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Managing the Mobile Workforce: It’s all about grapes, cucumbers, monkeys and rocks

One of the trends in government is mobility and allowing employees to work anywhere, anytime and on any device. Although having a mobile workforce has many benefits, there are also numerous related challenges.

One of the challenges is the need for improved management of mobile employees. Mobile employees are not necessarily always a teleworker, some organizations have work from home policies, flexible hours, and a variety of new policies that reflect the desires of the workforce. All are great, and management should be adopting policies to meet the changing demands of the workforce. With that being said, new management challenges become apparent.

One of the most basic challenges is retaining fairness in the workplace with increasing mobile adoption by workers. Fairness in the workplace is one of the most foundational elements to building team chemistry and keeping morale high. I heard a management story a few weeks ago about monkeys, cucumbers, grapes, and rocks – the story shows the importance of fairness, and how critical not acknowledging perceived unfairness can demoralize an office.

The story goes that scientist developed an experiment on monkeys in a zoo. The scientist set up an experiment that trained the monkeys so that each time the monkey gave a scientist a rock, the monkey would receive a cucumber. It was a pretty simple process for the monkey, rock equals cucumber, rock equals cucumber. The monkeys were perfectly happy with the cucumbers, and this process continued on for a few weeks.

The scientist decided that they would randomly select a monkey and give the monkey a grape instead of a cucumber. The monkeys went bananas for the grapes. Every time time they saw a scientist they would start giving them more than one rock, all in an attempt to get a grape and avoid the now seemingly bland cucumber. When the monkeys started to realize that only some of their colleagues were getting the grapes, and others continued to get the cucumbers, they began to revolt. Eventually if a scientist gave them a cucumber, they would refuse. They’d turn their back and refuse to take the cucumber. The monkeys realized that there was no pattern to receiving a grape, and felt they were being treated unfairly.

The scientists asked a basic question, at one point these monkeys were perfectly content with the cucumbers, what has actually changed? Well, the monkeys caught on to something that is basically ingrained in all of us, the sense of fairness. There is a basic sense of fairness that all of us possess, and when we believe that we have been treated unfairly in the workplace, we get upset. It’s part of human nature. For managing in a mobile environment, it is critical that management always makes the distinction between perceived fairness and actual fairness.

So what can management do to keep everything fair in the workplace?

Couple suggestions that I would recommend is that management set clear protocols that go across the agency. This means that there is clear structure to how people can use and work in a mobile environment. Exceptions always need to be made, but there needs to be a standard and an overarching guide how mobility operates in the workplace.

Also, management needs to follow through on the protocols that they set up. Without enforcement and monitoring policies, there is very little reason for people to follow, or feel as if they need to follow the rules. Understandably, this is the core challenge for leadership- creating and developing a culture where people will voluntarily follow and work towards common goals of the organization. That’s what fuels well-run organizations, the commitment to voluntarily follow the organization’s mission. Creating a culture of “organization first” can certainly happen in a mobile environment, but will take some work from management to think through policies, set the right level of expectation, and be sure to treat all employees fairly.

How do you manage the mobile workforce? How do you ensure fairness?


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Profile Photo Patrick Fiorenza

hey Chris – sorry for the delay in getting back to you, but thanks for the comment! I would say things like managing when you can be mobile and when you need to be physically present is a big one, who gets what kind of services, how often you can be mobile, what kind of work is appropriate to do mobile – all the things that if they aren’t really addressed, can start to impact the culture and morale of an organization. If people start abusing the system, or there is a perceived unfairness taking place because the workforce is mobile – morale/productivity can be impacted. Think it’s true really with anything an organization, not just mobility. Keep it fair. Be consistent and work to create a culture where people will “willingly follow.” Just my thoughts, thanks!

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