Top 10 Mobile Working Strategies for 2013

Mobile working can bring enormous benefits to the organisation; more flexibility among staff, the need for less office space, reduced energy bills and a less stressed work force

Working as a legal consultant for a global technology company I used to spend 4 hours each day commuting. The trains were always packed, I never got a seat, and doing work was impossible when sandwiched between the passenger who hadn't bothered to shower that morning and the one eating a foul-smelling bacon and egg breakfast bap.

Oh the joy!

The journeys both there and back were, quite literary, commuting hell. I vowed from then on I would never be more than 20 minutes away from my permanent office base, a commitment to myself which I have generally managed to keep.

Lack of empirical data

15 years on, and commuting just gets worse, exacerbated by crippling rises in train fares and fuel prices. But, the biggest impact of all must be the amount of stress commuting puts on the individual. How can employers expect the best out of staff when it's been a battle to get into work? It seems there is very little empirical information on the differences between various modes of commuting on commuter stress. Commuting involves much more than just covering the distance between home and work. Commuting not only takes time, but  also generates out of pocket costs, causes stress and intervenes in the relationship between work and family.

Where is government policy on mobile working?

Is it now time to have a national government-coordinated strategy aimed at encouraging more home-based and mobile working, ultimately leading to the development of a more productive economy? Can government join up its transport policy, education policy (to deal with the morning school run), communications policy and a host of other infrastructure policies to help promote this new way of working, facilitated, of course, by information and communications technology? Or will we continue the current impasse of building more roads, concreting green fields, squashing more people into trains, and encouraging economic gridlock and stagnation?

For the organisation, nurturing a mobile workforce brings benefits, risks, and challenges some of which we have discussed above.  Mobile working is about organisations getting both competitive and collaborative advantage, so here are my top 10 strategies for senior managers to stay on top of their game and help keep the wheels of the economy turning.

Top 10 management objectives for mobile working

1. Build relationships

mobile working

Identify and build a relationship with those employees who can embrace mobile working. This means managing your own time effectively so that you can invest time with your mobile workforce. Rate each relationship on a scale of 1 to 10 (weak to strong). Craft a strategy to help develop the stronger employees and support weaker ones. Never over-criticise.

2. Unify communications

Consolidate and prioritize your electronic communications to enable mobile working. Use email and IM (instant message), texting, blogging, social media (e.g. Twitter, LinkedIn (for business to business relationships), Facebook (for business to consumer relationships), threaded discussions, etc. for relationship-driven communications (i.e., staying in touch and being personal). Important communications should be cohesive and never delivered in fragmented bits. What are your and your team's communication preferences? Devise and revise  regularly a communications plan. Don't assume anything and be flexible for when things change quickly.

3. Mix formal communications with some lighter moments

Business is about people working together and interacting with each other. Mobile working can be lonely. Consider when bandwidth is required for the times when lengthy, explicit instructions and information are essential for the work in hand and when workers can share more light-hearted moments. Sharing tidbits from the field and office in the form of stories, anecdotes, case studies (use cases), jokes, innocent productive gossip, and even metaphors will relay context, encode key pieces of information, and give mobile workers a sense of inclusion.

4. Learn to listen more

When you are out of easy reach and you are tasked with managing the performance of others it’s easy to get sucked into the trap of needing to transmit lots of information. In most cases the opposite is what is most productive. Make listening a priority. This is the hardest and most tiring aspect of managing others. It is also the single most important thing you can do accelerate the development of strong relationships. Listening is not enough. Keep an open mind. Be present and try to enter the perspective of the speaker. This will help you ask effective questions and identify what direction to go with your own needs and agenda.

5. Let mobile workers define communication and reporting practices

Structure is critical. Adopt rules of engagement that place people at the centre of their own decisions. Managers provide the boundaries and constraints but let workers define the working and communication styles, tools, and processes that will help them perform at the best.

Set expectations. First, treat these workers’ defined practices as privileges that can and will be modified if key performance metrics are not hit. Second, let workers know there will be times when a projects or work require less flexible, employee-driven communication and reporting practices.

6. Manage deliverables not activities

Project-oriented work is generally well suited to mobile working. Even roles that are more task driven can be effectively managed if they are broken into deliverables. For mobile workers this may mean collapsing some of the activities of a business process or workflow that had manual checkpoints and controls  associated with them into deliverables. Automation where possible can be used or batching activities into larger groups can transform task oriented jobs into deliverables. Realize that there can be many components of people’s jobs that need to be adjusted to accommodate a mobile working style.

7. Engage in more frequent and informal performance management activities

When you manage mobile workers, relationships are at the heart of your job. Performance management does not need to be a loathsome, “administrivia” obligation. Designing some unstructured, informal ongoing dialogs with mobile employees about their performance goals and personal development plans is a great way to strengthen communications, and shows an active interest in employees and relationships. This might look and feel very different from one employee to the next. This is another tangible way managers can adapt their style to match the needs and preferences of employees. It works best when the performance management conversation flows in both directions.

8. Give complete trust until behaviour dictates otherwise

Listening and trust are the two most important factors to virtual and remote teams. Without trust, relationships are broken. Abuses of trust can always be found but these occur in spite of whatever systems we put in place. Mobile workers thrive when managers give them complete trust. In some respects managers of mobile workers have no other choice. Use trust to create strong relationships. When some concrete behavior and not just someone else’s word of mouth shows that trust has been violated, then take it away, but not until then.

9. Use adaptive management styles tailored to individual workers

Every employee is different. Mobile working makes it easier for managers to take a more personalized approach in how they work and interact with members of their team. It takes more work and effort on a manager’s part but the results can be phenomenal. Understanding what enables each employee to perform at his or her best is the most important responsibility of a manager.

10. Leverage mobile working technology

Technology drives and supports managing mobile workers. Using mobile working technology well is not as simple as it appears. Standard models of communication and transaction should not always be mapped in a simple one-to-one way. Communication and collaboration technologies offer new and exciting models. These need to be purposely exploited in order for organizations to realize the full extent of benefits these wonderful new capabilities and features offer.

Beyond email, IM and phone, Web conferencing plays a key role in virtual team enablement. Take an inventory of “stuff” you need to collaborate on with your virtual team. If the list includes Word docs, spreadsheets, software applications, or anything else on your desktop, Web conferencing will be critical for collaborating in real time. You’re projects will lag if you can’t be on the same page with mobile workers.