2 Feb: Extreme remote working
I’ve been doing some de-cluttering and came across an article that I cut out of a Professional Manager back in November 2010. The article is by Susan Nowak and reports on John Withers’ experiences working for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) 1500 miles from the South Pole.
Snowy footprints - rural Northamptonshire not the antarctic!
Reading about John Withers- he is the base commander at the Antarctic BAS village of Rothera – made me ponder the real challenges of ‘trust‘ for remote management.
The opening quote sets the scene
“In the past communicating with far-flung colonies took months, and leaders therefore had no alternative other than to pick their subordinates carefully, train them for every eventuality, give them clear and comprehensive instructions, agree terms of reference and then to trust them to get on with their job.” Marcus Wood, Professional Manager, May 2010.
Marcus Wood had been reflecting on modern management, and proposed that modern communication tools were in danger of “eroding management skills and eradicating innovation and enterprise”. Basically, being contactable 24/7 meant that central control was more prevalent but (he argued) we should learn lessons from the 18th and 19th centuries and the merchant adventurers whose self-reliance was crucial to success and survival.
The connection from Susan Nowak’s perspective is that in the early years of the 21st C, being in one of the remotest places on the planet, requires managers to call upon exactly such ‘old-fashioned’ skills as self-reliance.
Key points for me in her article:
- colleague compatibility is part of the base manager’s remit
- working in the same place that you live can be a struggle
- small things are often blown out of proportion
- group dynamics are crucial
- “being able to fit into a team is as essential as being able to do the job
- weather conditions impact on communications
- need to know where everyone is
- daily contact is essential when ‘out in the field’
- protecting resources is secondary to protecting personnel
- “it’s all about standing together as a group”
All of the above resonate with a more usual remote working experience, albeit to lesser degree. So here are my thoughts on the same list of 10.
- colleague compatibility is important, but maybe not as evident when you don’t meet face-to-face often – they may manifest in a different way
- it is important to create a working space which separates home life and working life – it is all too easy to keep working because an email pops up or the phone rings
- rather like reading an email when you are in a funny state of mind, it’s easy to over-react (or maybe under-react?) because you aren’t there to truly read a situation – it’s more important to think and review
- the dynamics of human interaction as a group can be more challenging when you work remotely – workers need different skills and different behaviours to remain team players
- maybe not as essential to fit into the team, as it can depend on the nature of the job and the size of the organisation
- weather can impact on communications here too! For example: last Sep I was in Snowdonia and without email/mobile access for 3 days because a mast was down
- it is important to share movements and availability with colleagues when working remotely – that’s why so many use shared calendars etc
- depending on the employee/manager relationship daily contact can be important, even if just to show that you are there! – it’s that trust thing
- people are important, but don’t always feel as valued
- working as a scattered team is a challenge, so it is important that there are occasional face-to-face meets
What are your experiences?