This is the moment you make your worst decisions

Things are taking longer to get done. Bl**dy remote working!

This is what a very capable agency owner said to me recently. To expand:

“It’s taking longer to get things done. Nothing is as easy as it was. Remote working just makes life difficult. I know people want flexibility, but I think I’m going to revert to the old approach. I need my people in the office”.

Whoa there chum. Hold the horses. Let’s quickly unpack this before you decide that you want the fun of replacing half your team.

‘Things are taking longer to get done’ – are you sure? And even if they are, there could be many reasons.

‘Nothing is as easy as it was’ – was it ever easy? I ran agency and “easy” wasn’t the word I used for any situation, ever.

‘Remote working makes life more difficult’ – not for most of those who appreciate remote working. It demands that we do things differently, but there are swings and roundabouts in the remote working playground.

‘I know people want flexibility’ – you got that right.

‘But I think I’m going to revert to the old approach. I need my people in the office…’  and …. Breathe.

Be careful to distinguish correlation from causation

As Colin Smith, the exemplary analytical thinker, often reminded me, there’s a difference between correlation and causation. It is EXACTLY at this point we find ourselves making poor decisions and wondering what the hell happened three months later.

Quick reframe opportunity here

 ‘It feels like things are harder to do’

Certainly having people working remotely does make it harder to lean over and ask someone a question – some people call this interruption them by the way – and quite possibly things could take longer… or perhaps remote working is simply showing up flaws in our processes that were masked when we could simply interrupt, I mean ask, people.

What might be happening when people aren’t all sitting in the office together:

  • Your lack of robust, clearly defined, widely adopted, tested and deeply embedded processes are being found out (small sentence, enormous issue – and perhaps the thing that differentiates the really successful and profitable businesses from the rest?)
  • the inability of your managers to hold their teams to account becomes a real blocker
  • and it’s close cousin, poor or non-existent delegation (here’s some delegation advice if you want it)
  • failing to set SMART goals with well-defined and realistic expectations comes home to roost (and/or your staff’s reluctance to point out when what you are asking them to do isn’t clear)
  • perhaps you’re just seeing human nature playing out more clearly? People always do the things that they prefer, the easy wins and the urgent before they deal with the rest of their to-do list. Maybe when people are remote it just becomes clearer?
  • your ability to communicate with clarity is exposed. There will be more confusion, more toing and froing and more cock-ups. How often do we teach our junior staff about effective communication?
  • I don’t just mean written comms. How often does your team email rather than call a client? What did you ever do about that when you noticed it?

Apart from all of this, if your aim is for people to be able to do their best work from anywhere (a winning ambition for all business leaders) you’re going to need amazing remote working practices. How do yours stack up?

So, before you decide that remote working is in fact the devils work, do some honest self-reflection on the points above. Whether you offer remote working or not, ALL of the above points still hold true. Be careful of a knee-jerk. So, what are you going to do now?

There’s lots you could do, but a couple of really quick, high impact wins I’d suggest are:

Give things clearer names (and use them consistently)

Name stuff. Just do it. This sounds insane, but if you name something, pretty quickly people will understand what it is that you want. That’s why jargon and business speak develop – it’s shorthand for complex ideas and requirements.

Before you go out and invent an entirely new nomenclature for your business. Here’s a really simple, real-life example. A client of mine was struggling to get case studies produced. We’ve all been there (important not urgent yadda, yadda). It was hurting new business, on-boarding and it was taking ages to get cases onto the website. But the reality is that these are all different things with different requirements. Within their business they now have: New Business Case Studies (carefully worded and adapted to the needs of each individual pitch); Website Case Studies (much shorter and focussing on results); Onboarding Case Studies for new joiners that provide significantly more details about the clients and their needs as well as some of the successes and so on.

The point is that they have given each quite different requirement a very distinct name, albeit with a similar root, to make it clear that there are specific expectations, timelines, resource allocations, sign offs and so on.

Internal Service Level Agreements

Once a thing has a name (see above), you can attach some clear expectations around the deliverables. What’s included, what format, who needs to contribute (the usual RACI), what are the timelines? Is there a budget – if so, who signs that off and by when? You get the picture. You all know what an SLA is. But the key is that whilst it might – might – take a little longer the first time, it will be more likely to be delivered right first time and the time after that and so on.

I’ve touched on this topic before (there’s a brilliant interview with Cat Navarro here.) Find those people in your organisation who love this kind of thing (and by thing I mean the process) – you do have them – and set them loose.

I don’t have all the answers for whether remote working is right for your business, but I do know that the pandemic has made flexibility even more important to your teams. Remember that those same employees who once eyeballed you from a desk away still want to do the same great work they always did, they just might need some new processes to achieve it. And that is down to you.

Andy.

Every Wednesday I book out an hour to hold a FREE agency leaders surgery. If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues. You can help yourself to my calendar, here. Speaking to a diverse group of agency leaders helps me stay current and contextualise the issues I’m seeing with my clients. So please see this conversation as a genuine collaboration where we both hope to learn something new.

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If you have something on your mind, a challenge you’re wrestling with or just want an alternative point of view, I’d be very happy to lend an ear and maybe help you start to unpick the issues.