Making Remote Work for Supply Chain

How to effectively embrace remote work to gain a competitive advantage (Part 2)

Executive Summary

In Part One of of this two part blog series, we talked about the clear evidence that remote work is going to be part of the fabric of business for the foreseeable future, and identified some of the unique challenges this creates for supply chain: a time sensitive, complex, and (often) location-dependent set of tasks.

Here in Part Two we’re going to look closer at the day to day, practical dynamics of remote work — and also review the relative effectiveness of various transition strategies we’ve seen and experienced.  You might think of the following ideas as “early-returns” — after all, the remote work phenomenon is still evolving, and it’s likely that the full picture has not yet developed. 

But these are the steps we’ve seen make a difference so far, and we think they’ll have an impact on the future of the supply chain.  We hope they’ll help you manage your own team’s transition into this new model.

Commitment Makes The Difference

One idea we’ve seen as a constant for success, is taking on the challenge with a positive mind-set: adopting the mentality that your team will find a way to make everything balance and the result will be a better and more productive work environment overall. (Note that this is an attitude that’s conspicuously absent with the RTO bell-ringers.) Starting on the other side of the problem is a good way to avoid taking half measures, or spending too much time in an inherently unproductive “decision mode.”  

No doubt, a lot of us have spent our entire careers working in traditional offices. But as supply chain leaders, we’ve all been challenged by, and figured out, much more complicated problems throughout our careers. Draw on that confidence and experience, and be assured you and your team WILL find the right path to a flexible work structure that’s more effective and efficient than ever before. You can take confidence from the fact that many companies have done just that.


Be Thoughtful About Hybrid Approaches

With that full commitment idea in mind, be careful of some of the overly simplified “hybrid remote” approaches. It certainly seems like a reasonable compromise: splitting the difference with some days in the office and some days at home. However, this strategy can backfire when every day, half the people are in a half-empty office, robbed of its essential energy. We’ve seen more than a few go this path only to find that a half-filled office is pretty deflating for those who are present — especially when everyone who comes in ends up on zoom calls all day.  

Why did I come in?  It’s a good question that should always have a good answer. 

With a few tweaks, hybrid approaches can work better. One idea that has shown promise is choosing a few days that are mandatory for everyone. At Elementum, we’ve made Tuesdays and Thursdays mandatory, and so far, it’s worked out great. People still show up M-W-F, for a variety of reasons, and yes, some folks do actually prefer the half-full office. Offering some real optionality has proven to be the key.  

When you do gather, do what you can to make it truly worth people’s while to be there in person. At Elementum, we’ve scheduled our full team meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This includes sprint planning and demo days. These are always more fun to do together, and people look forward to them.  

You may also want to consider fewer, but bigger get-togethers: for example, getting the whole company together once a month — of course within appropriate geographical limits. If a major portion (or all) of the company is remote, you can consider get-togethers once a quarter. Maybe that’s something you didn’t even do before the pandemic?  …But many companies exploring this space have developed a keener sense of the power that varying cadences between remote and in-person can create. When you hit the right rhythm, it can really energize a team. Experiment and find ways to use that natural energy source if you can.

If your company has saved money through remote work (renegotiated or scaled-down your office space), consider reinvesting some of those gains back into team events like the ones we’ve mentioned, and vary locations for quarterly or semi-annual company get-togethers.


Incentivizing Ideation 

One of the biggest complaints about remote work is that teams lose the water-cooler / coffee bar / side room setting for idea-bouncing and small-group improvisational thinking. There may be more legend than reality in the idea that breakthroughs always spring from office corridors that are easily walkable. (My guess is that at least half of this myth comes from managers who do little else!)  But I do think there’s a real risk of losing new ideas because tech and distance can create an atmosphere where people are less likely to share one-another’s time and thoughts.   It’s also much more difficult to mention something to the boss before or after a Zoom meeting, than it is to grab them on the way out or casually stop by a little later. 

You’ll want to make up for this deficit by making sure you’re finding new ways to encourage connection and ideas. Incentives are one good way to do this.  Make it monetary,  assure  recognition — do the big and little things you need to do to make your idea program visible and relevant. Whatever it takes to make it clear to your team that you WANT them to bring up ideas. As the now (quite) familiar line from Field of Dreams had it: “build it, and they will come.”  

People, ideas, and maybe even a few haunted infielders…


Make Sure Your Remote Tech is Up To The Job

If you’re going hybrid, one smart way to spend any property overhead is investment in good (or better yet: great) A/V systems for your conference rooms. As every sales-warrior knows, nothing happens until the AV is working. This has never been truer than it is today, because nothing will discourage people from coming into the traditional office more than a struggle to be heard or seen.

At the same time, invest in technology for operational visibility. It’s possible that post-it notes and joint elevator rides were once sufficient means of workforce collaboration, but in a remote world, we can do much better. Don’t let “decentralized” be a euphemism for “chaos.” Look for a modern service management solution to break down silos, streamline collaboration, and put all your priorities in one place. With service management, your team can keep working in real-time even from home.


Avoid The Micromanagement Temptation

Work management tech is performing all kinds of miracles these days, but one important distinction is that you’ll want to use it to measure – but not to micromanage. Absolutely, take advantage of service management solutions that improve operational visibility: with standard workflows and real-time analytics, it’s easy to know who’s doing what and when.

But if you’re tempted to go all-in and wire up the keyboard trackers and bi-directional cameras….we’d strongly advise you to think again. Enabling remote work shouldn’t be a green light for micro-management. By our lights, this is a good way to lose workers who’ve proven themselves productive on their own recognizance — and may put you in on a track of negative selection for your key roles.  That’s a good way to lose everything good about the old “office model” and the new remote environment, in one fell swoop.

Final Thoughts

One of the reasons I find the remote numbers from McKinsey (discussed in Part One) so compelling, is that they’re coming in strong after my own sense of the work-environment has changed.  It’s one of those moments that almost feels like deja vu, because for me — and I’m guessing for you — your “gut” has told you we are already operating with new rules for teamwork.   

Our discussion here then serves perhaps primarily as an additional reminder that we’re all working in a world that has changed before our very eyes.  And as we close with reminders about ways to keep the best from the old ways and augment them with the best of the new, it seems only right to emphasize that making this transition really work, means taking the time to communicate personally and honestly with as many members of your team as you can.  

While we expect you’ll find many colleagues who love the new setups — some will struggle with them, for a wide variety of reasons — and there’s really only one way to find out how to help everyone along. However they may be technically supported, managed, or mediated — the key is having the conversations. Find out what your people need, then work with them to build it. 

When you work together to get it right, they’ll come. Or stay…whatever works best.

David Blonski

David Blonski

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