Why measurement of performance is key to managing your mobile workers.
While mobile and remote working is increasingly common – the number of staff employed out of the office has increased by 65 per cent since 2001 – research shows HR professionals are incredibly uncertain about these new ways of working.
Figures published in Personnel Today in February show that many HR managers think remote working provides greater workforce motivation and increased productivity, but one-fifth of them think managing these employees is just too difficult.
Many businesses that have embraced mobile and teleworking say they are reaping benefits, and what they have learned is that remote working needs a change in management style, with an emphasis on good communication and rigorous measurement of performance.
For the Automobile Association (AA), mobile technology has brought real-time communication to a workforce that has always been predominantly field-based. On the road, the organisation has 3,500 patrol staff, managers and engineers, using laptops for computerised vehicle diagnosis and communication with control centres.
It also has 180 teleworkers working from home, taking emergency calls routed to them as if they were in a call centre, plus traditionally office-based staff working flexibly.
Sarah Stacey, HR business manager for the AA, says regular meetings between remote staff and managers, and setting clear performance objectives are key, but alongside these, a change of management approach is essential to making remote and teleworking a success.
“There has to be face-to-face interaction because it’s easy for individuals to become isolated. Crucially, it needs a change in attitude. Management has to relax and move from a mindset of physical presence to one of outcomes and clearly-defined measures and objectives,” she says.
AA patrol staff and engineers have always worked in the field so suitability for working alone is a selection criterion of the role. But transforming office-based staff into ‘virtual call centre’ workers meant HR needed to ensure they were suited to working at home.
“We’ve had a mixed experience. Where it works, it works well and productivity is higher. In other cases, individuals have come back into the office. For some people, the social interaction of working is very important, so it is important to allow people to thoroughly consider the implications of working from home,” says Stacey.
Although there have been challenges managing remote workers, for the AA, it has paid off. Working from home can suit both the business and the employee.
“It gives you tremendous flexibility. We find we can turn the tap on and off quite accurately to match times when most people are driving, such as to and from work. Where working split shifts is an onerous thing in a traditional workplace, it can suit someone who works from home at the times when most people are travelling.”
For other businesses, remote working is seen as essential in a changing recruitment marketplace, where individuals expect flexibility to cut both ways between them and their employer.
Communications company Avaya has about 60 per cent of staff working remotely during a typical month. Mike Young, HR director for Avaya, UK, Ireland and the Nordics, says remote working is no longer just a nice thing to have.
“We get more effort and energy from staff. There’s no journey to and from work and if there’s something pressing to organise at home, it can be fitted in around work. It reduces stress and can cuts costs,” he says.
Avaya has sales and service staff in the field communicating by mobile phone, laptop and desktop PC. Office-based staff, such as finance and HR, are given the option to work from home when it suits the business. Avaya’s HR team has learnt that managing remote and flexibly-working staff brings new demands.
“It needs a different style of management, one based on outcomes and objectives. Instead of being used to seeing people all the time, you have to measure performance against clear outcomes. Managers have to ensure the same feedback is given to staff working remotely as they would get in the office and there is joint accountability for achieving goals. At the end of the day, staff are going to have an appraisal so working at home is not a soft option.”
For Avaya, remote working is now a business imperative and shows what can be achieved by a positive attitude.
Young says: “It is a key differentiator between us and other organisations. Working flexibly is a thing that matters, so make sure it is seen as normal. If you unreasonably restrict the ability to work like this you are limiting the scope of people who want to work for you.”
Learning points for HR
– Focus on regular communication
– Avoid isolation, ensure face-to-face contact
– Ensure reliability of communications technology
– Make sure remote workers’ working environment complies with health and safety law
– Understand the individual and their suitability to working remotely. Allow them to change their mind if possible.