By Steve Doran, Director, Infrastream

With many companies and asset management teams now having to work from home, here are three areas of focus that can help teams transition to new ways of working and create more opportunities.

‘I never expected to be working remotely.’ Millions of people would share this sentiment in post-COVID 2020, but for me, that unexpected transition occurred  more than a decade ago.

In late 2007, I left a secure job I’d held for 20 years and launched what felt like a small and rickety raft on the high seas of the gig economy.

Yet after several weeks of searching for land, the adventure began. Project number one was an asset management contract with one of Australia’s largest maintenance service providers.

Soon I was flying to sites all over the country and my client was talking about the need to prepare for a significant expansion, which would involve the incorporation of my company and the hiring of up to 20 employees.

The company was born…then the GFC hit. I got a call from the client who said I needed to put those employee plans on hold and that a freeze had been put on all discretionary spending. Suddenly, I was working from a dining room table.

But here’s the thing, I found that operating remotely works. And it works well. I wasn’t jet-setting any longer, but I was still connecting with my clients via email and phone, and meeting their expectations. We were still able to kick the same goals together.

So while you may not have planned to be at home, it’s totally do-able, and, in many cases, it allows you to work and lead more effectively than when you were at the office.

For our company in the years leading up to the COVID-19 crisis, internal contact between employees, and externally with clients, has averaged around 70 per cent remote time over the total project time. I believe this is a key reason for the effectiveness and efficiency of our company’s services.

Let’s flesh this out a bit. Looking back on the years since I (accidentally) became a remote worker and then leader, I’ve learnt that there are three main focus areas which breed success. These are mindset, motivation and productivity.

Mindset

It’s easy to arrive at the challenge of working remotely with a negative attitude. After all, it’s often unfortunate, uncontrollable circumstances that have brought us to that place.

However, we need to shift gears and look at the opportunity it brings. There’s potentially greater productivity and satisfaction to be found from working this way – for both you and your team.

Why is that the case? Firstly, it’s an opportunity for ‘deep work’, a term coined by best-selling author Cal Newport, who defined it as ‘the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task’.

Lack of distraction is the key here. Obviously, if we’re at home, there can be issues with family and establishing a physical workspace, but if those are managed, they can incur less of a drain on productivity than the often unnoticed and considerable time wastage that occurs in an office environment.

At the office it’s the norm to be bombarded with requests for small outputs or opinions on the half-developed thoughts of the colleagues around us.

Three hours of deep remote work can be more productive than eight hours at the office in my experience of both.

Another significant gain, perhaps the biggest one, is the shift to an outcome focus that tends to come almost automatically when we are working and interacting remotely.

We’re not in an office where we need to look busy and occupy particular spaces within set times. Without these visible decoys, what really stands out is the outcomes you and your remote team makes. That is, the results of your activity and not the activity itself.

Here’s a simple results or ‘outcomes’ based production model. We have resources or inputs, which we arrange and deploy to maximise benefits and minimise (negative) impacts.

Interestingly, this thinking aligns us with the systems approach that’s outlined in the international asset management standard ISO 55000.

It’s about balancing ‘costs’ (inputs), risks (impacts) and performance (benefits) to achieve best ‘value for stakeholders’ (outcomes).

Further, the standard’s definition for ‘asset management’ is ‘the coordinated activity of an organisation to realise value from assets’ (the way we arrange and do things).

For those familiar with ISO 55000, have a think about the asset management fundamentals outlined in the standard – value, alignment, leadership, assurance. They’re essentially all about outcomes.

In other words, working remotely will naturally push us towards the coordinated, outcomes-based approach that lies at the heart of good systems management. That’s an incredibly important and powerful mind shift.

Motivation

Unlocking motivation is the second key to success as a remote leader and team. (Note: you’re not a ‘virtual’ team, you are a team, even if you’re physically separated).

Your team members will be inspired if they are self-motivated, and self-motivation is stimulated by giving your team a sense of purpose, freedom and progress.

Purpose is about helping your people to understand the big picture and the significant part they have to play in making it happen.

Freedom is about giving your team the space, within a framework, to work out solutions without being micromanaged.

And progress is about creating an environment where team members feel that they are improving themselves or a situation; there’s a sense of advancement and growth, both individually and corporately.

“Your team members will be inspired if they are self-motivated, and self-motivation is stimulated by giving your team a sense of purpose, freedom and progress.”

Beyond self-motivation, trust is critical if you want to build sustained enthusiasm and energy within the team.

I’ve learnt a lot about trust in the consulting sphere, where you won’t be called back, or called in the first place, unless you have established confidence and a name for reliability.

There are three forms of trust. There’s what might be called ‘the balance of interest’. You trust that your team will deliver for you and they trust that you’ll recognise that they have done so.

Money, and value for money, are the obvious and tangible interests, but there are many other ways in which the balance of interest works.

Then there’s integrity and transparency, timeless values that mean precisely what they say – you’ll do what you promise, and you’re the same person when no one’s watching.

The third aspect of trust is that your colleagues will be sure that you’ll be working to lighten their emotional load, not add to it. You’re pulling together, not creating further drag.

Productivity

Anxieties around productivity are where a lot of would-be leaders fall down. We become fixated on results; we’re not running a charity, there’s a bottom line to meet.

When there’s a glitch or dip, that’s often when tension spikes and the whip comes out. But we have a choice about whether to be a villain or hero.

The good news is that studies show the odds are in our favour. If your team is working remotely, you’re already pushing towards greater productivity.

A Gallup analysis of January 2020 concluded that ‘the data is clear: remote work not only improves outcomes and employee branding but is a policy that the most talented employees desire.’

The authors noted decades of research showing that ‘performance soars’ when employees feel engaged and they found in 2020 that engagement was optimal when between 60 and 80 per cent of work was conducted remotely.

It’s striking that this study was released before the Coronavirus lockdowns, and at a time when several US government agencies were winding back their remote work programs.

That’s at least one silver lining in the midst of this global disaster; many of us have been forced to do something that actually works better than what we were doing before.

It reiterates what I’ve said about mindset and opportunity. Now, as we emerge from the worst of the restrictions, we can be looking to hit the 60-80 per cent sweet spot. That’s a huge opportunity.

Busy v. Productive: understanding the difference

Ok, but what about driving further productivity once you’ve plugged into the gains afforded by remote working?

Well, I’ve found that an understanding of the distinction between ‘busy’ and ‘productive’ is critical. Picture a hamster on a wheel. Lots of visible, energetic activity, but no progress or real output.

Now picture a rock climber. At times, movement and headway are impressive, at other times, it seems slow.

There are also moments when the climber is completely stationary for 15 minutes while trying to solve a problem.

Yet there’s genuine progress and, eventually, the summit is reached.

When you’re in an office, you can’t walk past someone’s computer screen and make an accurate judgement about how productive they are.

It’s no loss that you can’t ‘monitor’ your team when they are at home, because it’s not minute-by-minute scrutiny that brings productivity.

Instead, encourage a positive mindset, do the things that stimulate motivation and work together at being productive rather than busy.

An example of the difference between the two, applied to an asset management context, might be the compilation of a procedure of many pages that regurgitates what’s already well known, versus a simple one-sheet decision tree which enables staff to make decisions on the spot without consulting a manager.

Even downtime can be enormously productive. It can give us the chance to stand back and reflect on the past, look at the present as part of its wider system, or brainstorm future opportunities.

That’s not possible if we’re on the hamster wheel, obsessed with visible and frantic micro-activity.

Practical tips

Find ways of actioning the principles outlined above. Get inventive and discover what works in your unique situation.

Experiment with tools that help you and your team connect and collaborate. In our company, we use online tools like Google sheets, Workflowy, Mindmup and Trello.

If you’re an asset manager, the asset management fundamentals – value, alignment, leadership and assurance – can be a great template or checklist for practical action. Refer back to them frequently as you chart your way forward.

Value:

  • Know what it is to the stakeholders and make it clear

Alignment:

  • Regularly check that every planned activity and effort points to higher level goals

Leadership:

  • Lead by example, consistently
  • Define expectations in the form of targets (regarding quality and timeframes)
  • Be human and know that your team is too. Individualise where appropriate and support good mental health

Assurance:

  • Openly track outputs and outcomes against agreed targets and goals

It’s not complex

Every organisation and sector is different, and each of them have their own special challenges when it comes to remote work, but, in the last analysis, you can’t really fail if you apply the basics to the problem.

If you lead your team with the right mindset, unlock motivation, build trust, understand the difference between busy and productive, and use appropriate practical tools, you’ll become an effective remote team leader.

The old adage, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, is most apt in times of crisis. Just as the Second World War fuelled a multitude of innovations that are still with us, so too can the COVID-19 pandemic generate positive change to go with the negatives.

A great leap forward in our ability to work remotely should be one of those. The scene is set like never before and it’s time for the hero to emerge.

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