, we do all we can to accommodate.
There have been times when I took a morning or afternoon to go fishing and then either worked late into an evening (or two) or for a few hours on the weekend to make up for the lost time. I have seen Ben travel to see family and will drive a few hours, then work a few hours at a coffee shop, then drive, then work at the coffee shop, etc. Eric and his wife both travel a fair amount for their jobs and they have to take turns shuttling kids around when they are home. Tia is a single mom with a busy child. So, flexibility is really important for all of us, but it also means different things to each of us given our styles and where we are in our lives.
I always tell my people that they have flexibility on when they work, as long as the work gets done. That is a clear expectation I have set. When it gets done during the workday, well, that is up to them.
As a manager of a remote team, you HAVE to give your people the flexibility they need to be their most productive self, and the TRUST in that they will get the job done. Too many leaders are micromanagers or just don’t get how important worker flexibility is. I realize every business is different, but give your people as much flexibility as you can, and they will thrive. Sometimes, a person’s most effective hours are not the traditional 8 to 5 ones that have been held so dear so long.
Consider flexible schedules, 4 day weeks, and any other changes that allow your people to thrive, while balancing the needs of your business. If people feel in charge of their schedules and their time, they can get way more done (as long as they are on a mission, have clear expectations, and are communicated with).
As I have mentioned above, Sherwood was my mentor at OSIsoft. I mentored Ben here, who is now mentoring Tia. When Industrial Insight is a team of 10, 15, 20, or more people, it just won’t be feasible for me to mentor everyone, so I am trying now to breed a culture where our senior people mentor our junior people now. The best way to breed a good culture is to have good mentors, and people who understand the mission well to mentor those coming into the organization.
If I wasn’t a self-starter, I have had several roles where I wasn’t mentored well and I would have struggled to perform well because no one really mentored me and my boss could only do so much. I would often seek senior people and informally have them mentor me. That helped a lot, but I often wonder what would have happened if I didn’t take that initiative. As a leader, you need to have a mentoring program of some type in place, even if informal. Don't force your people to go find their own mentors, as they may choose the wrong people and your culture can get adversely affected quickly.
I strongly believe in mentoring. It breeds the right culture and builds future leaders at the same time.
I think so many companies miss the mark on one or all of these points. Again, we WILL have another global pandemic or some other event that will cause our teams to have to go remote. Are you as a leader ready? Is your company culture ready? What are YOU going to do to make sure that you are ready for this the next time it happens? Hopefully, I have given you food for thought. Comments and suggestions are always welcomed.