Read Intrapreneuring Case Study “Leading Innovation” by Ivey Business School!

The prestigious Ivey Business School of the Western University in Ontario, Canada, published an insightful new teaching case study on intrapreneuring and corporate innovation titled “Boehringer Ingelheim: Leading Innovation” in which the case writers, Professor J. Robert Mitchell, Ph.D., and Ramasastry Chandrasekhar, follow the footsteps of the newly appointed innovation director.

Meant to raise questions and serving as a learning opportunity for graduate students in academic program around the globe, this case study lifts the corporate curtain a bit to show how innovation through intrapreneuring really happens and decision points along the way.

Outline (by Ivey Publishing)

The newly appointed director of Innovation Management & Strategy at Boehringer Ingelheim, a German-based multinational pharmaceutical company, is finding his way forward in his firm’s new, first-of-its-kind role, which is central to the company’s growth rejuvenation strategy. His job has a threefold mandate: to build internal networks, to establish internal structures and to leverage internal ideas. His biggest challenge, however, may be transforming the organization’s DNA. The blockbuster business model that has characterized the company for decades is no longer appropriate. Instead, the firm needs to develop healthcare products available to end users over the counter. This shift in strategy requires innovative changes in distribution, delivery and customer focus. To accomplish this goal, he needs to institutionalize innovation so that it becomes sustainable. But in doing so, he must also identify the metrics for assessing progress. The case provides an opportunity for students to step into the shoes of an innovation leader, to develop an innovation roadmap for the organization in the face of uncertainty and to understand how to engage in innovation leadership at various levels of a global enterprise.

Learning Objective

This case has two key objectives. First, this case provides students an opportunity to grapple with the difficult decisions associated with innovation in an uncertain environment. Second, this case highlights that anyone has the ability to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset and to lead innovation. The case divides the attributes of an innovation leader into five components: observing, questioning, experimenting, networking and associating. It shows the real-life experiences of a manager doing seemingly routine activities, who evolved into a leader who transformed the DNA of a global enterprise. The case also provides a template of the tasks, responsibilities and value-added changes as an individual moves progressively within an enterprise from an operations manager to a senior manager to an innovation leader. This case can be used either toward the beginning or toward the end of any course that addresses innovation and creative thinking in a large organization. At the beginning of a course, it illustrates the challenges of acting in the face of uncertainty in a large organization. At the end of a course, the case provides an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned about innovation, entrepreneurial thinking and innovation leadership.

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SOX for Snowden?

Quick Recap

Edward Snowden, a former member of the U.S. intelligence community, released classified government data to the public in 2013.  He faces prosecution under the U.S. Espionage Act, remains on the run from the U.S. government and ended up seeking asylum in Moscow, Russia.

The 1.3 million documents he released are the largest known security breach in U.S. history.  They also unveiled highly questionable if not outright illegal action by US intelligence agencies relating to widespread spying domestically and abroad.

Traitor or Patriot?

In the light of an exclusive interview with NBC News on May 28, 2014, the popular NBC “Today” show asked its viewers in a polarizing poll to decide for themselves whether Snowden was a “Traitor” or a “Patriot.”  The morning before the interview aired, 53% of viewers saw Snowden as a “traitor”. The morning after, 61% found him a “patriot.”  Though the responses do not necessarily reflect a representative sample of the U.S. population, let’s go with it for now, since an interesting majority swing took place in favor of Snowden’s action.

We are not going deeper into whether or not Snowden did the right thing or not.  His disclosures spurred and continue to fuel a worldwide discussion on where the boundaries are for covert operations and government surveillance programs.  It’s not a new question and comes down to the ancient question the Roman poet Juvenal famously raised:  “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “Who guards the guards?”

Apparently, the continued decisions of U.S. secret courts approving intelligence programs of the disputed nature did not resonate with the viewers.  If Snowden was tried under the U.S. Espionage Act, the public may never hear of Snowden again nor details of his prosecution with most certain conviction.  The covered surveillance programs may continue without meaningful oversight.

It makes Secretary John Kerry’s strong request sound weak and questionable for Snowden to face U.S. authorities and trust the legal system.  Continued messages from high-ranking politicians up to President Barack Obama himself depict Snowden as a “low-ranking analyst” and “high school drop-out.”  – Doesn’t this makes you wonder how such an acclaimed  ‘bum’ got access to such large amounts of sensitive government information in the first place and who else is granted ‘Top Secret” security clearance, which is shared by 1 million(!) Americans?

SOX for Government Employees and Contractors?

Countering illegal practices by companies let the U.S. Congress to pass the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) in 2002.  While SOX overhauls regulatory standards for record keeping practices, it -perhaps- became more known to the public for protecting employees of publicly traded companies from discrimination who report violations of regulations by the company.  Every major business now has a process in place to ensure SOX is enforced effectively.

However, SOX only covers publicly traded companies in order to protect shareholders from fraud.  What about the public sector, namely the government?  Shouldn’t there be a similar ruling that effectively protects government employees and contractors, such as Edward Snowden, when they witness and wish to report apparent illegal actions by government institutions?

Check and Balances? (source: en.wikipedia.com)
Where are the “Checks and Balances”?
(source: en.wikipedia.com)

Checks and Balances

Snowden claimed that he repeatedly approached his manager raising concerns and was told to shut up.  Certainly, national security interests must be protected and safeguarded by the clandestine functions of government.  But then, again, who guards the guards, when “national security” becomes an obscure blanket excuse without an effective system of checks and balances that the U.S. Constitution mandates and the United States are founded on?

The Snowden affair made painfully clear that the existing legal parameters for governmental “whistle blowers” are insufficient to non-existent.  How else would the public have found out about the abuse of governmental power?  Going public and risking prosecution, currently, appears to remain the only viable option to truly allow and push for effective checks and balances until legislation catches up with a SOX for future Snowdens in order to keep our democracy working for the people.

How to make virtual teams work! (part 2)

This second part of the blog post looks at how to make virtual teams work.  Don’t miss the first part: Why virtual teams fail

Telecommuting is on the rise.  It leads to more ‘virtual teams’, which means co-workers collaborate separated from another by location and often also time.

Bitter-sweet 

There is a bright side and a dark side to telecommuting.

Here is the upside:  According to Staples Advantage’s study (see “Employers say work from home works“), 93% of employers found programs that allow employees to work from home benefits employees as well as companies.  Half of the employers report more productive employees and 75% agree that telecommuting makes their employees happier.  No wonder that the amount of telecommuters has roughly doubled in the US over the past 10-or-so years (http://www.globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics).

The stubborn tendency remains that work may get done at home, but careers are made in the office.  The benefit of control over one’s work place and time comes at a price for the career as a recent study by Stanford University revealed: working from home cuts the chances for a promotion in half!

Obviously, there is a disconnect between where the professional world is moving towards rapidly and our mindset that seem to adapt slower and less flexibly to change using digital interaction for effective collaboration.

Because the world is not flat…

Even the most advanced and latest ‘virtual presence’ technology does not offer the same bonding with senior management as face-time does.  The ones working from home can be overlooked or -when opportunity knocks- forgotten, even though they often work harder compared to in-office workers and their productivity is higher, as the study showed.

When it comes to telecommuting the world is not flat.  Simply put, the playing field is not level between in-office and at-home workers, explains the gap between the positive perception of remote working by employers and employees alike, and the sobering reality of career crunch.

Furthermore, it is not the remote workers alone that require attention and need to be managed differently.  It is also the staff remaining in the office (if there are any), since both parties are affected and need to perceive the same leveled plain.

Breaking habits

It is human nature to favor those whom we feel close to and whom we work and spend time with in close proximity. To make working-from-home (or from anywhere else outside the office) work successfully, it is the management’s responsibility to level this playing field effectively and sustainably.

Achieving this is anything but easy; in particular, if managers are used to working out of an office.  For them it means to break with their habits for the better of the organization.  – It’s not impossible though: our habits of sitting at a table in front of a computer all day is just as unnatural for humans; yet we get used to it.

Cover the bases

There are some key aspects to make remote working work:

1. The work itself
First, the work must lend itself to be conducted remotely.  Quite a no-brainer: other than in a factory setting, the necessary tangible tools and resources to collaborate cannot be concentrated in one place but must be accessible to the remote staff where ever they work from.  For example, remote working is not possible for a factory assembling gadgets along a conveyor belt, where each worker contributes to some part of the process assembling the product.  Tools are expensive and immobile, so resources need to be concentrated in around the tools to allow for efficient collaboration.

Not much different from factory workers, the collaboration of knowledge workers is enabled by tools to communicate and to share data and information.  The difference is that technology allows information to be transmitted, so we can collaborate effectively and efficiently from all corners of the world. Choosing the most suitable collaboration tools can become a differentiating competitive advantage; you don’t want to lose quality or effectiveness when collaborating remotely.

2. The workers

Working from home is not for everyone for different reasons.  It does require continued motivation and self-discipline to work from home as if in the office among co-workers.  It takes establishing a new work-day routine in the isolated home environment that is invisible to co-workers.  It becomes just as import for the home-workers to take regular breaks:  Burnout can easily become an issue when home-workers over-compensate because they either feel under scrutiny by management and/or co-workers in the office.  Also less interruptions at home can lead to missing breaks and working longer hours continuously than in the office.

When I introduced remote working as a pilot project in my department several years ago, one of my staff reported in the beginning that he felt guilty taking a bio-break at home, so not to appear unavailable to staff from other departments who remained working from the office.

3. The management

Managing a remote workforce requires a different management style.  Managers need to become more pro-active, use communication channels that the staff is comfortable with and adopt ways to communicate with their staff transparently and effectively.  Key points for managers are to:

  • Establish shared team goals
  • Establish communication best-practices together with the team; this also helps to mitigate timezone, language and cultural differences as well as choosing the proper communication channel depending on content
  • Manage by performance, not by face-time or physical presence
  • Actively create equal opportunities for on-site and off-site staff
  • Set clear rules for management and staff alike aiming to show transparency and leveling the playing field by incentivizing favorable behavior (a matter of organizational justice)
  • Remain flexible and ask your staff for ideas on how to improve knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

4. The performance metrics

Leveling the playing field comes down to truly embracing a performance culture that incentivizes results – not face-time.  Managers need to articulate clear and measurable goals for the team and its individuals in advance and sometimes also more frequently than they used to.  Acting transparently and objectively can be a serious challenge for managers and requires leaving the personal comfort zone.

To achieve this, training may be necessary to shift the culture of the organization and prepare management and their staff alike.

As an example, when I first introduced remote working, I asked my managers to establish and document weekly goals with each staff member and to review them for completion the following week.  After a couple of months, I left it to the managers to use any other way to set and track performance with their staff.  When some managers wanted to put away with the weekly goal agreement sheets, it was their staff who asked to keep them, as they valued the clear and documented goals in their hand.  The staff also found them helpful to discuss facts during their following periodic performance reviews.  Though not planned for, the weekly goal setting contributed measurably to increase trust of staff in their managers.

Plan for the “soft factors”

Interesting are the “soft factors”, which are the real make-or-break but often tend to get overlooked, forgotten or just not taken into account seriously.  What it boils down to is the relationship (trust) and interaction (communication) between managers and their staff as well as among the members of a virtual team.  These soft factors are subtile and often require behavioral changes or adaptation, more for managers than their staff.

Do you trust?

Take the time to ask yourself two questions honestly:

  • Do you trust yourself to be as productive working from home as in the office?

Now this:

  • Do you trust your coworkers or your direct reports to work as productive from home too?

My own experiences are consistent with the research: we trust ourselves more than others. – And this is where the problem starts.

Why trust matters

A trustful personal connection is unsurpassed to build trust as a foundation for robust and sustainable business relationships and collaboration.  Individuals trusting a person we don’t want to work or do business with this individual.

Trust also makes up much of the ‘social glue’ that holds together teams and organizations. Trust is critical for the success of virtual teams. With lack of trust also the willingness to share information dwindles and so does productivity.

When this happens, our energy gets wasted every day with concerns and redundant or counterproductive work.  Workers focus to avoid perceived threats from others, which takes over more and more of their work time, focus, and productivity. In contrast, for people we trust we happily go the ‘extra mile.’

Trust (or the absence thereof) has been identified as the pivotal element ranging from detailed investigations in hundreds of organizations (by Virtual Distance International) to recent bestsellers like “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.

Coming back to the two earlier questions, it proves hard turning the mirror towards ourselves and to accept that also we need to build trust with our co-workers to build and fuel our most robust and valuable business connects and relations.

What is trust?

Let’s take a closer look – what makes up trustful work relationships?  Trust is an interpersonal phenomenon. It comes down to three factors that make up trust at the workplace as Karen Sobel Lojeski, NYU professor at Stony Brook and CEO of Virtual Distance International explains:

  • Benevolence  –  our co-workers have your best interest at heart
  • Ability  –  our co-workers have the knowledge and ability to get the job done
  • Integrity  –  our co-workers will do what they promise.

Innovation needs trust
High trust correlates with more successful innovation – why?

When colleagues trust another they open up and share information. Besides the obvious benefit of cross-fertilization that leads to more ideas and creative approaches, by giving away our views and knowledge we become vulnerable as an individual and even more so in a competitive professional environment. This openness comes with a risk to fail that people are only willing to take if failure is acceptable and does not come with repercussions.

Sharing ideas alone is not enough though. Asking thoughtful questions, constructive criticism and mutual support lead to better solutions while curbing hostility and competitiveness. Opening up happens when a task-related conflict will not easily deteriorate into a personal conflict. Innovation within an organization relies on trust among colleagues as a key ingredient that cannot be substituted otherwise.

How we build trust

Trust requires communication and is built most effectively face-to-face with another person, which offers the broadest information channels.  An MIT study found a 47% higher performance in companies that are highly effective communicators.  Team success is consistently tied to robust team communications. (I wonder if this communication-related increase in performance was ever considered by companies focusing on saving cost…)

Customer-facing business knows that no technology today can offer the same quality and trust-building dialog as in person face-to-face.

Thus, travel to meet business partners and team members remains essential at least in the beginning. Traveling more to meet in person is out of the question for organizations who boarded the ‘cost-cutting’ train: it is considered too expensive.  Saving cost here, though, does not pay off over time when it cuts into building trust for good working relationships.

Even more important is trust-building when on-boarding new staff. It is a challenge if most or all work is done remotely by team members who already know and trust each other.  It comes back to human nature that we tend to rely on the same people we worked with before, which puts newcomers at a natural disadvantage.  Here, management must intervene to level the playing field and provide opportunities also for the new staff.

Perhaps, women are at a natural advantage to connect with others given a higher social sensitivity, i.e. the ability to ‘read’ other people’s emotions face to face better than men.  This is also one of the three criteria that increases group intelligence (see “Boost ‘Group Intelligence’ for better decisions!“)

Investing in trust and technology

Since it is not possible (and defeats the purpose) to meet in person especially in virtual teams, we use digital technology to bridge the distance.  Consequently, we need to invest in effective tools to remove communication barriers and open broad, information-rich channels of communication among all team members.

Rather than relying on one channel or system, it is more effective to enable the team to communicate by offering many channels that cater to the individual team member’s preferences; for example, phone, instant messaging, video chat, email, etc).  For example, waiting more than one minute to establish a video-conference connection is too long and already poses a significant communication barrier.

‘Tele-presence’ seems to be the gold-standard for remote communication but sadly often remains reserved only for executive use if the technology is invested in at all.

Nonetheless, enabling technology can also enhance performance and add value by

  • Indicating if people are online and available to communicate
  • Finding experts or collaborators easily within large organizations
  • Share and exchange information to relevant audiences directly and without delay.

In contrast, here are some examples for communication barriers of organizations with a cost-saving focus that tends to include also ‘technological disablement’ such as

  • Using slow or time-delaying communication or productivity equipment
  • Users spending more time trying to connect than actually communicating
  • Information-poor channels or poor call quality
  • Resolving technology-related problems consumes a long time or is a cumbersome process.

The Deep Dive

Virtual Distance ™ is a powerful framework to identify and quantify barriers within virtual teams.  This methodology helps not only to evaluate existing teams, but to anticipate barriers in future teams.  Virtual Distance makes for a superb strategic forecasting and planning tool to build effective virtual teams.

For more detail, see Virtual Distance International.

Too much trust can hurt innovation

Just as a side note for completeness, there is a risk that too much trust within a team can become and obstacle to innovation (see “Why too much trust hurts innovation“).

It comes down to management again to be observant and vigilant to detect and counteract such tendencies.

While introducing remote work in virtual teams comes with significant change and challenges for everyone involved, the burden and responsibility to make it work in the end remains with the manager.

Have you read part 1 yet? “Why virtual teams fail

 

Job description for an Executive Sponsor

Job description for an Executive Sponsor
Executive sponsorship is an important prerequisite for the success of employee groups.  The challenge is finding a great sponsor, so what should you look for?  What would a job description for an executive sponsor look like?  ‑ Here are some practical ideas that have worked.

Why executive sponsorship is critical

Employee groups consist of volunteers with good intentions.  They work, typically, in addition to their day job and after hours driven by the desire to address a need close to their heart.  Together with colleagues, they seize opportunities to complement the organization’s objectives and goals and to improve the workplace.  In most cases, employee groups are not an integral part of the organization: they don’t show up in organizational charts and have no formal authority.

For most group members, this voluntary work is ‘on top’ of the regular job and not reflected in their professional goals or performance evaluation.  What makes a difference is having a strong ally: the executive sponsor.

From the organization’s perspective, some governance is needed to:

  • Prevent the employee group left to operate in a void or detach from the rest of the organization
  • Align the goals of the group with the needs and strategy of the company in a complementing and synergistic way
  • Ensure the group’s practices comply with company policies and other regulations.

The leaders of employee groups owe their members to:

  • Focus the group’s work to make a meaningful impact on the organization (instead of wasting resources and the member’s time on projects or activities that do not create value, are meaningless or even harmful to the organization)
  • Get funds, active support, and political backing in the organization.

Both, the organization and the employee group benefits from the connection with an executive sponsor.

 

What to look for in an executive sponsor?
What to look for in an executive sponsor?

No silver bullet

When you are looking for an executive sponsor, what are you looking for?  What are the relevant criteria?  – Executive sponsorship is a role, just like any other job, so what would a job description for an executive sponsor look like?

Bear in mind that there is no one right answer for the working relationship with an executive sponsor.  The sponsor role and level of involvement varies and depends on many factors.  It also shifts over time with the changing maturity of the group and its leadership, for example, or levels of involvement and autonomy of the group.  A new group may turn to the sponsor for help with forming, direction, and funding where a mature group may seek business insights, refined success metrics, and leadership development opportunities.

 Criteria for an Executive Sponsor

A perfect sponsor effectively leverages their personal brand, relationships, resources to enhance the visibility and credibility of the group.  Look to ‘recruit’ a well-known leader, who is well-connected within the leadership team and respected throughout the organization.  In an earlier post, we briefly touched on “How to attract an executive sponsor?

Ideally, the sponsor is a top-level executive ‑ you hit the jackpot if you can get the CEO!

Overall, the group’s expectations of the sponsor’s role usually include that the sponsor:

  • Serves as a champion of the group
  • Gives strategic direction to align with the organization’s business strategy
  • Helps to identify measurable success criteria that support business goals
  • Provides advice and counsel to guide the group’s development
  • Connects to a broad network of relationships
  • Liaises with the executive team and accepts accountability
  • Helps actively to identify and overcome obstacles and resistance within the organization
  • Supports the group through communication and visibility.

The stronger your sponsor, the stronger the group!  A strong sponsor

  • Shares valuable business knowledge
  • Demonstrates leadership, and is
  • Genuinely willing to help others.

A good sponsor encourages people to focus on how to engage others and improve communication, enhances the members’ leadership qualities and developing partnerships while helping to overcome barriers.

The sponsor you do NOT want

On the other end of the spectrum, there are also people you should avoid as executive sponsors for the group.  This category includes people who:

  • Provide lip-service over taking action
  • Use the group for selfish reasons; for example, by claiming and promoting achievements of group members as their own
  • Do not see the potential and value that the group can add to the organization and its businesses
  • Do not make enough time to work with the group
  • Are ineffective or unwilling to support and protect the group from opposing forces.

Finally, if you have the choice, avoid the temptation to have a group of executives ‘share’ responsibility and ‘champion’ the group collectively.  This tends to dilute accountability and action while increasing communication and coordination overhead.

There is much truth in the saying:  ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’

Too many cooks spoil the broth.
‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’

One of us?

Often enough, sponsors are chosen or step up because they originate from the group’s affinity core, i.e. they are of the same ethnicity that ethic-focused group represents, a female for a women’s group, a gay or lesbian for an LGBT group, and so on ‑ you get the picture.  I advocate against this practice for two reasons, in particular:  First, with an ‘outsider’ you achieve more diversity and mutual learning experiences in the group as well as for the sponsor.  Secondly, the group becomes more believable as a business driver that attracts a broader membership base instead of risking to be perceived as an ‘insider club’ limited to members with a certain ‘diversity ticket’.

For the same reasons, you may also consider rotating sponsors every few years.

Quid pro quo

What you want is an involved and effective executive sponsor.  Now, this sponsor role comes with additional work, responsibility, and risks for the senior leader’s reputation and career.  Therefore, this ‘job opening’ must be compelling enough to attract a senior executive to step forward and sign up.

It is important to offer a value proposition that makes clear what is in it for the executive sponsor to make this symbiosis work.  It is quite similar as discussed in “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) for the group members.

Know your sponsor

Sponsors are humans too, so here are some thoughts on how to approach them:  Get to know your sponsor first, just as you would prepare and approach to meet any other very important customer or external business partner.  Find out their goals, interests, beliefs, priorities, constraints of the political and economic environment, and personal work-style.  What exactly is the sponsor’s interest in your group?

Clarify your expectations mutually.  Once you know your sponsor and built rapport, it becomes easy to offer what is important to them and helping the sponsor to achieve their goals too.

A value proposition that addresses the (financial) bottom line is powerful and convincing.  It also enables the sponsor to communicate the benefits with the leadership team in a (business) language that everyone understands.  It takes business acumen, though, to specify and articulate the financial impact.  If this is not your strong suit, you need to find other compelling upsides or values that the group can bring to the business and that is close to a sponsor’s heart.

Do and Don’t:  How to work with the executive sponsor

Here is some practical advice on working with an executive sponsor.

On the Do side, preparation and focus are key.  Remember, this is a business meeting.  The executive’s time is valuable, so be respectful of it and do not waste it.  You want the sponsor to remain approachable and willing to meet with you in the future whenever you need to see them urgently.

  • Schedule appointments regularly (monthly, for example, if the sponsor agrees) with an agenda of topics to discuss
  • Provide background information on meeting topics ahead of time and come well prepared
  • Be on time and keep meetings on schedule
  • Present any problems with a proposed solution
  • Inform of  issues in the workplace that affect the group and propose what the sponsor can to mitigate or resolve the issues
  • Be honest with your sponsor – do not sugarcoat, blame others, or cover-up mistakes
  • Give your sponsor a heads-up also before taking more public and visible action so they will not get caught by surprise – if there is bad news, share it with the sponsor first
  • Discuss key goals and ask them for guidance, advice or assistance – allow your sponsor to help you and the group
  • Reserve your requests for sponsor appearances and events to where it counts most.  For example, as a speaker at a ‘headline’ event to draw a crowd, attract new members, and demonstrate the group’s value for the business.  Ask if the sponsor is willing to recruit other executives or respected business partners and customers as guest speakers or participants.
  • The sponsor could host a luncheon or dinner for the group’s leadership once or twice a year to meet everyone in person, discuss, and recognize achievements of the group and individual members.

As for the Don’ts, try to avoid these pitfalls:

  • Don’t come with a hidden personal agenda – it’s strictly about the group
  • Don’t bother the sponsor with petty day-to-day issues – focus on the meaningful impact on the business and the group
  • Don’t ask for general funding or support – be specific and have data and facts ready to support your case
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance and advice – but also don’t come just to commiserate.

Beyond the job description

Don’t underestimate the importance of the right chemistry between the group leader(s) and the exec sponsor; it is crucial to establish and foster a trustful, constructive, and pleasant work relationship.

For an employee group, executive sponsorship is more than the group’s endorsement by senior management: a strong sponsor becomes the lifeline when times get rough.

So when you go out to ‘hire’ your executive sponsor, also hire for the right attitude.

Do managers miss the sweet-spot of remote working?

Stumbling in the dark?

Organizations often find themselves struggling with a dilemma: The need for employees working remotely, often from home, is at rise for many business reasons that include cost savings and the competition over attracting and retaining top talent.

On the other hand, many managers have a hard time allowing their staff to work outside their proximity and direct supervision. Their reasons often include the fear of change introducing the unknown but also a certain cluelessness of how to effectively manage a remote workforce and moving beyond their personal comfort zone.

These conflicting drivers open a tension field that organizations tend to struggle with. – Does this sound familiar to you?

No silver bullet
Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’, i.e. a one-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone and in every environment. Too much depends on the nature of the work, necessary interactions and communication between team members as well as the jobs and personalities involved. It takes a close look at the individual organization to craft a remote working program that fits an organization, maximizes collaboration at a measurable performance level.

Common ground for remote working
However, we can learn from others how to establish a basis for a fruitful remote working program in your organization (if you don’t have one yet).  Research offers tangible results such as the “MTI Report 09-14: Facilitating Telecommuting: Exploring the role of Telecommuting Intensity and Differences Between Telecommuters and Non-Telecommuters”. The study compares telecommuters and non-telecommuters and it came up with the following findings. (Note that I use telecommute, telework and remote working synonymously throughout this article.)

  • Telecommuters show increased commitment to their organization and experience more work-life satisfaction over the non-telecommuters group. No differences between both groups though on job satisfaction and turnover intent, i.e. how likely employees are to leave the company.

On a side note, the latter two findings are quite different from my own professional studies and experience, where employees working remotely reported a 57% increase in work-life balance. Increasing workplace flexibility including remote working, i.e. giving the employee more control over their schedule and location, became a driver also for employee attraction and retention.
– What are your experiences? Do you see remote work influencing job satisfaction and employee retention? Please comment.

  • Interestingly, the study explored also ‘personalities’ and found that more extroverts tend to be telecommuters, so people with a higher drive for social interaction and communication rather than the quiet ones.

This appears conclusive in the light of the simple finding that (a) telecommuting in many companies is not implemented consequently but rather as an “idiosyncratic deal” between individual supervisors and employees. (b) These supervisors prefer granting permission to telecommute to high-performers. This can explain a pre-selection of extroverts over introverts, who may not show up on the supervisor’s radar as much and therefore tend to receive less remote working opportunities.

  • Generally, teleworkers commute from farther away. They find commuting more stressful and want to avoid rush-hour traffic.
  • Less surprising, telecommuters were interrupted more by family members given their physical presence at their off-site work location.

This seems to suggest that working-from-home could be less effective than working in the office given more family interruptions. My own observations are quite different and based on a controlled pilot project which showed that the workers in the office feel distracted by their colleagues stopping by randomly; the workers preferred working from home when they needed focus and want to avoid distractions calling this their most productive work time.
Disruptions occur at home as well as in the office. It is the employee’s responsibility and best interest to ensure a professional work environment at their home-office so not to jeopardize their work results. Consequently, also performance needs to be measured by results and not physical presence. This levels the playing field and allows for fair comparison between all workers independent of their working location and distractions.

  • In the triangle of telecommuters, supervisors and Human Resources (HR) practices the telecommuters generally view the organization differently from non-telecommuters. Most telecommuters perceive technology training is available to them and that the organizational reward system as well as their supervisors was supporting telecommuting. Telecommuters also believe that there is an underlying business requirement that drives working remotely.

Once again we see that a level playing field is viewed as an important success factor for effective teleworking. Technology serves as enabler that makes teleworking possible in the first place and connects coworkers across remote locations. Offering remote working not only becomes a business necessity but also addresses increased expectations of the modern work force to telework powered by ever improving communication and collaboration technology.
Now, the telecommuters in the study seem to understand the changed business environment that pushes organizations to open up to flexible work arrangements for competitive reasons including cost savings as well as employee productivity and retention – the supervisors ‑apparently‑ did not ‘get it’.

For most of us the times are over where workers came to the factory or office only because the resources needed to accomplishing the work were concentrated in a specific location and could not be distributed (think early typewriters, heavy production equipment, incoming mail and so on). For a growing services industry these limitations no longer exist – yet this out-dated paradigm remained present in the minds of many. People tend to have a certain picture in mind what work ‘looks like’ and where it has to happen which comes down to an office with everyone present from 9am to 5pm.

  • From the supervisors’ perspective things look different than for telecommuters. Over 50% of the supervisors of telecommuter believe “that employees have to be high performers”. This view is shared by only 37% of the non-telecommuting supervisors.
    This brings us to a most critical component and success factor for making remote working work…

Management attitudes – the make or break
The MTI study phrases this barrier kindly as “challenges and obstacles emanating from attitudes of individuals in the organization”. The obstacles to implementing an effective telecommuting model often originate from management itself or even the Human Resources department tasked to make a policy.  The reasons for resistance can be multifold and include a lack of better knowledge, fear of change such as losing perceived control, lazy avoidance to probe outdated beliefs or taking a one-size-fits-all approach without evaluating the specific environment.

I even experienced the paradox of managers believing they can work from home just as effective as from their office desk and making use of this flexibility at their convenience while not trusting that their staff could be similarly effective or was trustworthy enough just as much. They see remote working being a ‘perk’ for their staff reserved for ‘top performers’ who deserve it – a double standard is being applied which is often enough based on murky or questionable criteria (if at all). These managers show a sense of entitlement while ignoring that (as the MTI study confirms) remote working increases employee satisfaction and commitment which tends to increase also performance; as an example, performance increased by 30% in the department I manage.

Some managers fear they may lose ‘control’ and that their staff may abuse the newly acquired freedom to control their schedule and work location. This ‘control’ is often based on the deceptive perception that staff works ‘better’ and is ‘under control’ when confined to an office location and ‘eye-balled’ by the supervisor.

More effective is the consistent application of measurable and pre-defined goals that demonstrate unambiguously, transparently and quantifiable whether an employee met the goal or not – independent from their schedule or work location. In practice, managing-by-performance showed more effective to distinguish effective performers from under-performers than a manager looking around the office space and hoping the staff is performing just by their mere presence.

What it takes to make remote working work
Implementing remote working is not exactly rocket science but takes an honest and diligent approach based on trust and clear expectations. From a practical perspective, a viable model includes:

  • Put away with the ‘telecommuting-is-a-perk’ attitude
  • Closely look at which jobs have remote working potential together with the affected employee
  • Identify the employee’s team, i.e. the people who need to cooperate closely even across departmental boundaries (organizational, geographic, etc.)
  • Include employees to model how remote working could work in their team, try it out and be flexible to improve the model
  • Strictly rate all employees by their performance based on measurable and tangible results that are clearly defined
  • Apply transparent standards for all employees consistently
  • Treat remote and non-remote workers similarly including equal opportunities treatment and rewards
  • Provide effective communication technology and adequate training
  • Address manager concerns and prepare management with adequate training and guidance.

It is true that managing a remote working environment provides new challenges. They include in particular:

  • Strictly managing-by-performance by setting clear expectations and exercising transparency.
  • Overcoming ‘old thinking’. Questioning ones habits and beliefs to approach with an open-mind new or different ways of working. Include your staff to come up with ideas on how to make it work.
  • Diversifying and mastering the spectrum of communication channels. Choosing and using the media preferred by the staff to communicate effectively and efficiently with employees.

If this includes peer-to-peer video, instant messaging or texting (SMS) then learn to master these technologies. Limit face-time for confidential or sensitive topics that should better not be communicated electronically; don’t abuse face-time for routine communication.

Most of all, mutual trust is the key component in the critical relationship between manager and employee. This can be the hardest to build. For managers, taking some temporary measures can prove helpful to establish a trustful working relationship with their staff; for example, start with documenting and reviewing weekly performance plans together with the employee until the manager develops more trust and is comfortable with exercising less timely supervision.

In general, if an organization lacks trust then remote working will hardly be implemented effectively, consistently or to its full potential – but then, remote working may not be the biggest problem this organization faces…

Why too much trust hurts innovation

Research shows that too much trust decreases innovation. Read what ‘trust’ is and how it affects your workplace and innovation.

Most managers understand that trust is a key ingredient to effective collaboration and innovation yet few actively try to cultivate and nourish trust in their own organization to achieve the right mix between trust and constructive tension.

The trust gap between theory and practice
Over 80% of managers believe trust is important to have good work relationships that enable effective collaboration and superior results. So why do only 40 or so percent actually take action to build and maintain trust within their organization? Obviously, there is a disconnect between the theory and the practice. Why is that?

My assumption is that ‘trust’ is perceived as an ‘intangible’ that managers like to stay away from because they find it hard to measure and to manage. It further requires an individual to open which comes with vulnerability. Perhaps we also fall easily into the only so human trap of making over-confident assumptions when it comes to ourselves and our single-sided perception of the trust we believe to have established with people we work with….

What is trust?
Let’s take a closer look – what makes up trustful work relationships? Trust is the degree that people trust one another, so trust is an interpersonal phenomenon. It comes down to three factors that make up trust at the workplace as Karen Sobel Lojeski, NYU professor at Stony Brook and CEO of Virtual Distance International, identifies:

  • Benevolence  –  co-workers have your best interest at heart
  • Ability  –  co-workers have the knowledge and ability to get the job done
  • Integrity  –  co-workers will do what they promise.

Trust is the ‘glue’
Trust is the social ‘glue’ that holds together teams and organizations. It is critical for success of virtual teams, i.e. the increasing trend of co-workers worked separated from another and spread across different countries and time zones. With a lack of trust productivity dwindles as does the willingness to share information. Instead, our energy gets wasted every day on avoiding perceived threats from others.

Innovation needs trust
High trust correlates with more successful innovation – why? When colleagues trust another they open up and share information. Besides the obvious benefit of cross-fertilization that leads to more ideas and creative approaches, by giving away your views and knowledge you become vulnerable as an individual and even more so in a competitive professional environment. This openness comes with a risk to fail that people are only willing to take if failure is acceptable among colleagues and does not come with repercussions.

Sharing ideas alone is not enough though. Asking thoughtful questions, constructive criticism and mutual support lead to better solutions while curbing hostility and competitiveness. Opening up happens when a task-related conflict will not easily deteriorate into a personal conflict. Innovation within an organization relies on trust among colleagues as a key ingredient that cannot be substituted.

Too much trust impedes innovation!
So, how much trust is needed? And can there be too much trust? The MIT’s Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2010, Vol. 51, No. 4) offers some answers. An increasing level of trust leads to more effective innovation, as we expect, but the researchers also observed that there is a limit after which the correlation negates and where innovation declines with too much trust. What happened here?

Too much mutual trust deteriorates the innovative effectiveness of partners. Where trust sparked creativity and led to better solutions earlier constructive criticism and challenging each others ideas now suffers. Finding the ‘sweet spot’ is the tough part where a high level of trust consistently fuels innovation and leads to best results.

Take-home message for managers
Should managers reduce investing in trust? Certainly not!

A high level of trust remains the most crucial requirement to build a solid relationship between people that becomes the basis for effective collaboration and innovation. Most organizations seem to suffer from a lack of trust more than anything. It makes collaboration a drag and leads to poor results and mediocre solutions.

Actively building trustful relationships is an important part of a manager’s role and even more so in virtual teams, when the team members work separated by barriers of location, time, culture, language and others. Trust must be built and nurtured actively especially when face-to-face communication is not possible and becomes replaced by using less-rich digital media (video conferencing, phone, email, etc.).

When trust is getting very high, however, we need vigilance and a reality check. You do not want to lose constructive argument and challenging dialogue between team members that turn creative ideas into innovative solutions.