(Note: This post was originally written for WorkSnug.)
In the book Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, authors Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson break with the old paradigms of what constitutes work in the digital age. They argue that we now live in a “creative economy” where ideas and innovation are now the make-or-break factors in succeeding in business. The best way to cultivate and encourage innovative thinking is to create workplace environments where people can “take the initiative, make connections, and seize opportunities without waiting for direction.”
While the authors discuss work in the context of large companies, focusing on what management can do to change their organizations to work more efficiently, the central idea of “managing well by managing less” resonates for everyone.
For all kinds of remote or flexible workers, the idea of autonomy as a driver to be more creative and productive isn’t anything new. Many of us take on different projects, or consult and work on different projects because we value that independence.
But even independent professionals sometimes fall into the prevailing patterns of work, putting up boundaries of how, where, and when we work. Drawing from the themes of Future Work, here are three ways to improve the way you collaborate and work with and alongside other location independent colleagues, freelancers and team members:
1. A little faith goes a long way.
Trust. How open-minded and flexible are you when it comes to working with others? When I first started working for myself, I was guilty of being a control freak, micromanaging contractors, vendors, and even fellow editors. Typical command-and-control. I learned, however, that this only stressed me out and alienated other people. Now, I let each person I hire or work with generate his or her own inertia toward meeting a goal. Maybe I give them a little push, but otherwise I leave them alone. People relying on self-direction rather than the proverbial “lash” work harder. Autonomy is a great motivator. If you expect firm results and communicate that expectation well, people usually rise to the occasion and give you results.
Simplify projects by setting down weekly and monthly goals (e.g. “I want to see Chapters 1 and 2 revised by the end of the week”), and then letting your team members do their thing to achieve those goals. Resist the urge to check-in every day. Sometimes no news is good news. That may smack of “bad communication”, but it actually makes a lot of sense. You only want to hear from people during the week if there’s going to be a snag in their timeline to deliver. From a manager’s perspective, it can be liberating to “let go”. Now, I can focus on playing the role of the coordinator and enabler that everyone likes, rather than no-fun, finger-wagging supervisor.
You might think that this kind of trust should be earned over time after people have proven that they are reliable. Well, if you’ve screened well and hired the best people for a job, then you don’t have anything to worry about. The real test is not in what they put in, but what they produce. Results, results, results…which leads me to my next point.
2. Decouple achievement from time.
I’ve written about how corporate clockwork is the bane of our working existence. It’s time we all start rewarding output and results rather than input. Why? The “long-hours” culture rewards face-time and penalizes people that can get a job done in a shorter amount of time. In fact, the more hours spent on a job often leads to a lot of time wasted. When you crunch the numbers, that’s less productivity per hour. Not very efficient, not good for business, and not good for everyone’s morale.
But, if we work by the ‘results only’ philosophy, then we tap into our reserves of ingenuity, thinking of better ways to get work done. Daniel Pink, author of Drive, writes about how motivation plays a crucial role in how much people can achieve. You don’t have to read a ton of books on management practices or implement arcane strategies with strange acronyms. It’s all about harnessing the power of self-drive, self-direction— and empowering and trusting people to make decisions on their own. Let everyone on your team decide what works best for him or her to do the work. “Don’t dictate, delegate” is a useful maxim for managing your team. We’ve all grown up with the prevailing view that time in only matters. With this ingrained view, it’s not easy to see that there are other better ways to handle projects and get work done.
3. Finally, find a balance and know the preferences of your team members.
When people are dispersed across borders, working in different locations, or when you don’t have a central office, it’s easy to get complacent and manage by prescription— throwing out old rules only to put in new rules. There’s a comic by Roger Beale of a man complaining to his coworker because his boss told him to be “autonomous, location-independent, and results-driven”. He gripes, “She doesn’t need to see me for six months. It sounds like the sack.”
Remember, flexibility means giving your team members the choice to decide their own schedules. How people produce their best work will always depend on their individual preferences and quirky work habits. One person might be more of a night owl (that’s me!). Another may be an early bird. Some people might want to work longer days, but fewer days during the week; others prefer shorter days but don’t mind working on weekends. I know many people who do their best work when they work alone, enduring long solitary spells in a home office that requires intense concentration. I also know colleagues who can’t handle working at home alone. The silence is deafening. They get distracted by the TV or with doing little errands around the house. If your entire team is highly self-driven, lucky you for scoring the A-Team of workers— but if not, then you’ll need to provide the needed “office hours” to meet with them either in person or over Skype, giving more personal encouragement. Who knows, maybe the 8-hour day, five days a week works for some people, and they don’t want to give that up, no matter how you rail against the corporate clockwork.
In the future of work, that’s OK. The real revolution is not in the actual practices, but in letting people decide for themselves and to take ownership of what they do.