News earlier this year that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer would require all of the company’s remote workers to return to the office quickly escalated into a national talking point, with critics categorizing the policy as antiquated and others lauding the decision as a step in the right direction in straightening out the embattled company’s culture.
If a high-tech firm like Yahoo has to call people into the office and put a ban on telework, many surely thought, how is any organization going to succeed in such an environment?
Of course, the issue runs much deeper than the use of technology. Virtual working can be successful as long as a firm’s management and leadership style is aligned with the right values.
Studies have also shown the benefits of telework. Economics professor Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University conducted research with a 16,000-person Chinese travel agency on the topic. Of 500 call center employees, half were selected to work from home. The agency’s bosses fully expected the savings in real estate space to be countered by a drop in productivity, but they discovered that home workers’ productivity actually increased 13 percent.
While the study argued in favor of virtual work for call center workers, many jobs have less well-defined metrics — particularly those that rely on deeper expertise and creative problem solving.
“Acting as one team is a core principle of our company and applies to all our teammates, regardless of where they work.” said Mary Slaughter, senior vice president and chief learning officer at SunTrust Bank. “To have effective virtual teams, two of the major ingredients for success are role clarity and trust.”
Roderick Kramer, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, coined the term “swift trust” in his 2013 book, Restoring Trust in Organizations and Leaders. Swift trust, Kramer writes, involves conferring trust on others quickly and assuming that they will be able to do the job well as opposed to waiting for them to prove their worth.
Building trust remotely requires a change in leadership and management style. It requires leaders to move from a command-and-control approach to one of coordination and collaboration.
Research published in 2012 by Kimberly Furumo, assistant professor of management information systems at the University of Hawaii, showed that virtual teams whose leader is supportive — or focused on well-being and achieving consensus — have greater trust and increased participation than teams with a commanding leader, or someone who’s authoritarian and only focused on results.
The commanding approach involves a supervisory mentality, directive decision-making and selective information sharing. These managers tend to advise on problems and promote enforcement and compliance. Those managers with a supportive, coordinating style, however, are more likely to generate empowerment, in turn encouraging collaborative decision-making, open information sharing and discussion.
The supportive approach isn’t simply about being warm and friendly, however. While getting to know colleagues is important, what makes the difference in terms of trust is delivering on promises. Therefore, management education on remote working should focus on helping managers set clear goals and expectations about time.
Virtual managers then need to create a strategy to communicate each team member’s weekly activities and availability. Also, to build the team’s belief that their colleagues are competent, leaders should give constant feedback.
Sebastian Bailey is the president and co-founder of Mind Gym, a learning and development firm. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.