The distributed working model is here to stay, even if working from home may not be. With the Covid-stimulated shift to working from home came a need for companies to immediately change how they work across their people, tools, and processes. And even if companies go back to an office, a lot of the changes they’ve made will remain.
Supported by a flood of distributed working content, tools and resources over the past few months, these changes will have a long-term effect on creating healthier organizations. The fundamental issues companies have with communication and collaboration have existed for years. The distributed model has just accelerated their exposure, magnified their impact—and forced companies to address them. The muscles being built to strengthen communication and collaboration will be net positive whether companies stay the course or go back to their cubicles.
When change is in the air, so is new software. For every pain point created by today's environment (I will not say “the new normal”) a new software product launched. The velocity of this innovation has been nothing short of incredible. As for the actual impact on productivity—the jury is still out.
We may have a window into someone’s home office or wall art, but we’re actually losing visibility at work with this influx of new noise. The large number of tools approaching visibility through their own lens is actually creating increased opaqueness around who people are, what they’re working on, and on productivity.
There is a significant cost to productivity when people spend time dipping in and out of various tools and communication channels to find what they need. The distributed work environment presents this challenge: the information is there, but the distributed model makes it tougher to find.
Understanding this is actually a huge opportunity, companies should take this moment to reset how they share and provide visibility, and to rethink the ways to provide access to what’s needed, keeping it easily available and up to date.
“If only HP knew what HP knows.” Lew Platt Former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard
One approach has always been the internal Wiki. Wikis are great, but in a lot of cases they require someone to manage the content and keep it updated. That impacts both the speed of being able to execute on projects and the speed of decision making. Speed (more specifically, lack of speed) kills organizations, and in a distributed work environment that momentum becomes even harder to maintain with multiple disparate channels for approval and documentation.
Similarly, project management tools are great, but are often isolated for use within specific teams. What happens if you’re not on that team? Not part of that project? You may need information on the project, but don’t even have access to the tool managing it.
Products that are narrow and deep add a lot of value to specific teams, but lack the connective tissue to other parts of the organization, and often require education, onboarding, and licensing. Team specific tools require other parts of the organization to “push” into those platforms to find the information they need. There needs to be an inherent pull from these tools to provide visibility into what is most important, to the right person, at the right time.
So how do you manage all the noise to maintain momentum and get things out the door? By giving people the visibility they need at the time they need it. Here are a few tips to enhance productivity by focusing on visibility.
First, understand your goals and where they stand.
Always. So often teams have limited visibility around the impact of their daily work to a company's overarching goals. OKRs are a great vehicle but (let’s be honest) they’re usually updated about an hour before the quarterly review meeting. Goals need to be a living and breathing part of a distributed organization.
Make them clear and vibrant — goals around principles and behavioral expectations, goals around activities and how people should be spending their time, and overarching business goals of the company. OKRs can fall short by not specifying behaviors and activities that are expected to support the broader goals. Define your goals, break them down, and manage them—weekly.
“We are kept from our goal, not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.” Robert Brault
Second, understand your organization.
It seems obvious, but simple things like org charts are an underserved and underutilized tool in most organizations. And they are a tool. Especially in a distributed world, it is increasingly important to understand who people are, where they sit in an organization and who they report to. Heck, even understanding where you need to go when there are issues, and who can help you to unblock or fix a situation can hugely increase productivity.
And with new employees coming and going, it’s powerful to be able to maintain orientation around the people and teams involved with certain initiatives. Now it’s even more important to get context around the individual when you don’t see them in a physical world. Your org chart needs to be personal and a resource to build connections across a distributed organization.
Third, create a source of truth to centralize what people are working on.
Everyone starts their day in a different way, looking at different tools and communication avenues to understand where they should focus their day. Think about the number of places people go to start their day—email, Slack, project management tools, Salesforce, etc.—how do you prioritize? How do you get that finger on the pulse of where things stand? Communication tools are great (for communicating), but starting your day in email or a chat tool creates more noise and leaves it up to the user to distill what’s important and where they need to focus.
Make it easier for people—especially managers. Good managers and leaders should operate at 100 feet, and then know where/when/how to dive deep into a particular issue. Create a compass through a central view that highlights where they need to spend their time at the 10 foot level, and provide feedback. And it needs to be the right feedback at the right time, given the stage of the project.
“It’s really important, if you’re not on the (project) team, knowing where they’re at can help you adjust the feedback you give.” Jean-Michel Lemieux, CTO of Shopify
Fourth, distill the noise.
With so much communication through so many tools, you need a way to cut through the noise associated with your people and projects across an organization in order to understand what’s important and updated.
The communication vehicles in a distributed world are almost too good. There are so many ways to connect with people and get updates that it creates clutter and chaos. Distributed companies need a way to cut through that noise, limit the distractions and prioritize. And they need to create a way to reward people for knowing that their message was received. This enhances a culture of progress and accountability, versus purely reporting. Who has read your update, when, and what is their reaction?
Companies need to move away from this concept of using communication tools to create a digital watercooler. Things move too fast and in too many directions for a messaging tool to be a true forum for innovation and collaboration that is vibrant, accessible and updated. Rethink how you manage communication and drive a culture that is based on focused feedback and engagement on what people are working on.
The gift of the current distributed world is the proliferation of so many tools to communicate and collaborate. It’s also the challenge. The sheer number of touchpoints and resources that require human interaction to derive value can undercut the worth of each one. When companies are evaluating their “new way of working” they need to evaluate the work required to make their tools valuable in terms of providing visibility, while limiting the need to update and connect, so that people can focus on what they need to do. The work.
“You cannot mandate productivity. You must provide the tools to let people become their best.” Steve Jobs