More and more organisations are moving towards a mobile workforce as they look to improve their agility, drive productivity and support the wellbeing of their people. But embracing new flexible working practices brings with it management challenges.
To mark National Work from Home Day, Emma Bullen explores how organisations can manage and engage their teams from afar.
As technology changes the world around us, we are forced to rethink long-established work practices, some of which date back to the industrial revolution.
Take office-based working, for example. Technology has collapsed the space between buildings, cities and countries, allowing us to communicate and share information instantly. As a result, organisations and employees are realising that they don’t have to share the same physical space in order to get work done.
This shift towards mobile working is slowly gaining ground, and is expected to be the norm in the coming years. Despite this, some organisations remain reluctant to move away from traditional ways of working.
A mobile workforce brings many benefits. For the organisation, this is a chance to cut overheads and downsize office spaces, while expanding the available talent pool beyond geographical constraints.
For employees, the chance to work from home or elsewhere can be liberating – especially for those who have struggled through gruelling daily commutes. The flexibility associated with mobile working helps employees strike a better balance between their work and private lives, resulting in a happier, more loyal workforce.
Adopting a mobile workforce could also help boost productivity. In a recent study by the Harvard Business Review, mobile workers were found to be 13.5% more productive than their office-based counterparts.
Making the transition
Despite the obvious benefits, transitioning from an office-based workforce to a mobile one represents a challenge for organisations, HR departments and people managers. After all, our work culture and processes have evolved around the idea of having most employees in the same place at roughly the same time.
Here are some of the key issues faced by organisations transitioning to a mobile workforce, and how best to overcome them.
A mobile workforce raises obvious concerns around data security – how do you ensure that information is kept safe when your employees are working remotely? As always, effective communication and training is key. Have a security policy in place that covers both office-based and remote workers, and ensure that all staff understand the responsibilities placed on them when working from home or elsewhere.
While organisations can never fully account for the human factor of data security – for example losing a company smartphone – implementing best practices such as data encryption and multi-factor authentication can go some way to mitigating the risks associated with mobile working.
Trust is a huge factor in any organisation, but this becomes even more acute when adopting a mobile workforce. In a traditional office environment, employees can be monitored, and a clear hierarchy exists. Unprofessional behaviour or low productivity are easy to spot – and employees know this.
A mobile workforce represents a potential risk, as managers don’t have the same level of contact with their team, and therefore cannot monitor their work in the same way.
Remote working will always involve a degree of trust between employer and employee; however, having a solid corporate culture based around values such as trust, honesty, openness and teamwork will ensure employees understand what is expected of them. These values should be embedded right from the start of the employment relationship, and should inform the major decisions you make in terms of recruitment, reward and recognition.
In any case, employees that are happy, supported and engaged are likely to repay the trust placed in them by their employer.
Remote working represents a particular challenge for people managers, whose experience is likely to involve being in the same space as their team. But despite the distance, effective management of remote workers involves the same key points: clear communication around goals and expectations, regular feedback and recognition, and clearly defined work processes.
In terms of productivity, the most important thing is that your employees produce high-quality work to deadlines. If they manage this, it is not so important how they got there, and remote working often gives them more control over how they manage their time. Realistic deadlines and an appropriate workload are the key to making this work.
Task management applications allow managers to organise and oversee the workflow of whole teams, and act as an ideal forum for discussing the progress of projects and tasks. This gives managers an overview of exactly what their team members are working on and when they can expect it to be completed. Such platforms also help remote workers see what their colleagues are up to, and how their work fits into larger projects and campaigns.
Social channels such as Slack and Yammer allow teams to stay in touch, give feedback and recognition, and share news. This goes some way to replace the social aspect of working in an office, and helps remind remote workers that they are part of something bigger.
Wherever possible, maintain regular communications with your team using video or conference calls. While social channels are great for keeping in touch on a daily basis, nothing replaces actually seeing and hearing your teammates. Our best ideas often comes when we collaborate, so ensure that regular meetings and discussions take place.
Similarly, ensure that regular face-to-face performance check-ins take place, even if digitally, to discuss performance, progress and goals.
From an organisational perspective, one of the biggest perks of a mobile workforce is the ability to spread the recruitment net beyond the region or even country in which you are based. Video calling makes it possible to carry out the whole interview process online, meaning candidates are no longer filtered according to their proximity to the office.
Expanding the recruitment network to have a truly global reach allows organisations to tap into new and emerging markets. And with talent in high demand on home soil, this could be just the answer that organisations are looking for.
Recruiting globally is not without its issues, however. Our attitudes and approaches to work differ vastly to those of other cultures, so a sensitivity to differing cultural nuances and expectations is key to making this work. A global workforce also means managing people in completely different time zones. This can work to your advantage, as you can ensure productivity 24/7, but it can also make communication and instilling a sense of teamwork difficult.
An unavoidable necessity
The move towards a mobile workforce seems unavoidable, and organisations that resist this change may find themselves left behind in terms of working practices, recruitment and reputation. While there are obvious challenges associated with this shift, they should be seen as growing pains rather than something to avoid altogether.
As technology improves and our attitudes change, organisations will increasingly realise the benefits of a mobile workforce – a happier workforce, improved productivity and lower overheads. For the employee, the increased flexibility and autonomy is likely to lead to a healthier work-life balance and a more positive approach to work.