One Size Does Not Fit All
If you manage enough different people, in enough different jobs, you get to realize there is one universal truth about how to get the best from people: that there are no universal truths about how to get the best from people. People come in many shapes, colors and sizes, whether you look at them from the outside, or are trying to get inside their head. Some people are more motivated by what is in their compensation package. Others are driven by the prospect of promotion. Whilst high-achievers tend to get the most management attention, not every job is, or should be, ideal for high-achievers. Every team, even a team of nomads, will have some jobs that are better suited to the less ambitious. The goal of a good manager is to maximize motivation and productivity overall. This requires a mix of pragmatism, amateur psychology, listening skills and trial and error. There are lots of motivational techniques, just like there are lots of different people. You would not motivate an artist the way you would motivate a salesman. To some extent, you can infer what motivates people just from their choice of job. To take a simple example, gregarious people typically seek jobs that give them social contact, and will often be motivated by the praise, esteem, or signs of status given to them by managers and peers. It is a manager's job to look for the best ways to get his team motivated and productive. Inevitably, this will involve a regular striving to find the best approach for the individuals in the team. This will involve a mixture of tried and tested techniques, and new ideas to avoid the feeling that the team or manager has become stale.
I managed to get a whole paragraph into this answer before I mentioned technology. Why am I not starting by talking about the digital aspect of digital nomads? There are two reasons. First, people who make, supply or work with technological products and services are equally as likely to have chosen a career that suits their personality. That will influence their opinion on what a remote worker needs, but there are lots of digital nomads who have no interest in the technology itself, and only use it as a means to an ends. It is worth remembering that when trying to make the leap of imagination from what the technologist offers to what the user really wants and needs. Even that last sentence does the user is a disservice, as if one user was just like the next. Each user is an individual. That axiom is the starting point for good management of people. Being wary of the potential bias of technologists (and of the would-be business gurus that surround them) is doubly important, because the user may not always know, or be able to express, what they really want and need from technology. However, they can usually tell what does not work, once they start to use it. The evidence for that can be found lying dusty in desk drawers, in the form of expensive gadgets that failed to live up to expectations. What is more, for every surprisingly successful innovation, there will be another supposed sure-fire winner that turns into a flop. Of course, the disappointed technologist may wonder what is wrong with people, whenever they fail to appreciate his product. We might as well ask why people behave differently to the way we expect them to. It is probably at then that we remember there may have been factors that motivated their behavior, but which we had not considered.
The second reason for not mentioning technology in the opening paragraph is that technology involves the art of what is possible. Just because something is possible, does not mean it is desirable. Just as importantly, what is desirable to one person may not be desirable to the next. Technological straightjackets may fit some people perfectly, but leave others very uncomfortable. Freedom suits some, but is a burden to others who prefer structure and order. Freedom also carries a burden of responsibility, and may be open to abuse. By the same token, staff that crave freedom may, consciously or otherwise, use it to evade important tasks which then have to be taken on by other team members. A good manager seeks the right balance of skills and motivation in his team, and also the right range of tools that they can utilize. Digital technology is a tool, which can be used to enable remote working. This analysis is about the relationship between people and the technology that enables them to work on the move. The technology defines what is possible for remote and distributed workers. To understand motivation for mobile workers, and what they need and want from technology and management, first we need to identify what kinds of work there are, and how they determine the manager's goals.
Necessary Mobility vs. Freedom and Flexibility
It is possible to forget that there were mobile workers long before there were mobile computers or mobile phones. Some jobs require people to be on the road, whether it be a salesman, home decorator, or business consultant. With jobs like these, mobile productivity is about helping the worker to be more efficient, by enabling them to do things that would otherwise require a return to base, or by simplifying the communications that take place between them and their colleagues. One good but striking example of how mobile technology can help nomadic workers would be firefighters who use camera phones to relay images of the injured people they rescue, so a hospital can be prepared for the kinds of treatment needed. Another example is sending constantly updated work schedules to domestic plumbers, so they avoid wasting time on cancelled appointments.
In contrast, improvements in technology have permitted many jobs to become mobile like never before. The freedom to work from home or on business trips (whether they are frequent or infrequent) can be motivational in itself, as well as a providing a way to improve productivity. Staff and managers in this situation will already tend to have established methods and protocols for monitoring productivity and motivation. The challenge is to translate them to a format that continues to be successful when the worker is away from the office. The benefit is that the worker makes better use of their time, which allows productivity and motivation to rise. Balanced against this, the manager must find ways of monitoring results as a substitute for face-to-face discussions.
Productivity of the Individual vs. Productivity of the Group
For remote workers, digital technology may play a part in improving productivity, maintaining motivation, or both. The degree of mobile interaction needed will vary greatly from job to job. Some jobs need people to be able to be in regular contact, be it with other people or with computers. Others do not. The right technology solutions can have a positive impact, whether or not connectivity is continuous, frequent, rare, or never needed. What makes for the right technology will depend on how much contact is needed. Ease of communication may be vital. Ease of communication may also be counter-productive, if it only serves to increase distractions. For example, an employee that spends the whole day on email may not just be wasting their own time; they may also be wasting the time of others. They may also demotivate their colleagues. Correctly scoping the digital solutions to be appropriate for the task will make a big difference. Connectivity needs to be designed to fit the tasks being performed. What kind and degree of connectivity is needed will be influenced by whether productivity is most easily measured and understood in terms of the individual, or in terms of the team.
Location, Location, Location
The style of interaction can be heavily influenced by how often people come into contact with each other. If two people often work together in person, their interactions when apart will typically be different to two people who rarely or never meet. When dealing with another person, we all subconsciously pick up information about how to interpret each other's meanings and behavior. This learning activity is augmented when we can combine all the cues of body language and vocal intonation with the content of what is being said. There is a greater risk of a misunderstanding between two people who have only ever spoken over the telephone or sent each other emails. There are also fewer social moderators, meaning people who have never met may be more likely to express irrational and unpleasant levels of anger towards each other. The right approach to productivity and motivation will partly depend on the frequency and ease of arranging face-to-face meetings. There may will also be a cultural context to understand, especially when working relationships span international borders.
When long distances make personal contact rare or impractical, care is needed to design tools and processes to avoid the potential for confusion. This might come down to something as simple as selecting a carrier based on the quality of the audio and giving staff good handsets and headsets to make it easier for them to hear each other clearly. At the other extreme, it might manifest as adopting structured forms of communication, where both sides follow a pre-defined workflow. Similarly, when personal contact is rare, there is value in formally scheduling activities to help people to get to know each other. A simple example would be to ask members of a distributed team to take turns talking about their life outside of work, at some point in a regular team call. Of course, where distances mean that personal get-togethers are feasible, it is worth pursuing both formal and informal avenues that will help staff to get to know each other.
The Nuts and Bolts of Motivating Nomads
Frederick Herzberg's two factor theory of job satisfaction can give a manager a useful method for understanding the needs of his own team. For example, Herzberg's split of work characteristics into those that promote satisfaction, and those that promote dissatisfaction, suggests that the ability to make contact, if contact is needed to perform work efficiently, will be an aspect of 'hygiene'. This means the worker will become dissatisfied if contact is not possible or is inordinately difficult, but the worker will not become satisfied just because there are no problems with connectivity. In short, the first concern for any manager is that his team can connect with the people and machines they need to connect with, when they want and need to connect with them. This will be a lot less problematic for people who work as separate individuals. It is also a relative straightforward issue for people who work primarily with machines, such as a DBA. Their hygiene needs come down to the machines being on and being accessible, and there being a working and uninterrupted connection between them and the machine. In contrast, for people who work with other people, the hygiene needs of nomads may be much more complicated. If the people they need to liaise with are in a different time zone, or are out of contact for unpredictable periods, this might become a source of frustration. The manager may need to reign in the freedoms of some team members in order to find a workable compromise with others. For people who are outside of the control of the manager, such as customers, care will be needed to set and communicate expectations that are reasonable for both the customer and staff.
In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, social motivators come above more basic physical needs and the desires for safety and security. Physical needs largely fall outside of the concerns of a manager, but the most extreme examples of workplaces where communication devices are 'always on' will ultimately impact the physical wellbeing of a member of staff. Differences in timezones and the expectation that staff are always contactable can ultimately interfere with the basic individual needs to find time to eat, rest and sleep. Again, managers may permit a high degree of autonomy to staff who do not deal with customers and largely work solo. Where human connections are important, some boundaries must be in place to ensure staff do not feel that their most basic human requirements can be infringed upon by work. In terms of safety and security, staff also need to feel that their nomadic tendencies does not increase the risk to them. This can involve basic measures like not expecting staff to visibly carry expensive equipment in dangerous neighborhoods, and trying to provide staff with simple ways to ensure data and communications are protected from eavesdropping or theft. In other words, staff should not feel that their remote connection is a pipeline to be spied upon, there must be a distinction between communications that are for the business and those that are private, and techniques like encryption and data backup, which are designed to safeguard company assets, should be realized with minimal fuss or burden to the user. At the top end of Maslow's hierarchy, some nomads will feel that they miss out on the social needs that would be satisfied in a traditional workplace. Managers need to understand this, and try to offer alternatives as far as possible. This may involve making special arrangements for occasional social events and team-building, or may just mean that the manager places an emphasis on regular or daily conversations between fellow members of the team. In the latter case, the manager should probably avoid the temptation to terminate communications as soon as the business is completed, because in a face-to-face meeting there will often be some informal chit-chat as the meeting gathers and winds down. It makes sense to try to recreate this even when workers are remote.
The biggest challenge for remote working will involve tasks that are highly collaborative. Managers may need to take a more technological approach to enabling these tasks to be performed effectively when people are not in the same room. At the low end of the spectrum, conference calls can be augmented with on-line chat rooms and whiteboards, permitting people to use multiple channels to get their point across without interrupting the headline messages. In very structured activities, such as formal processes for approval of large expenditures, or collaborative technical design work, an automated or semi-automated workflow may be increasingly important to keep work progressing rapidly and correctly if workers are remote from each other. For less structured activities, easily accessible and extendable reference sources like wikis can be adopted by teams which need to work with a lot of information but do not have a fixed process to follow. Distributed teams often benefit from having a collective 'memory', like a wiki or documents which permit easy tracking of changes, which everyone can access and add to as they go along.
Not Forgetting Cost and Availability...
Availability, especially for communication, is a vital ingredient in getting the best motivation and productivity. Like Goldilocks, you do not want too much or too little, but to get it just right. Availability often links to cost, because increased availability tends to encourage increased use. Managing cost is not just an aspect of negotiation with a service provider, but also with employees. Many businesses make the mistake of failing to set clear expectations about the degree they expect their remote workers to communicate with each other. This may be because they are unsure of how much is needed, or have performed no analysis of historic records. In the worst cases, an employee may be very seriously demotivated if they feel, on one hand, that they are being forced to work extended hours because they must always be available, but, on the other hand, they are being reprimanded or treated suspiciously because of the costs incurred by their high levels of usage.
Levels of availability may be too low because of technical or human reasons. On a technical level, a communications solution may be unreliable, too slow at certain times of day, or frequently be unavailable because network coverage does not match where the user is. On a human level, people may simply be switching off their devices. A track record of technical causes for interruptions in communication increases the likelihood that people will use that excuse when deliberately making themselves uncontactable.
Levels of availability may also be too high. The rise of Blackberry has made this more apparent. Even if people feel like they are working all the time, they may be unproductive. Everybody needs downtime. The ability to contact people in an emergency may easily get abused and end up becoming a substitute for the proper planning and scheduling of work. Sometimes snap decisions are vital, but other times they reflect a failure to properly plan the decision-making process itself. The problem of extending the hours for work can be greatly exacerbated when people are also expected to communicate with customers, colleagues or suppliers in different time zones.
Excessive use of digital technology may harm more than an employee's mental well-being. There may also be physical symptoms. Responsible employers need to be wary of excessive use, even if the member of staff appears happy with their work. The media may have exaggerated the risk of 'Blackberry thumb', a risk most prominently identified by Alan Hedge, PhD, Director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics research group at Cornell University, but repetitive strain, eyesight problems and headaches are recognized symptoms of excessive use of information technology. Devices designed to be mobile, because they typically are smaller in size, may further exacerbate this problem if staff use them all the time. On the other hand, employers also need to keep the load of their staff by purchasing equipment that is light to carry. If staff exhibit physical symptoms on a regular basis, prompt action should be taken. This may involve changing or augmenting the equipment, or it may involve a change of behavior. Either way, prevention is better than cure, and ailing workers are unproductive workers.
It is useful to establish some ground rules and expectations for when it is appropriate, and when it is not appropriate, to make contact. Managers should identify and tell their teams which hours they expect people to be available for their core work, which hours they may be available for "special" reasons, and which hours they should be considered out of contact. Alongside this, people benefit from guidance as to what really is special exception, and what is just a sign of over-zealousness, or sloppy time management. Rules of thumb like this will help to focus attention on what really needs to be done during the working day, and also encourages people to be realistic about the time taken for every task. On the flipside, it makes it easier to identify and handle those remote workers suspected of shirking their duties. In some cases, suspected slackers will see the situation very differently, and genuinely believe they are just finding a balance with those occasions where they have worked long or anti-social hours. Increased flexibility can be very appealing, but it greatly complicates the task of monitoring the balance and stress of workloads. Rigid rules may be unworkable in practice, but rules of thumb will help both managers and their staff to maintain an accurate view of work levels. This in turn will help everyone to ensure that temporary deviations from normal working routines really are just temporary.
Availability and use may also be linked with cost. Businesses may find it is best to negotiate flat-rate deals as far as possible, where the price paid is not linked to the level of service usage. Eat all you want deals may sometimes work out slightly more expensive for the real levels of usage needed by the firm, but it is worth factoring in the management time freed up instead of spent on chasing pennies. There are limits to what can be negotiated, though, especially for businesses where staff travel across borders. The most common forms of control are to set a budget which gets reviewed on a monthly basis, or expecting staff to pay costs and submit explain claims with justifications. Neither approach is ideal. Budgets can to be misused, being set too low initially and then making the worker justify why it should be set higher. This approach focuses on the measurables rather than reason why you have workers. Discouraging them from communicating may ultimately serve to discourage them from doing the work they should be doing. Expense procedures also help to keep costs down, and ensure they are justifiable, but even good justifications will usually be nebulous and subjective. For example, one customer may enjoy a lot of tangential conversation with a supplier, whilst another may prefer to keep conversations short and business-like. If communication is an integral to a job, it should be possible to offer some guidance as to the amount of time a worker should allocate to it. If it is hard to define expectations, then a degree of trust is needed. In this case, managers can measure the individual based on the important metrics relating to the results they are meant to deliver, and if the communication levels are not wildly out of line, or the itemization does not highlight lots of personal use, then they must trust that the member of staff is making appropriate use of the communications services provided for work. When workers travel abroad, managers need to judge by the level of use, and not by the total cost, as a member of staff may exert some control over how much they use a service, but are not in control of the different rates that apply in different countries. In general managers will get better results if they avoid creating a conflict in the mind of their staff, by looking at numbers on a spreadsheet for the costs of telecommunications, and looking at numbers on a spreadsheet or project plan when assessing the revenues earned or progress made. It is better that manager tries to understand the relationship between the two. So long as they are in line with each other, further instruction to staff to work more whilst keeping costs down will probably only cause confusion and demotivate the team.
... And Remembering the Personal Cost
Monitoring cost and use of connectivity is useful, both to manage costs and as a metric relating to the work being done. This monitoring needs to be done by line managers close to the specifics of the job being performed, and to the specifics of the individual. This also relates to the appropriateness of personal use. Again, when it comes to personal use, one size does not fit all, though it will be hard for any business to state this openly. Workers who spend a long time on the road have different motivational issues to office workers who occasionally work from home. Remote working takes staff away from their loved ones. Different people will cope with this differently, but communicating with friends and family is one important mechanism. Drawing a sharp distinction between personal and business use may not be in the best interests of the business, if it leads to unhappy workers. I know of one business that sacked a salesman because of his expensive cellphone bills, incurred whilst driving around the country. He was also their best salesman. Even if his bills had been out of line with the revenues he generated, a debatable point at best, he was generating revenues that made it worth suffering those bills. The salesman's attitude was that he was calling his clients, and building good relationships. His employer's attitude was that there were too many personal calls. Either way, the employer might have been wiser to focus on the overall results - good revenues and a happy employee - than looking at the costs in isolation. Had they changed the salesman's behaviour, and discouraged his personal use, it may only have had a negative impact on motivation and productivity. What is striking about this example is that sales is a function where measuring productivity is very straightforward, and still this business focused on costs rather than productivity. If costs really were an issue, a better approach would have been to negotiate an allowance for personal calls as part of the salesman's remuneration. Discouraging abuse of corporate resources is important, but it also helps to apply common sense and look to see if the emotional needs of digital nomads are also being taken care of.
Like so many things, motivating digital nomads, and getting the best productivity from them involves compromise. Look for the technology that fits the task as well as the people. That can mean selecting solutions that are very specialized or even bespoked for the particular needs of the job. It may also mean knowing what you do not need, and what could end up being a distraction. Be prepared for to learn something new about your team's social dynamics and what motivates the individuals that comprise it, as well as learning about the technology. Monitoring use is vital, but needs to treat individuals as individuals, not automatons. What works well for one member of staff may not work so well for another. Management needs to be brave, not just when rolling in technology and ways of working, but also when it comes time to realize something is not working and needs to be rolled back again. Cheap and basic technology can be more productive than the latest tech-wizardry, if people know how to use it and it actually fits the needs of the job. Greater sophistication, and greater capability, also spells more risk. Mitigate those risks by really thinking through what the members of the team actually do, and ensure the tools supplied actually help them to do that. Be conscious of how the staff actually work and how being remote alters all of their interactions.
Managers need to maintain a clear distinction in their minds about what they are trying to achieve with mobility. It could be that they are trying to make essentially mobile jobs more productive, or it could be that they are transforming jobs that do not need to be mobile, by allowing staff to be more productive when away from their base. In the former case, the same management rules as always applied, so the manager needs to be on the lookout for ways to get more from his team by giving them better technology. In the latter situation, the manager needs to manage the transition, with a view to showing, rather than assuming, that his team enjoy higher satisfaction levels and increased productivity as a result of the tools they have for mobile working. If not, there may always be a need to revert to a more traditional workplace-oriented dynamic.
Mobile working places a burden on the individual to find alternative ways to manage their own time and avoid distractions. The manager can give advice, but ultimately it is up to the individual to find what works for them. When gauging the benefits that might be expected from mobility, it is worth observing that the amount of time and trouble people will expend on finding a more efficient way to perform a task will be correlated to how often they perform that task. As such, constant and regular nomads will make more effort to tackle the particular burdens and issues of remote working than will the occasional traveller.
Managers must also fit their approach to the degree of teamwork and inter-connectedness needed from their people. To begin, the manager must assess whether a particular role involves a lot of teamwork or inter-dependencies with other people's work, or if it mostly involves work that is stand-alone. This will determine the right ways to monitor and assess performance of nomads. To help nomads, managers should be active in the selection and, if necessary, tailoring of the remote working tools. They should also listen to staff, whilst remembering that what people think and say does not always perfectly match what they do in practice. If work involves structured communication or workflows, a manager should consider the benefits of implementing additional technology to support them when workers are remote from each other. In contrast, flexibility can be appealing and be a strong motivational aid to the right person in a suitable job. Managers need to be simultaneously aware of the pitfalls of workers being distracted or needing to reinvent processes if the tools they use whilst working remotely, and the conventions for use that surround them, are too flexible. Finally, managers should remember that motivation and productivity ultimately has a link to the employee's well-being. A caring manager, who clearly communicates expectations, will tend to foster a loyal, hard-working and appreciative team. Managers that treat individuals as individuals, no matter where they are, will always win more respect.