Updated: Nov 10, 2020
Even before the pandemic, many organisations were moving their method of working towards flexibility. Remote work, client-site work, satellite-branch work, and hotdesking were the forces driving many owners, managers and facilities staff to reconfigure their workforce locations.
But with this restructuring, the location of workers and distributed teams comes with several significant challenges and risks. If not addressed, they can become a threat to the very existence of an organization.
While there are many advantages that come with the flexibility of distributed and remote work, it is a double-edged sword. Remote work exposes weaknesses in the operational processes of a company. If the standard business practices are not well defined, and critical roles and handover-points poorly understood, a company risks failing their customers and going out of business.
What are the challenges and risks?
If team members are working from different sites - either from home or from other offices, there is only so much that can be done via video chat. Ensuring that roles are clearly identified and responsibilities understood by everyone, synchronizing their workflows becomes easier and expectations can be managed. Answering the question 'who does what by when" enables teams to deliver what is required, when required.
Allowing processes to develop organically has its benefits. However, such processes find it difficult to scale. By documenting and then examining all of the workflow points in your business, you can always find efficiencies. Reducing unnecessary handovers or minimizing wait times between steps, simplifying steps or removing low-value activities or work products gives you scope for drastically increasing efficiencies.
A common complaint of distributed teams is that bottlenecks and other delays frequently occur when teams are not co-located. Very often these delays go unnoticed until a disaster occurs. Without having a clear documented workflow, managers and team members are not even sure where delays or bottlenecks may be occurring. Clear metrics based on workflow points and activities enable delays and bottlenecks to be easily identified.
Onboarding or inducting new staff is an important activity though it is often downplayed. It can be invaluable to give new staff the best start in an organization as possible, so they understand what is required of them and what culture and behaviours are expected. Part of any induction must include business practices, processes, and workflows (both written and unwritten). These enable an employee to undertake their role and add value to the team and organization. Hiring a new employee is expensive, so we need to do all we can to obtain a good ROI.
One of the risks of remote work is the breakdown of team cohesion and participation in organizational life. Team members grow distant both physically as well as enthusiasm. Documenting how things actually function gives team members a sense of involvement; they are being listened to, rather than being lectured to. Team members have good ideas on how to improve the operations of a team or organization but lack the mechanism or channel to feel like they are being heard, and ideas implemented.
Have remote workers means that you need to have a minimum set of standard activities and deliverables. But of course, this doesn't mean everything needs to be standardised. People need to have some flexibility in their roles, processes and deliverables. But they need to understand what can be changed and what needs to remain standard.
A critical component of remote work is effective and appropriate communications. Processes must be designed to ensure that everyone communicates as needed. By examining the required content, frequency and channels will ensure the necessary transparency into the operations of an organization, even during remote work.
Identify waste and repetition - by clearly documenting processes, roles and responsibilities, a team can better understand where they should be spending their time, and what areas cause problems. Using processes enables them to identify, quantify and address the root causes behind problems and rework.
Handoffs between teams – by being clear about what is handed over, and at what times, enables teams to focus on deliverables, handover documents, frequency and methods. When two teams have an effective, shared and unambiguous understanding of handovers, efficiencies and improvements in quality can be found. Without such a common understanding, even the definitions of products, deliverables and what is "acceptable quality" can be an unachievable goal.
With a well documented and accurate workflow, specific problems can be more easily pinpointed. The root cause behind many problems frequently sit in the middle of a workflow, yet without a clear understanding of the workflow steps, it is exceedingly difficult to focus in on a problem.
Have you clearly defined and documented your critical processes? Do your teams, partners, suppliers and customers understand how they fit in?
By providing a clear set of expectations, deliverables and handover points, you can manage the distributed nature of work during the current pandemic.