Tweaking management style in the flexible workplace age

Three SCNetwork members discuss Laura Hambley and Giselle Kovary’s presentation

Tweaking management style in the flexible workplace age

The following is a commentary on Beefing up flexwork for younger generations.

David Creelman: The reminder that generations are different is best seen as a reminder that people are different. The most important thing for HR is to ensure managers get to know each individual as an individual. It is somewhat helpful to know common characteristics of millennials but, as the speakers point out, each individual is different, so the only effective approach is for managers to have insight into each of their direct reports.

This can be very difficult in a distributed workforce. This may be the biggest problem for managers not used to leading a distributed team, and getting to know their team well may be the biggest element in making those problems disappear.

The only addendum to this is there are some troubling concerns with people born after 1995 that are outlined in the research of Jean Twenge: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

The differences between this generation and millennials are more significant than the difference between millennials and boomers — and that should give us pause.

Sandi Channing: Distributed work is on the upswing and is here to stay. Benefits for business include increased productivity, diversity, enhanced innovation, greater talent pool and better retention. Challenges centre around engagement, connectivity, transition, trust and nimbleness. Giselle Kovary and Laura Hambley’s presentation looked at how to best manage the challenges while reaping the benefits.

One size does not fit all. Individuals born in one generation may have the characteristics of another. A millennial may be more comfortable in a traditional setting. Some personalities like to work alone; some need the daily social interaction of an office; and others a combination of the two.

Managers need to find the style of work that’s best for each team member and accommodate accordingly so they can do great work. A good leader does this whether it’s distributed work or not.

The presenters’ focus on how we foster the human element was welcome. One goal of distributed work is to retain employees by giving people flexibility around their work life. Retention also requires the feeling of belonging to a team, department and organization.

The question becomes how to best marry the two.

Dispersed teams and virtual collaboration require new or enhanced management skills.

Communication is the one major skill that needs to be amplified in a distributed work environment. As companies move away from on-site office settings, gone are the impromptu face-to-face brainstorming sessions and water cooler chats.

Other forms of frequent communication become extremely important for distributed work to succeed. You can never over-communicate.

The need to have regular virtual meetings and touchpoints cannot be underestimated. The importance of team-building — sharing fun facts and having regular lunches and team chat lines in addition to work discussions — brings some of the “water cooler” benefits to the group.

Distributed work can be a win-win for all if managed well. With innovation, job satisfaction, retention, attracting top talent, and increased productivity at stake, the investment is warranted.

Jan van der Hoop: I can vouch for the fact that a person’s comfort working in isolation is going to depend a fair bit on her core personality. As a relatively early adopter in the world of dispersed work, I can say with confidence that it suits me just fine. The office is in a clearly defined space in the house where I go only to work; I’m not easily distracted by nature and I am fairly low on the sociability scale.

That doesn’t make me antisocial — I can turn on the charm when it’s called for, but I don’t need a lot of people around me to be happy. Interacting with others when I need to — by phone or on GoToMeeting — works just fine.

Giselle’s comment about it not working for every personality type was right on the money, though. My business partner is very high on the sociability scale. He craves social interaction with others, and dies slowly inside when he is starved of it. Working remotely might work for him if he could bring a laptop to Starbucks or the public library, but working alone in a home office would drive him bananas. It would honestly disable any ability to focus and be productive.

And yet we are both boomers, which lends weight to the contention that the generational label may notionally be correct about the broad attributes of each cohort, but it is not the territory.

Any traditionalism in our mindsets and behaviours is more a legacy of the environment in which we grew up than it is of who we are.

As a company, we are pretty non-traditional on almost every level, and I believe we are getting more flexible and nimble with each passing year. Look at us: Boomers learning to dance like gen Zs.

I have to say I disagree with Sandi’s comment about this new dispersed reality requiring new or enhanced management skills. I think it requires good, old-fashioned leadership and management skills (yes, both).

As humans, we all crave connection — to our manager, to our work family, and to the work itself.

We are social animals first, corporate rats second. To be engaged, people require engaging leaders who are interested in and focused on them and their success.

In a dispersed world, weak management fails faster than a parachute with no cords. Unfortunately, it is most often the dispersed person or the dispersion itself that gets the blame for the failure.

And who says the water cooler is dead in the world of dispersion?

It certainly doesn’t have to be — the presenters gave lots of examples that demonstrated how the tools at our fingertips can shrink the distance.

If we only care to use them.

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