The Challenge of Organization Design with Remote Work

January 15, 2019

The Challenge of Organization Design with Remote Work

Conceptually, work-life balance has been around for decades. We’re all familiar with the basic notion that there should be a healthy balance of life to work, that one does not dominate the other for an extended period of time.

In practice, this is not always easy to achieve. Often work overtakes and pushes out family and social life. However, both conceptually and practically, it is simply not that straightforward. When is work work, and life not work? For example, if your life and work are the same, then there is no real need to differentiate between the two. I have never heard of an artist complaining that if they ever see another canvas, then it would be too soon. On the other hand, someone working in data input doing 60 hours a week might feel that work is the only thing that they do; they are fed up with it and it has overtaken their life.

Artists and such like aside, I imagine most people do work which falls between love and hate on any given day depending on what is going on for them. We generally find a balance between things that one would call work and things that are clearly defined as personal life. But what about the work and the design issues?

It is becoming ever more difficult to delineate cleanly between when work begins and ends. 

Defining a Work Day with Remote Work
As more of us work in flexible environments and use technology that enables remote working, it creates questions as to the nature of how we construct a working day. As a consultant, I do most of my non-client facing work in my home office. I engage with my colleagues in North America and the UK via email, messaging, and video conferences.

When people think about working at home, it is not a straightforward replacement for the Monday to Friday 9-5 working week in the office. For example, have I stopped working if I go downstairs to put the washing machine on between writing an email, taking calls, or writing a thought piece? Some would argue yes. But this is simplistic. After all, knowledge-based work uses the brain as the main tool. As such, it doesn’t switch off when I stop. I am still thinking about an issue, problem, and/or solution to something that I am working on even away from the designated work station. In fact, the research suggests that it might well be more productive to break from the computer desk environment and move around.

Work-life balance in this context is difficult to quantify and potentially renders the traditional measurement of hours of work as virtually useless as a measure of anything at all. We cannot be 100 percent certain how much work is work in this context. Someone working on a reception desk where physical presence is the primary measure of success (aside from being helpful to the customer) knows that when they do not attend that physical place they are not working—this is clearly easier to quantify.

What Are the Design Issues of Nontraditional Work?
If one truly designs the organization around work, then where and when the non-customer-facing work gets done is of little consequence. The bigger issue for organization design might be ensuring that the workload has a level of balance in its distribution across the team. Where it is difficult to quantify the work, it can easily be the case that the workload becomes unevenly distributed. Only when a team member feels overwhelmed and raises it as an issue does the wider organization have awareness of the problem. 

Regardless of the difficulty, it is worth attempting to quantify the volume of work expected against the typical worker in a job. Even if this is crude, it is better than nothing and allows some broad indicator that there is fairness across the organization and, most importantly, that the workers have balance between work requirements and life. It is important, not just because this is the behavior of a reasonable employer, but also because performance is dependent on workers having time off from work activities. There are exponentially diminishing returns on performance once someone is at the point of being overworked.

Overwork is detrimental for both the worker and the organization.

Start by Analyzing the Role
Start with what is the work. In other words, the individual pieces of activity that need to be done. Then, roll these up into a collection of “like work,” which form a role. The next step in the process is to collect roles together, which prior to a reorganization might be scattered across the organization, into “jobs.” Here, one can start working through if there is enough work activity to justify a full-time worker or if the work only requires part of a person’s time. Clearly this not an exact science and it is why it is important to have a full and representative sample of employees in the design process.

If you have the granularity of the activities, you can more easily separate between work to “leave behind” and work that “travels with you.” Now you have this data, the nontraditional work (that travels with you) can be quantified (albeit crudely).

Quantifiable work is an important consideration that can and should be designed in as part of the stream of work within the organization. If you are intentional at the beginning around the expectations in the workflow in terms of routine and non-routine activities, you can design an appropriate staffing model. Getting the staffing model correct upfront will avoid issues down the road that surface as a result of poor management of resources or bad design. Doing this doesn’t stop the poor management practice of overusing a particularly favored employee, but it offers insight into this earlier on.

Organizing work also offers the opportunity to get it right (or nearly right) before work-life balance issues arise. It gives the manager information that he or she can use when deciding where to allocate new or unplanned work. Finally, organizing work creates insight into where there are performance issues within the team, avoiding potential blind spots and confirmation bias.

The Authors: 

Stuart Wigham is Content Manager and Consultant at ON THE MARK.