The HP example: How to do collaboration and remote work right

Companies that figure out how to carry on successfully with a distributed workforce can emerge from the ongoing pandemic stronger than before. HP offers lessons on how to do that.

Remote worker  >  A man works from home with his dog
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(Disclosure: HP is a client of the author.)

Remote collaboration products generally aren’t ideal.  We know this because, at least up until recently, employees preferred to fly to events rather than attend them remotely. The fact is that you can’t go now in person and fear of COVID-19 is having a significant impact on that behavior.  However, this pandemic will eventually moderate and, unless something changes, we are likely to still feel we need to be at important meetings in person. 

Over the years, I’ve seen companies try to build in travel penalties, freeze travel budgets, and use other compensation related tools to try to force people to stay off planes and out of cars. But employees revert to old habits after these rules expire and find creative ways around them even when they’re in place. 

We also know that properly managed, remote workers can be as – or more – productive as local workers. They prefer working from home, companies gain access to a larger pool of qualified workers and, if properly managed, remote workers, perform and advance (except to the very top levels) as quickly as those that work in the office. 

After being forced to avoid travel now for several months, I’ve observed a path to what could be a better permanent solution.  It isn’t, as Facebook is trying to do, paying remote workers less; it’s by doing what HP has done – treating them as an asset.

The underappreciated corporate advantage of a remote worker

When I saw Facebook’s plan to pay remote workers less, I knew the company was 180 degrees off from the proper direction. Unfortunately, this isn’t unusual.  Companies, and their executives, are measured on financial performance and both tend to think tactically. The old saying is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

This kind of mistake isn’t uncommon. In fact, we just saw a massive version of it with the initial COVID-19 response in the U.S.  The government decided to hold the borders open to avoid a relatively small economic and political impact.  This resulted in a wave of infected people coming into the U.S. mostly from Europe, forcing the country to shut down and endure a level of financial distress that exceeds the Great Depression in terms of unemployment and deficit spending. 

Assuming remote workers are well managed (which isn’t always the case), we know they can be as productive as on-premise employees because they often to have fewer distractions. Remote workers don’t need physical security; they don’t need a physical office; they don’t need a parking space; they are less likely to get sick or injured on the job (reducing company liability); and because they have more spendable income (unless their salaries are cut) they have less distracting personal financial pressures.

They can pick safer and more affordable areas to live, which also reduces external pressures and, if managed well (this is important), they can be more loyal because content people are less likely to look for another employer. Besides, given that living wherever you want is still more an exception than a rule, poaching them is generally less successful. (For this last to work reliably, the employee needs to be regularly reminded of the advantages of working remotely.)

Because remote employees don’t have to travel to the office, an after-hours or early morning event that requires them to be spun up, can often be dealt with over the phone. They can be on the job in minutes.  (A remote employee doesn’t even really need to get dressed up if time is important.)

To get these benefits, you do have to do things differently.

HP shows the way

I was reviewing HPs work-from-home effort, and it’s doing some fantastic things.  It’s actively retraining managers to handle remote workers better, focusing on stronger productivity metrics, more regular one-on-one meetings, and reviews. It is also aggressively using collaboration tools like Zoom to keep people connected.  (One clear advantage: when everyone is remote, no one feels like they’re being left out of the meeting.) 

HP is also aggressively providing not only training for employees but for their families.  They have regular nightly departmental and company-wide virtual events (including group movie nights on Fridays). These efforts make people feel like they are part of something. 

The result is greater engagement. People don’t feel disadvantaged by working at home, HP isn’t cutting their income and benefits, and the results have been so promising that HP is considering leaving those that can work remotely in place right where they are. As you would expect, this has opened up the available pool of future employees, particularly qualified women who are in high demand at the moment. 

And if HP eventually shares the cost savings resulting in office reductions with those employees, it should enhance the company’s ability to keep them on board. 

Wrapping up: Here’s the lesson

What HP has shown me is that if we want to be successful and gain the full economic impact of shifting to a work-from-home model, we need to thoroughly rethink how we manage, incentivize, and measure our employees. Workers still need to feel part of something and be reminded that they matter. This means training programs for both managers and employees so they can develop better skills working on their own.  It means not just milking employees for money as Facebook is proposing (which I think is idiotic and results from too many managers not studying Maslow), but sharing the savings with them.

In short: people need to be treated more like family than replaceable parts. 

There are substantial financial and agility benefits to doing this right. A firm is far better able to survive catastrophic events because it is distributed. Based on what I see at HP, we could exit this pandemic better than we went into it, but only if we, as they did, approach the problem as an opportunity to improve rather than, like most, something to survive.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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