Life in the Pond: Moaning Middle Managers

Last week I read a great post on Rands In Repose entitled The Pond. Although it sounds like it should be about life as an amphibian it is actually about management response to remote working. (It starts off with this allegory of the pond as being the place where all your staff swim and communications being ripples across the pond. Hence when someone leaves the pond to work off-site they are missing out on the “unintentional, tweaked, quiet information that is transferred throughout the Pond and doesn’t leave the Pond“).

This initially reminded me of all the tacit/explicit knowledge stuff I did on my MSc Information Management course – you know, corporate intelligence, dispersed knowledge etc. Then I realised that the retention of tacit company information is a whole different ball game. The ripples Rands is on about is plain old communication and in my world, and in most other forward-thinking organisations the pond no longer has any edges. To put it another way…where I work we are all in the pond, whether we physically sit inside the institutional building or not.

Rands (I know this isn’t his real name but for the sake of convenience..) then goes on to write a pretty substantial piece on “how to augment the remote employee’s absence from the Pond.

It’s a really useful post, primarily because it gives us quite a bit of insight into how many a middle manager views remote workers. As Rands puts it:

My belief is that without deliberate attention, the remote employee slowly becomes irrelevant to the organization. Through no fault of their own, they can be gradually pushed to the edge of what’s important. And when you’re at the edge, you’re an organizational shudder from falling over it. Failure happens at the edges.

If I was a remote worker in that company I’d be seriously worried!

However it isn’t all bad. Rands makes the sensible suggestion that before allowing someone to become a remote worker managers ask themselves 4 questions:

1. Do they have the personality?
2. Do they have the right job?
3. Does the culture support it?
4. Do you have a remote friction detection and resolution policy?

Not everyone can work remotely and these are questions that need to be asked so I admire his honesty here. He makes some interesting observations that on the whole I agree with:

The ability to work remotely is not entirely a function of seniority; it’s also genetic. There are those who do it better solo. Their standard operating procedure is to simply get it done. Seniority can improve personal efficiency and the quality of the finished product, but I’ve discovered innate reliability at all levels of experience. There are people who simply do what they say they’re going to do.

Can’t argue with that.

Most of his conclusions centre upon the need for a remote worker to be an effective communicator. If you’ve been a remote worker for a while you’ll know it’s what makes it work. For me communication has always been at the core of what I do.

When talking about whether an organisation has the culture to support remote workers Rands doesn’t hold back. He talks about the way other workers view remote workers: “discrimination always boils down [to] a single, fundamental tension: remote creates productivity friction.” He gives the example of dealing with an ineffective remote worker which can take a lot of time, possibly more time than dealing with someone sat in the next room. As Rands points out, manyof the issues boil down to the organisation and if it can support the knowledge flow a remote worker requires. As I’ve mentioned many a time – the tools (Web 2.0 and all that) are there. The culture might not have caught up yet.

Rands concludes:

You, as the manager of people, are responsible for making the remote call regarding a person, putting them in the right job, and making sure the culture supports remote people. But the responsibility of delivering while remote is squarely on the remote employee. Yes, a remote employee answers to himself. At four in the afternoon when they run into an impossible problem, it’s almost entirely up to them to develop their plan of attack.

Working remotely isn’t a privilege; it’s work. And it’s the same work we’re all doing back at the mothership… fully clothed… in the Pond.

I’d have to guess that most remote employees know that they ultimately answer to themselves and tend to be resourceful workers as a result. Rands sounds like he’s dumping the majority of the responsibility onto a remote workers’ backs, it’s a wonder they can barely walk. I’d agree that remote working isn’t a privilege, but nor is it a punishment. It has countless benefits for the employee and the organisation alike and it’s these aspects that need to be built upon.

In the past I’ve referred to many an article that states that remote working will be the death of the middle manager or at the very least requires a serious change in management practice.

This reluctance by managers to move with the times may hold us back for now but if there is one thing the recession has shown us that businesses and people need to be adaptable and ready for change. Maybe it’s time some middle managers stopped trying to control the boundaries of their little ponds and realised that there is a whole sea of possibilities out there, of which remote working is very much part.