Managing a Mobile Workforce

A number of interesting phone conversations over the past few days reminded me I’ve not really addressed Queen Marisa’s edict. So here goes – best practices for managing the people end of mobility.

My last posting on Yahoo's byzantine attitude towards mobility pretty much reflects my disgust with 1950's management strategies in general. But perhaps what I should have done was to address the right way, IMHO, to mange a mobile workforce. So, what follows are the techniques I have used, with great success, over the years, in running both my own highly-distributed business as well as large, distributed projects.

First and foremost, it's not about technology or even conference rooms; it's about trust. Human relationships and societies and civilizations overall run on trust. And trust is simple; it's really just keeping your word and honoring the commitments you make to others. Given that as a premise for everything else I'm going to say, the classic management technique, management by objectives (MBO), works pretty well here. I'm a huge fan of the work of Peter Drucker overall, and he practically invented management, including MBO. But MBO isn't perfect; it focuses more on process and standards and even ideals than on the resources - primarily people - involved, and is itself set somewhat in the business style of the '50s: everyone goes to the office, and nothing gets done anywhere else except perhaps by sales- and service-people at customer sites. An offshoot of this strategy, Management by Walking Around, was popularized a couple of decades ago at HP. As we might surmise, then, nothing in management is perfect.

But we can, I believe, do better. The technique I use, Management by Commitment (MBC), a refinement of MBO, has served me well over many years in mobile and distributed settings. I took a course on this philosophy in the 1980s and really haven't considered any other alternative since then.

MBC consists of agreements - commitments - between management and those doing the work. Management presents opportunities and resources, along with constraints - schedules, budgets, expected and required quality levels, etc. Those offered the opportunity, subject to negotiation of a final agreement, either sign up, or they don't. If they don't often enough, they are clearly in the wrong job. If they do, then the usual tactical management techniques of schedule and budget reviews, document exchanges, review meetings, and phone calls are employed, with management primarily serving to make sure that the agreed-upon resources remain available, problems are corrected, and the quality of the final deliverable ensured.

Note this technique says nothing about what hours are worked, where work is done, or anything like that. I believe everyone should be treated as an adult, with the assumption that adults keep their commitments. If commitments are met, location and time simply aren't important. Like to work at home at 2:00 in the morning (I do)? Need to pick up the kids at 3:30 on Tuesday? I couldn't care less. I don't even care what the reasons are when commitments aren't met. If I sense there's a problem, I'll do everything in my power to remedy the situation. For a wide variety of reasons, again, these being mostly unimportant, sometimes people just don't work out. Some abuse the freedom inherent in this strategy. Regardless, those who don't meet their commitments join the outplacement program, and we move on. But note that failure to deliver can and does occur even when everyone is at the office from 9 to 5 every day. The problem is most often localized to ineffective management who don't know anything about management to begin with, and staff who similarly forget why they need to deliver results, and these with appropriate respect to schedules and budgets. Failure, in my experience, has absolutely nothing to do with mobility. Indeed, as I noted last time, just a savings in commuting time alone should boost productivity.

I'm of the opinion that modern IT-based solutions, like collaboration systems, various messaging and conferencing techniques, and assorted other shared systems make the physical separation of coworkers essentially irrelevant today. Yes, sitting down face-to-face is often best. I go to great lengths to bring far-flung team members together at least a few times a year to renew the human relationships that come from closer proximity. But I also know that a committed worker will get the job done no matter where they happen to be. And we have the management techniques - and IT systems - to make this possible.

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