Home working: the problem is managers, not the team

I’ve seen a lot of comments lately – especially in LinkedIn groups – from managers who still seem to have a hang up about letting people work from home. The crux of it seems to be a mental block: “if I can’t see what they are doing, how will I know what they are up to?”

Oh, and the other old chestnut is “how can people possibly collaborate when they are more than a few feet apart?” Honestly, next thing we’ll hear is that the earth is flat. Go and watch Apollo 13 and see how people thousands of miles apart, work brilliantly together. It isn’t rocket science – it just requires breaking old habits and acquiring some new ones. Just like any other sort of change.

So how do we tackle the mindset issues around home working? Well, the first key change we need to implement is getting managers to stop focusing on activities (i.e. tasks) and get them to focus on outcomes instead. If we get our people focused on achievement it creates ownership. And through ownership comes results.

Of course people need to be motivated to get results. And that’s what leadership is all about. Managers who operate through “command and control” often can’t do motivation – it is all stick and no carrot. The issue therefore isn’t the trustworthiness of people working at home – it’s the absence of management and leadership skills.

The same managers often have an empowerment issue too. They want to be prescriptive about how things are done – rather than giving people control over the way they operate. That element of choice is another critical element of motivation. The “power to do my job, my way” being one of the biggest energisers uncovered in Chiumento’s own research.

The result is we have a cadre of “twitchy” managers who get stressed in any situation where they lack complete control. They suddenly lack power when people aren’t within arm’s length. It is all about them, their lack of ability and their need to monitor every detail, every minute of the day.

So how about the “there’s no water cooler” discussions argument? Well that one gets blown out of the water if people learn new skills around making conversations happen. Sometimes I don’t visit the office for weeks at a time. However I talk to everyone on a regular basis. I’ve just created “chat spots” in my diary when I go out and seek dialogue – rather than waiting for it to happen. And when I do go into the office I make sure my day is largely about social interaction – not just about meetings.

Of course you do need the systems to let people work successfully at home. Too many businesses are still in the dark ages on technology. For example I recently interviewed a recruiter who told me the only way she could access her company’s database was in the office. Her computer required a physical connection to a server via a cabled network. How quaint. People also need a proper workspace, not sitting at the kitchen table, to work well at home.

The real headset changer though is this. Instead of having a “home working policy” where the individual justifies not coming in, why not have one that requires the manager to make a business case for them being office based? In other words the assumption is everyone is home based unless decided otherwise. An “office working” policy if you like.

Office space is expensive. Travel to work is expensive – and has a significant environmental price tag too. Travel is tiring and people turn up stressed when transport links let them down. In a world where lives are ever more complicated due to twin careers, caring for relatives, escalating childcare costs, working longer etc, we need to be more flexible to win the war for talent. That way we can attract and retain the best talent. Who would go back to commuting – with all the time and cost implications that brings – after working from home?

Of course some jobs are more difficult than others to do virtually. However technology has a habit of breaking those barriers down one by one.

“Home is where the work is” has become the new reality. You just need a new breed of leader (rather than manager) to make it work.

Ian Gooden
Chief Executive

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