Jim Creighton featured on HRExaminer

This is a guest post from Jim Creighton. Jim is Co-Director/Partner in the New Ways of Working Network, and is President of Creighton & Creighton, Inc., a consulting firm. Creighton holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the International Institute for Advanced Study. He is the author of six books, including CyberMeeting: How to Link People and Technology in Your Organization. Creighton has more than 35 years experience as an independent consultant with a focus on participatory processes, dispute resolution, team effectiveness, and partnering in multi-organizational teams. He is currently conducting studies on best practices in remote virtual teams.

HR is Essential to Implement New Ways to Work

by Jim Creighton

A few years ago, a group of workplace specialists were sitting around a table complaining that they’d just attended a conference where “they hadn’t learned anything.” At that table were some of the most experienced people at setting up and running “new ways of working” programs– programs involving remote work and alternative workplace.

They weren’t learning anything because the other people at the conference all wanted to learn from them. The people sitting around the table really wanted to talk with other people who had some real experience setting up and running these programs.

Out of that complaint session over a few beers grew the New Ways of Working Network (www.NewWOW.net). The network was founded to provide forums that satisfied two criteria: (1) Everybody at the table is expert in at least one aspect of new ways of working, and (2) all aspects of new ways of working – workplace design, IT, work practices, and company policies — are all represented in the discussion.

The Network has been hugely successful, with one exception. Our members report that when their companies plan corporate programs to permit new ways of working, HR is rarely at the table, even when explicitly invited.

This is a puzzle. Effective new ways of working programs require significant policy changes and different management skills than current practices, and many of these fall in the domain of human resources.

Let’s start at the most fundamental level. Experience shows that when employees are offered the choice of some form of distributed work, they see this as a benefit of working for that particular company. But if they are forced to be part of such a program – as some companies have done – they see it as a huge imposition and disincentive. That’s the kind of message HR should be bringing to the table.

More and more companies are employing remote virtual teams to perform key innovative tasks. This enables them to find uniquely talented and skilled people wherever they are. But effectively managing a remote virtual team requires careful planning and skillful management. Typically, working as a distributed team requires some changes in how people work and additional training. Managing a remote virtual team, for example, is challenging and requires skills beyond normal project management.

Our experience is if there is no explicit corporate policy specifying conditions for allowing new ways of working, then people do it anyway. But how and when it is done is determined by the employees or the personal biases of individual managers, ranging from the most enlightened to the least.

Also, distributed work is loved by some employees and hated by others. Those who love it talk about finding uninterrupted time for concentration, making most efficient use of time, and engaging with customers, partners and colleagues. Those who hate it report feeling isolated, and a weaker sense of identification with the company.  So it is important to be aware of these issues and permit managers to help individual employees to design an approach that fits their work and temperament.

Distributed work won’t work if your managers are not used to measuring performance by results. If your managers need to see people work in order to know they are working, your distributed work program won’t be effective. A results-oriented performance management approach is a necessary precondition for all the new ways of working.

As a minimum, establish an explicit policy that allows flexibility in work location and times of work (to acknowledge, for example, that employees need to attend to family matters or that work is being done across many time zones). Your policy won’t be able to address all situations, so the policy needs to empower your managers and supervisors to arrive at the best approach in one-on-one agreements reached with individual employees. Most companies that have experimented with remote work have discovered that employees know best when, how, and where to work. The important thing is to give them choice.

Both the manager and program participant may also need training to ensure the program is effective.

The biggest barrier to all the new ways of working is middle manager resistance based on their uncertainty about how to manage under these new conditions. These concerns need to be addressed with both training and clarity of policy.

That’s just the minimum. HR needs to be actively involved in helping develop and implement these new programs. They need the human touch. Companies that have established distributed work programs – and the number is growing exponentially (80% of the companies surveyed in the 2009 New Ways of Working Benchmark Study started their programs in the past five years)– have found that these policies give them a recruiting edge, and are a major factor in employee retention. Creative HR people need to be leaders in shaping these programs.


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