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Monday, October 18, 2010

MANAGING A MOBILE WORKFORCE

We now live and work in a mobile society. It is not uncommon for people to be out of the office either visiting clients and vendors, traveling, or working from home. Unlike days of old where the whereabouts of workers were generally known by their managers, usually at their assigned desk or workstation, today's workplace is more likely to offer temporary facilities to accommodate an in-transit workforce which is sometimes referred to as an "agile" workplace (a label I find particularly annoying). Such mobility complicates the life of managers charged with completing assignments on time and within budget. Today, the manager worries about such things as:
* Where are my workers?
* Are they working on the proper assignments?
* How are they progressing? Are they on-time and on-budget or are they over/under?
* When will they be finished?
* What problems are they experiencing and how can I help them?
Perhaps the biggest problem here is one of communications. Whereas managers used to gather their troops for routine meetings, this is harder to do in today's world. To overcome this problem managers are making use of such things as:
* Teleconferencing.
* Streaming meetings in either audio and/or video formats (podcasting).
* Using Internet discussion groups to exchange comments and questions.
* Collaborative tools accessible through the Internet (such as "Google Docs").
These are useful and inexpensive tools for communicating with workers, but there is nothing better than to be able to look into someone's eyes in a meeting.
Other devices useful for communicating with workers include:
* Cell phones and VoIP related telephony, such as Skype, Yahoo! Messenger, and Google's new Gmail telephone calling service.
* A well organized e-mail address book.
* A centralized calendar that can accommodate both the individual and a group of workers (see "Google Calendar").
* A centralized list of project priorities that can accommodate both the individual and a group of workers thereby encouraging workers to row on the same oar. NOTE: The manager should make provisions for employees to initial the document to acknowledge they have reviewed the latest version of priorities.
* And if you need something to physically track down a worker, try something like "Google Latitude."
An effective Project Management system is also critical for managing workers, regardless if projects are large or small. This is particularly needed if you have a mobile workforce. Although such a system should, of course, have facilities for planning, estimating, and scheduling, it is imperative the system provide for:
* Reporting the use of time during the day by each worker, including time applied against project assignments, and interferences such as travel, meetings, reading e-mails, etc.
* For each project assignment, a facility should be included for each worker to report the amount of time remaining on a given task (aka, "Estimate to Do"). This is part of the Project Management system's early warning system to warn a manager when an assignment will be either early, late, or on time.
* A skills inventory, to assist the manager in keeping track of the skills and proficiencies of his workers, thereby providing the ability to match the right worker to the right assignment.
Over and above this, there is one important project management tip I cannot overemphasize: bind deliverables to project assignments. Filling out time screens is one thing, demonstrating the task is actually completed is something else. There must be a tangible and reviewable result produced from each assignment to substantiate completion. Without it, a worker could falsely claim they have completed a task. By binding deliverables to assignments, managers can challenge the worker to prove they have completed an assignment (a deliverable has either been produced or it hasn't). This approach to deliverables is also an important part of implementing an effective Quality Assurance program. If you can specify the criteria for accepting a deliverable, it can be reviewed for errors or omissions.
True, there are some slick tools available today that I wish we had years ago when we had nothing more than pencil and paper. What I find interesting though is the problems in today's "agile" workplace are essentially no different than when I entered the workforce over 30 years ago.
For more information on this subject, read my earlier PAPER.
Keep the Faith!
Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.
Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com
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