Management in the modern workplace: tips and tools

Companies face two key challenges when it comes to managing staff in the modern workplace. First, finding the optimal way to keep both office-based and remote staff productive, happy and motivated. Second, meeting the needs and expectations of – that most terrible of terms – digital natives.

As we shall explain, the old styles of bringing people onboard simply don’t work anymore. Nor can you expect to retain talented staff if you give them second-rate hardware to work on.

You need new thinking, new technology and new workflows.

Flexible hours and location

Pre-pandemic, people management was a more straightforward notion. How strange to think that the majority of employees used to come into the office every single day.

Most businesses are now taking a hybrid approach, allowing or requesting staff to work from home some of the time, and come into the office occasionally or on certain days.

However, flexibility doesn’t simply mean location: it also means the hours employees work.

“I’ve worked in startups where you were better to let someone run all night because they were just in the zone,” says Ben Stanford, analyst at GigaOm. “They weren’t being disturbed and they wanted to do that and then they’d be in late the next day. That’s fine, you produced, why do I need to see you sat on a seat at nine?”

Flexibility doesn’t simply mean location: it also means the hours employees work.

Of course, some traditional managers still struggle to accept this approach, wanting employees to be sat at their desk from 9am to 5pm, but there are ways to compromise. For example, having a set day where every member of the team must be in, and being flexible for the rest of the week.

Shifts in attitude are important, but you need the tools to support you. This is where terms such as “digital transformation” pop up, but ignore the jargon: it’s about making the day-to-day lives of staff easier, with technology an enabler.

According to Sridhar Iyengar, Managing Director at Zoho Europe, the constant adoption of innovative technologies to support staff is an important element in managing employees and keeping them happy.

“Implementing tech features such as automation can reduce the burden of repetitive manual tasks, freeing employees up to work on high-level tasks that require human intervention and are more engaging,” he says.

Onboarding new staff

One major challenge of hybrid working is supporting new starters. When everyone suddenly moved from office to home during the pandemic, this was based on existing relationships. People may have been working in remote locations, but they already knew each other, making it easier to collaborate over Zoom or chat apps.

Now, many new starters are joining companies without ever meeting their colleagues apart from via a screen.

This makes technology that supports new joiners, and helps people acclimatise to culture and working styles vital, according to Stanford.

“Technologies around goal setting, and the strategic elements of where someone fits are really important in that,” he says. “That’s everything from like OKR [Objectives and Key Results] technology to more driven feedback cycles and management of individuals.”

And there’s a cultural shift, too.

New employees often request greater levels of responsibility when they first join, especially the younger generation. Managing those expectations is an interesting balance that must be addressed. Setting appropriate goals and offering training to cover a wider range of tasks are key.

Such support offers another benefit too, explains Stanford: “Having strong onboarding processes are really important to making sure that those individuals feel like they’re part of a successful company.”

In short, efficient onboarding technology not only speeds up the recruitment process, and ensures new staff can start contributing quickly and successfully, but also offers firms an opportunity to give a good first impression of their organisation.

Zoho’s Iyengar adds: “If slow, clunky technology is used, then their journey can begin poorly. Implementing intuitive onboarding technology, which promotes communication with managers and their team before they join, can help employees to hit the ground running from day one.”

Unified comms

Digital natives have an expectation that everything will work immediately and seamlessly, thanks to their experiences with consumer sites like Amazon and Instagram. Coming into an organisation with poor internal systems or confusing communications systems can prove jarring.

“The way in which people message each other, the way in which they interact, the bar for that is much higher than it ever was,” Stanford explains.

There are numerous tools available in the communications space, with Zoom a key player in the video side, along with Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. Stanford also cited Slack, which is “trying to make themselves the headquarters or the central hub of that communication spoke so they can connect to all these other systems and help people interact around ideas within that central tool”.

The main objective for any modern communications system is that the relevant people are notified when they should be, and can collaborate or connect with who they need to without being bogged down in outdated email chains.

Unified communication systems are a key component of the modern workplace, and with the rise of hybrid and remote working, an essential tool for people management. By combining email, video conferencing, instant messaging, collaboration and productivity tools within the same platform, staff can seamlessly interact with their colleagues, irrespective of their location.

“In a work-from-anywhere world, staff need constant touchpoints with colleagues, which require seamless communication systems,” Iyengar notes. “This can mean ensuring all tools work effectively together, integrating well – which can often mean assessing whether the number of platforms used can be reduced.”

Learning and feedback

The modern, digital workplace requires a change in management approach to support staff expectations around career development and responsibility, backed up with the right technology tools.

Feedback platforms and performance trackers are both useful ways of keeping employees motivated and facilitating their growth in the business. Setting realistic expectations around advancement and providing a path to achieve is a core element of staff retention.

Performance and learning management technology will become increasingly important for staff retention, with employees demanding a greater understanding of career progression and more regular feedback.

For example, performance trackers let managers set consistent and achievable goals for their staff, supporting development and promoting training options.

According to Stanford, personal management and goal-setting tools are currently underutilised. We need to learn from the tech giants.

OKR methodologies have proven successful for companies like Google and IBM as a way of setting motivating targets through key indicators rather than laying everything out as pass/fail events.

“You’d strive for things as a team, strive for things as an individual, you’d measure how well you did against those goals and then see did you easily achieve it or not, and that would guide your next setting,” explains Stanford. “All the time you’re trying to improve.”

He adds: “A lot of historical management is around setting binary goals: did you achieve a number or an item and it’s a pass or fail, which might not be as motivating. Leaning into technologies that help align what all different teams are doing within an organisation are key to driving through investor value.”

Project management software (not Excel)

Tools like Jira and Asana, Trello and Proofhub are another core element of modern management. Project management tools offer a way to organise work, update and complete tasks, and set individual and team goals that align to each other.

“Everybody being clear on what they need to build and how that aligns to a company strategy and efficiency are vital to get delivery right,” Stanford says.

Having an understanding of how project teams divide up tasks into discernible value deliveries, and how those value deliveries impact each other, is what enables companies to optimise their ability to deliver.

“Being able to see what other people are doing and what their initiatives are means you can say, if we prioritise this other piece of work, we can align it with them and both teams win,” says Stanford.

“A lot of teams I’m sure are still managing things on Excel. If you’re not using technology like OKR mapping or sophisticated project management tools like Jira, then you may be missing out on these opportunities.”

Culture shock

Changing the culture of an organisation to meet the latest employee expectations is not always an easy task. And implementing the latest tools for modern people management will require rollout resources and financial backing.

But making these changes now not only offers the best employee experience, but this in turn ensures a better customer experience. Staff who are more productive and satisfied in their work will better represent their company and outperform their peers.

The overall benefit will be employees across the business making better decisions.

As Stanford notes, that’s because of the whole suite of tools working together. “If [businesses have] strong project management tools like Jira, if they’ve got effective communication tools like Slack and other messaging tools, your ability to get actionable insights quicker and the team being able to make decisions collectively quicker means that you are more responsive to the market.”

Technology needs to offer the foundation for people to work efficiently, both individually and as part of a team, and make it more likely that projects result in a successful end product.

The latest onboarding, communication, performance and project management tools are not just a vital part of modern management when it comes to staff satisfaction, retention and productivity. They are also key to companies delivering the best performance in the shortest timeframe, helping them not only stay alive but thrive.

Madeline Bennett
Madeline Bennett

Madeline Bennett has been a technology journalist and commentator for 20+ years, covering enterprise applications, diversity and inclusion, sustainability and the digital agenda.