An acquaintance of mine who is a retired CIO told me about an order-entry system project that had been his worst career disaster.
The CIO had a project manager who was posting complete dates for project tasks that made the project look like it was on track. It took a couple of courageous project underlings to close the door to the CIO’s office and tell him about the reality of the project.
“They told me that the tasks posted as complete were not nearly done; in fact, some of these tasks weren’t even started,” he recalled. “So I went out on the floor and began visiting with individual project team members to see for myself. What I discovered was that the staff members who had come forward were telling me the truth.”
The project ended in disaster. Users and upper management were upset that they had been misled. Half of the project team, including the project manager, was let go. The CIO himself was told he had six months to find another job.
“All of this could’ve been avoided if I had gotten out of my office earlier,” he reminisced. “That’s why, when I look back, it was one of the lowest points of my career.”
This CIO is not alone. Many of us who have led IT departments and projects have tended to leave daily project execution to our middle managers so we can concentrate on IT strategy, getting budget approvals, selling projects to others in executive management, etc.
We’ve also learned in the process that it’s never a good idea to totally neglect the daily work in IT.
This is where “managing by walking around” fits in, and it’s relatively easy to do when you reserve a couple of hours each week to visit with individual staff members to see how they’re doing and how their work is coming along.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic and new workflow automation tools have transformed more IT employees into remote workers. The normal things that you could do while physically walking around the department, such as observing a person’s demeanor or candidly talking about a project task, are hard to do.
Is there a way to transform management by walking around so that it works in the remote workplace?
Here are four recommendations:
1. Set metrics
When remote work began taking hold in the early 2000s, it was being done with office workers who performed highly routine and predictable tasks such as processing invoices.
Their managers already had metrics that told them facts like how many invoices an average employee should process each day. These daily standards were set for remote workers, who were then expected to equal or exceed these same levels of output they would achieve if they were in the office.
A similar approach can work in IT, although IT tasks are more variable. Nevertheless, there are senior personnel in IT who know how long it should take to generate a database schema or to code a subroutine. These task estimates can be posted on an online project management software application that everyone can access and update. The only caveat is that it will be the actual person performing the task who will update progress. At some point, this progress has to be evaluated and confirmed.
2. Aggressively check output
In a remote work environment where employees are turning in tasks, the key is to get work evaluated (i.e., tested) quickly. Feedback on fixes, etc., should immediately be sent back for rework until the task is passed as complete.
Ordinarily, it’s common to find several fixes/enhancements that need to be made after a first round of quality assurance on an application. However, if significant problems remain after a second QA, it’s time to check in directly with the person assigned to the task.
3. Monitor employee performance.
What I valued most about managing by walking around in a physical environment was that I could observe unspoken body language and immediately spot a “star” performer who was stressed out, or a staff member who was struggling with a learning curve. This enabled me (or my managers) to provide much needed R&R to someone, to reassign work, or to obtain the necessary mentoring for an employee who was new to a task.
It’s hard to replace these practices in a remote environment, but there are steps you can take.
First, if you notice a sudden change in performance from an employee, it’s time to step in to see what is going on. In other cases, employees might become less communicative or collaborative, which can happen when individuals are working in isolation. Finally, if an employee is seldom available during their normal working hours, it’s time to check in.
All can be signs that either an employee’s individual state of wellbeing, or the environment in which the employee is working, are not conducive to project work.
4. Maintain a ‘team’ physical presence.
One of the early lessons I learned from the 2000s remote work studies was that all virtual work and no physical encounters made for poor teamwork.
I remember working with a sales manager who had relocated his sales force to the field, where they worked in their own home offices.
Over time, everyone focused only on his or her territory. They lost track of the overall goals of the sales department, and no longer viewed themselves as part of a sales team.
“I finally concluded that for at least one day each month, we would bring everyone into headquarters where we would spend the day as a group, bond, and go over goals,” the manager said. “It was the only way that I could maintain a sense of ‘team’ with my salespersons.”
The same holds true for IT.
I once had a star performer who worked from his home in the mountains. We had several developers who communicated with this person daily, integrating their applications into a system he had developed, but they had never seen him face to face!
One day I called him and said, “Richard, it’s time to come down the mountain and spend a day onsite with us.”
We got together and mapped out strategic direction for the apps we were building. After that, we didn’t see Richard for another three months, but our project work improved because the developers working with Richard now had a sense of who he was as a person and why the work that he did was so great.
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