Managing a dispersed workforce

Late last year, Nous Group published this article following a panel discussion in the Perth office.  The key principles which are articulated in this article are now more pertinent as ever as many are now managing a dispersed workforce, and likely to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

Western Australian organisations have plenty of experience in teams spread far and wide. Some of us are the WA outpost of national (or international) organisations, while others have headquarters in Perth that connects with people in regional parts of the state.

In either case, the challenge remains: how do you share information, collaborate effectively and build a common culture when you have a dispersed workforce?

That was the topic of conversation at a Nous event on September 19, when we brought together some of Western Australia’s leading thinkers for a panel discussion at the launch of our new Perth office.

The discussion – which was led by Nous Managing Director Tim Orton and included WA Country Health Service CEO Jeff Moffet, RUAH Community Services CEO Debra Zanella, former Rio Tinto Managing Director Sam Walsh, and the two authors of this article – yielded many interesting and valuable insights.

When we talk about a dispersed workforce, we mean team members who work from different locations. This ranges from people near the main worksite who choose to work offsite, to people who work in a regional office, to those who work on their own in a rural location, to those who work across time zones in different parts of the world.

Here in WA dispersed workforces are also a product of our geography, where the population is spread across our 2.5 million square kilometres, making local connections more valuable. As writer and investor Martin Zwilling has noted, “Just think of your remote team members as closer to the customer, rather than farther from the team.”

The upshot of the discussion was that working effectively with a dispersed workforce involves many strategies, which can be categorised as foundational, good practice and optimal.

The organisations grappling with this issue are varied. They include multinational resources companies, government agencies with a constellation of regional offices, not-for-profit organisations with just a handful of people and other organisations with individuals based in very remote locations. Regardless of the scale, the core challenges are similar.

At Nous we experience the same challenge ourselves. We have a team of 400 across Australia and the United Kingdom, with an office in Perth and consultants based in Broome and Darwin servicing clients across the West. As we discuss the strategies, we will explain how we have operationalised them at Nous.

Strong foundations are essential to success

Any major organisational initiative needs suitable foundations. Putting in place the right systems and operating model establishes a good foundation, which can be built upon by other strategies.

The first system is technological – how will teams communicate, collaborate and share? Numerous digital platforms meet this need, including videoconferencing platforms, document storage in the cloud, and real-time discussion tools. Each have basic off-the-shelf products, with the potential to modify to meet the needs of an organisation.

Regardless of the platform, it is essential to invest in reliability; after all, the consequences of a tech outage are multiplied when in-person communication is limited. It is no surprise that technical failures can result in significant frustration, reduced job satisfaction and lower productivity.

Beyond technology are human resources systems and processes, which need to remove assumptions about where team members work from. Managing a dispersed workforce requires people to have a clear understanding of their role, to know how they are expected to operate and to see a line between their tasks and the objectives of their organisation.

Performance systems need to reflect a higher level of trust, while learning and development efforts need to include people working in multiple locations. Staff also need support to occasionally meet in person, whether through dispersed staff visiting head office or managers heading into the field, so travel budgets and approvals should reflect this.

At Nous, we have adopted Skype for Business as our videoconferencing platform, allowing staff across multiple locations to connect effortlessly via their laptop, smartphone or conference room. For our knowledge management platform we use Confluence, a product of Atlassian, that is easy for staff to write, edit, publish and access. And our data is stored in a secure cloud-based platform accessible from any location. Regarding our human resources systems, we have a policy of self-management, which allows staff to work in whatever way suits them and their location best while meeting the needs of local and dispersed clients. An online system, Lattice, has been introduced to facilitate feedback among team members.

Quality leadership is good practice for a dispersed workforce

With the right foundations in place, quality leadership is vital to enhancing outcomes from a dispersed workforce. The impact of good leadership is magnified in cases where people are spread across multiple locations. Much of this leadership involves quality communications, but this is more challenging when personnel are dispersed.

Leaders must be clear, transparent and consistent in how they communicate the organisation’s meaning and purpose. They must also ensure it resonates in all places and gives their people the flexibility to translate it into their local context.

One successful example is the WA Country Health Service (WACHS), which has a five-year strategic plan that prioritises investment in leadership, workforce and culture. As part of this, WACHS (with Nous’ support) engaged senior clinicians and managers across the state to understand what would have the most positive impact in their regions and districts. This approach informed the strategic planning process and, critically, has generated significant buy-in across a highly dispersed leadership group and workforce.

Multiple channels are usually necessary to test, deliver and reinforce messages. Beyond the usual email and in-person meetings, executives need to consider leveraging the organisation’s intranet, embracing video and considering podcasts, recognising differing communications preferences in a dispersed organisation. It is worth checking that the message received is the same as the message intended. A pilot group can be useful to test a message before it is scaled up.

When staff are spread across multiple sites, there is extra impetus for leaders to visit. In a poll of more than 1,100 global workers, one in four respondents said managers who insisted on some face time with remote employees were more successful. As someone astutely observed at the recent Garma Festival, when you live remotely, that location is the ‘centre’ and everything outside is distant. That means headquarters and central offices are often the ones away from the ‘centre’, not the other way around.

One way to build trust with a network of employees is to demonstrate transparency, so they have reliable information about what is happening in the organisation. A dispersed team of staff may be more prone to encountering misinformation, and managers may not even be aware this misinformation is circulating. Creating and honouring an expectation of transparency can minimise these risks and give people the information they need to do their jobs well.

Information needs to flow both ways. Perspectives from a dispersed workforce need to feed into central hubs, so managers get a more fulsome picture of reality. This inflow of information needs to influence organisation-wide narratives. Accumulated experience can be shared via ongoing learning and development, as connecting the learning from dispersed and centralised locations can deepen practice and performance.

At Nous, our senior leadership has developed a high level of trust with the entire organisation. As well as visiting our eight locations across Australia, the Managing Director holds a regular all-staff video teleconference, at which he delivers an update on company-wide performance that involves a high level of transparency. We are conducting organisation listening exercises across our offices to hear employee views on leadership behaviours and practices. For more routine communications, an internal blog on the Nous intranet has the capacity for questions and comments. In a monthly internal survey, Nous staff both in major offices and working outside them report feeling a high level of inclusiveness.

Devolved governance can lead to great performance

Achieving optimal results with a dispersed workforce requires sound governance and structure – but these things are also the toughest success factors to get right.

The governance factor most crucial is the extent to which team members are empowered to make decisions, and conversely the extent to which they need to defer to head office. It is essential to find the right balance between a philosophy of ‘we are one organisation’ and ‘we adapt to local conditions’. Where organisations sit on this spectrum will vary. It is necessary that this is a conscious choice rather than a result of decision-making on auto-pilot.

In bureaucratic organisations the flexibility of dispersed work can run against the culture. Dispersed workers will be less productive in environments with centralised, rule-oriented or committee-heavy processes. As panellist Jeff Moffet noted at our event, it is best to only try to be consistent when you really need to be consistent.

The question of how staff are structured in the organisation needs careful consideration. Traditional hierarchies are unlikely to be conducive to collaboration, especially when staff are dispersed. And relationships outside organisations in dispersed contexts can be just as important to performance. Better results can be achieved through networks that bring together people to focus on an objective. Done right, these networks can foster interconnection across the organisation. But this must not be allowed to cloud accountability; as Sam Walsh told the Perth forum of his days running Rio Tinto, it was necessary to have a single point of accountability.

At Nous, we have opted for a network organisation, in which each consultant is a member of a geographic office, one or more sector groups and one or more practice groups. The cumulative impact of these affiliations is that people work alongside a variety of team members for a given activity. (Our corporate team is arranged in a more traditional structure.) Everyone in the organisation is committed to a common objective, and is given the autonomy to pursue that objective in a way that best meets the needs of clients, the business and themselves. By virtue of the high degree of trust, authority over spending and other matters is largely devolved.

Drawing on experience can help deliver success

Every organisation working with a dispersed workforce – including most organisations in Western Australia – needs to create the right conditions for success. Clearly this involves achieving the foundational strategies, but should also involve good-practice and optimal strategies.

We find our clients benefit from our evidence base showing what works and what does not when it comes to managing dispersed workforces. Nous has experience in leadership and capability development, as well as organisational structure and operating model design, all of which can support the success of a dispersed workforce.

All trends show that a dispersed workforce is here to stay. The challenge faced by every organisation is to make it a success.

Get in touch to discuss how Nous can help your dispersed workforce deliver results.

Published on 10 October 2019