When distance becomes an opportunity
Remote management and collaboration has been a trend and now the coronavirus is not giving businesses any other alternative. Ensuring that working remotely is perceived as an opportunity, rather than a source of anxiety, is key.
The problem to be solved as posed by clients is this: how do I ensure effective work despite the distance between people? How do I create effective, motivated, streamlined virtual teams?
Problems posed by distance
When leaders and managers are asked what problems they associate with distance, their answers generally include the following: dehumanisation of work, lack of relationships with their staff, inability to pinpoint who does what, loss of control, reduction of impact, decrease in power, feelings of isolation and demotion, atmosphere of mistrust, atmosphere of conflict, ineffective modes of operation, bureaucracy, excessive reporting, proliferation of key performance indicators (KPIs), and excessive procedures. It should be noted that these frustrations are related to the organisation itself and extend well beyond the issue of physical distance.
Need for control
Let us look at a major source of frustration: excessive reporting, KPIs and procedures. Why this excessiveness? Why this over-reliance on reporting and procedures to ensure performance remotely? An analysis quickly points us in the direction of the widespread need for control in the management software.
In a local environment, under an on-site management model, it is easy to exert control in relatively subtle, constructive ways. A leader with a strong need for control may be satisfied by seeing his or her staff and being close to them; for such a leader, live interactions might be enough to meet this need. Now let us imagine that this same leader ends up heading teams at numerous sites throughout many countries. Few options are available to satisfy this need for control, other than adding KPIs. So this leader uses an Excel sheet or an electronic platform as a mirror (or perhaps a mirage) of what is happening “on the ground,” and this creates the illusion of being in control. That is how the leader controls what is done. As for controlling how it is done, adding processes and procedures will do the trick.
The problem here is not working remotely, but exerting control remotely. I always advise all managers and leaders to take the time to reflect on their relationship to control and its repercussions, for them and others, in such an environment. The task at hand is not to eliminate control, but to regulate it. The high costs of overdosing on control in a remote environment will be reflected in ineffective decision-making pathways, bottlenecks, bureaucracy, delays, limited innovation and disengagement. We should derive trust from goodwill alone and build a real business case for trust versus control by incorporating costs, risks and opportunities.
Feelings of powerlessness or invisibility
Now let us turn our attention to other significant sources of discomfort: an inability to be effective in a virtual environment, a sense of regret due to a lack of resources, an impression of a loss of power and feelings of invisibility and isolation. The latter symptom is often the most painful, and it must be taken seriously by the company. Here again, it is more useful in this environment to question the management software and not distance as a “bug” in that software.
Typically, traditional organisations have had a very strong vertical concept of their members’ impact, status and access to resources. This has led them to make excessive investments, in terms of emotions, relationships and productivity, in a hierarchy with the manager at the top and subordinate teams and individuals at the bottom. Distance shakes up this vertical concept. It isolates individuals from their place in the hierarchy. It also creates multiple cross-cutting and virtual interdependencies that call for rethinking the concept and casting it more in horizontal terms than in vertical terms. From now on, to access resources, exert power and increase impact, we must look left and right much more than up and down.
We must question our perception of the attributes of power — that is to say, what gives power, and what does not. An overly position-oriented vision of power (filtered through hierarchy, age, social status and expertise) brings many leaders to a dead end. Companies today are full of experts and powerless leaders. On the flip side of this, it is difficult for people who are managed to get away from this vertical concept, as they still very often have too many expectations of their managers. In today’s organisation, these expectations are impossible to meet, as managers in the organisation lack one of their essential management attributes: authority, or expertise.
Therefore, the notion of T-leadership must inform our idea of what an effective leader is today. T-leadership, like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, evokes both horizontal breadth and vertical depth.
In such an environment, we should invest in developing cross-cutting leadership suited to creating value within the organisation’s complex horizontal structure. This involves building skills around trust, influence, streamlining, conflict resolution, networking, intrapreneurship and so on.
Ambiguity and uncertainty
Let us look at another example on the list of problems often associated with distance: knowing who does what, knowing who is where and going about visual navigation — in short, dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty in the organisation. Here also, the role of distance is quite relative. I have many examples of reorganised teams on a single site, often working in an open workspace, who face no real distance issues and yet affirm that they are no longer at all clear on each person’s role and that grey areas seem to be becoming the norm when it comes to identifying responsibilities.
Americans speak of moving faster towards a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. Clarity is essential to move forward together; to lack clarity is to lack a shared vision. The central question around clarification becomes: should we chomp at the bit and wait for clarity to come along, or should we take hold of the reins and go after clarity ourselves? Managers today understand that the latter is the only viable option, often observing with chagrin that clarity is the organisation’s unfulfilled promise. This is a source of tremendous frustration — both for staff, who at some point experience chaos, and for leaders and managers, who can no longer supply this clarity since they themselves are held back by the volatility of their priorities.
Clarifying is probably the main role that the organisation used to fulfil for all its members. Today, the tables have turned, and each member must fulfil this role for the organisation. Clarifying becomes a job unto itself for the T-leader in an organisation that now exists to create not clarity, but agility. Thus each manager must restore readability to interdependencies by building partnerships, collaborating, reconciling, streamlining and clarifying with others “why it is done, how it is done and who it is done by.”
In such an environment, it is advisable to challenge expectations of the organisation, and to implement constructive collaboration without ever forgetting to first clarify the questions of why, how and who, for oneself and others.
Email, hypertraceability and formalism
Finally, let us explore a recurring problem in virtual organisations today: the omnipotence of email. Email’s power may be attributed to its role as an unforgiving tracer and to its widespread overuse. This omnipotence stems from several factors: a real or perceived lack of remote communication alternatives, widespread mistrust resulting in a preoccupation with traceability (“Look, I sent you an email on 4 February 2007 at 9:02 PM!”) and the race for information.
First, it should be noted that, for several years, the omnipotence of email has been recognised as a problem and alternatives have been sought. Some of these alternatives are simple instant messaging tools (chat), enhanced instant messaging tools (WhatsApp and others), shared webcams (for virtual meetings), and social networks, communities, Skype, Teams, Slack etc. I would like to cite the recent example of a commercial leader of an industrial firm, who required his entire staff to be on WhatsApp and added that if they had no idea what it was, then they should ask their children.
The primary obstacle to adopting these new tools is the fact that they are often seen as pointless gadgets. The extent to which informality and interaction are perceived as futile in a remote setting yet deemed essential in a live environment must be reiterated. Distance does away with interaction and sharing of emotions by the coffee machine and in the hallway. It causes the greeting (and indeed, the meeting) that goes on between people on a single site to vanish. The belief that to build trust all one has to do is deliver is merely an illusion. Trust has as much to do with who we are as with what we do.
When informality disappears, a society in which all things are formal and traceable comes into being and erodes trust. Email use and trust may be said to be inversely proportional in the virtual organisation.
Therefore we must, at all costs, take the time to get creative and recreate this informality remotely using the right tools. In this race for information, we must also be courageous enough to enrich our communication with interaction at the expense of a certain amount of information.
Distance acts as a photographic developer for management culture
Much as a photographic developer reveals a latent image, distance brings management culture to light.
Dipping the “photograph” (hierarchical, top-down management culture, focused on control and expertise and overloaded with information) into the “photographic developer” (distance) reveals an image of excessive reporting and procedures, management powerlessness, ineffective decision-making pathways, feelings of demotion and isolation, omnipotence of email, and legions of managers held back by uncertainty and ambiguity.
Energy must be channelled into adapting management culture to the necessary standards to cultivate commitment and productivity in modern organisations. This responsibility belongs to each individual at every level of the company. As Socrates said, we are all responsible for the culture in which we live.
Sébastien Méhaignerie, Akteos consultant
specialized in international business transformation