Bottom-up Empowerment - In many FoW scenarios, workers control their own destinies

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When one reads about Future of Work, and especially about remote working, it can all come across as a bit paternalistic. It is often written-up purely from the employer’s point of view: how to keep productivity up; how to manage remote staff so that they put in the hours but don’t feel lonely or out of touch; how to manage security and governance so the remote staff can’t screw up, that sort of thing. And, of course, a lot of this is important and makes sense – but don’t overemphasise it and patronise your workforce.

Many FoW scenarios will radically change the power relationships between employer and employee. Make work tasks that one is given by a crazy boss are sort-of OK if one is being paid to be in the office 9-5 anyway, but less than OK when one has to explain to one’s spouse that one can’t help with the kids because one has a pointless report to finish. In the FoW, employees may be more productive and more flexible – but with freedom to think, in their own home environment, they may become less tolerant of micro-management; of “make work”; and of being exploited because they no longer commute and are thus available for a 16-hour working day.

A good FoW manager will manage by business outcomes – if the project delivers on time, who cares if the worker spends every afternoon on the golf course? Always remembering, of course, that “business outcomes” should be something real, usually based on complex or derived metrics, and not simply on achieving something over-simplistic but easy to measure (the risk being that people just game the metric rather than delivering real business benefit). Well, management purely by business outcomes isn’t trivial and perhaps employees need to work, or at least be contactable, during “core hours”, but there’s no reason to attempt to control employee working hours without a good reason, which you should discuss with the worker, so that you get some form of “informed consent”. What is a reasonable – fair – expectation for “an honest day’s work”? How do you recognise, and manage, the risk of burnout, for an employee who is passionate about work and trying to work 24 hours a day? FoW management “good practice” is a big topic, and we’ll cover it in full elsewhere, but it is something remote managers must think about.

For now, I just want to highlight that FoW is more likely to involve an equal partnership between employer and employee, than the common 20th century “boss and minion” relationship. We have already mentioned that new concepts of leadership will be needed. However, in many FoW scenarios, the employee can expect to be given more control over their own work and how it will be carried out. A new kind of HR department might provide mentoring and assistance – when it is asked for by the employee – but employees can expect to choose their own working hours and their own workplaces. If that means emailing a report in from a local coffee shop at 19:00, so be it. Security issues? Well explain them to the employee, have a conversation, and trust the employee to manage the issues appropriately (and make sure that required tools and training is available).

We are talking about real “employee empowerment” and when many employees are employed because they can out-think the AIs and robots that carry out routine work, you will rapidly lose employees, of the calibre you really need, if you don’t empower them. Working from home makes checking the employment agencies really easy, and remote employees may well be meeting a wider range of people than office workers do, people with different, and possibly better, employers. In other words, remote working definitely shifts the “balance of power” between employers and employees: if more remote working opens up the talent pool in which employers can fish, it also greatly extends the opportunities available to employees.

“Empowerment” is a much abused concept – sometimes, dysfunctionally, it just means expecting your employees to make the same decisions you would, on pain of dismissal, without giving you the trouble of managing them. I remember a management consultant once telling me about a collection of international bankers talking about employee empowerment at work. Plenty of stories about bright young bankers taking profitable risks – but a Scandinavian banker wasn’t joining in. When pressed, he said something like “I’ll tell you about employee empowerment. In our bank, the cleaners can run their own loans portfolio. And the loans they make are better quality than the loans our yuppie bankers make, because our cleaners are proud of the responsibility they are given, and make sure any risk is well-managed. This is real employee empowerment”. I agree – real empowerment is a real sharing of risk, between equal partners.

A bottom-up, empowered culture is worth having, especially for a “mutable business”. The workers are closer to the business than some managers are and are often quicker to recognise opportunities. If you invest in good people, why waste that investment by micromanaging them? Contrary to the ideas of some managers, dissent (properly managed) can be both healthy and productive, according to digital marketing consultant Shane Barker in his article for Forbes entitled “How To Empower A Bottom-Up Culture In Your Company”. As well as telling us to “Encourage Dissent (And Learn How To Handle It)“, Barker talks about empowering influential employees as, in effect, Change Champions:

Every company has certain employees who have a great deal of influence over their colleagues. Maybe because they’re exceptionally good at what they do or they’ve been with the company for years, people hold them in high regard. These are the employees whose influence you need to leverage to successfully implement any organizational changes.”

And, when you are empowering your workforce, bottom up, don’t overlook the opportunities you get from diversity initiatives and the like. If you need the best employees, you can’t afford to cut your potential talent pool in half – or worse – by not considering women; or people of colour; or the “differently abled”; and so on. Don’t just employ such people, empower them [Women’s Empowerment from the Bottom Up], because they may have new experiences and knowledge that your company needs and which your existing, more conventional, employees simply don’t have. Vijay Eswaran (Executive Chairman, QI Group of Companies) makes a good business case for diversity and inclusion here, although do be careful of trivialising the issues. Diversity and inclusion merit real investment and continuing, holistic, commitment; and Singapore, for instance, which is often seen as a diversity and inclusion success story (which it mostly is), may still have serious issues [‘Extreme distress’ of Singapore migrant workers in spotlight] with its migrant workers, who aren’t very empowered at all. Always remember that a business should empower all its employees, not just the chosen few.

This post is part of our Future of Work series. You can read the previous post, the next post, or find them all in our Future of Work section. If you’d like to discuss how we can help get you prepared for the way work and business is changing, then please contact us.