How do you manage distributed workers?

Apr 14 2020 by Rod Collins Print This Article

The last few weeks have brought drastic unprecedented changes to the ways we live and work together. With the rapid emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, people who are used to working in offices are suddenly forced to work remotely. Business as usual has been turned on its head as managers are suddenly confronted with a daunting organizational challenge that no one saw coming: How do you manage a distributed network of remote workers and continue to get things done? Managers are realizing that they are ill-prepared for this task as they quickly discover the practices of traditional management werenít designed for a remote workforce.

A New Normal

When the challenge first emerged, many managers assumed this radical reconfiguration of work would be a short-term phenomenon that might last a couple of weeks. It would likely be no more disruptive than the annual slowdown that happens during last two weeks of December when large numbers of workers take off for the end-of-year holidays. They presumed that business as usual would resume once everyone returned to the office.

Unfortunately, this has turned out to be a bit of wishful thinking. As the pandemic continues to run its course, itís becoming increasingly, if not painfully, evident that, even with our best efforts at social distancing, it may be months before workers return to the office. But more consequentially, it may be a long time, if ever, before things return to business as usual.

In fact, we may very well be witnessing the emergence of a permanently and radically different new normal. As managers begin to come to terms with both the immediate challenges and the long-term implications of adopting new ways of working together, they are likely to discover that they are going to have to manage very differently. And they are also likely to realize they donít know what to do.

An Urgent Business Problem

When we were first thrust into remote working in mid-March, managers were immediately bombarded with basic infrastructure challenges such as bandwidth for video conferences, sufficient laptops for stay-at-home workers, and careful planning for cash flow needs. But as these issues began to be resolved, managers quickly realized they have a more fundamental and urgent business problem: They have to rapidly transform their organizations from centralized command-and-control structures into highly adaptive distributed networks. Failure to meet this challenge could have significant business consequences for months, even years, to come.

Many managers are struggling with this challenge because they are unfamiliar with the origins of the principles and the practices of the centralized management paradigm, and more importantly, they are unaware that there are alternatives to the traditional organizational model. Thatís because command-and-control management has been deeply enculturated after decades of institutional socialization, and as a consequence, its underlying assumptions are unquestioned and taken for granted.

An Inherent Flaw

Centralized management traces its roots to the early twentieth century when Frederick Taylor, arguably the worldís first management guru, assumed that workers were incapable of solving problems, making decisions, or even knowing how to most efficiently do their own jobs. According to Taylor, only an elite group of highly intelligent leaders could assure that organizations of large numbers of workers would be highly productive. They could accomplish this by designing businesses as mechanical structures composed of functional parts that fit together like a well-oiled machine. This explains why the typical organization chart looks like a mechanical schematic.

However, thereís an inherent flaw in the centralized organizational model that, until recently, has been a livable glitch: Command-and-control management is slow to react to the business environment because problem-solving and decision-making have to be processed through layers of management before action can be taken.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus has not only dispersed workers from their offices, it has suddenly spawned a cascade of unanticipated problems that emerge on a daily basis. Trying to solve these problems by employing traditional management practices is further slowing business reaction time when, now more than ever, managers have a desperate need to move faster. If companies insist on running everything up and down the usual chain of command, they will inevitably become hopelessly overwhelmed by an accelerating backlog of critical issues.

The only way that managers will be able to rapidly solve the myriad of problems generated by our new normal is to toss aside Taylorís antiquated assumptions and leverage the intelligence of everyone in their organizations by learning how to effectively manage distributed networks of engaged workers. And that will require a radical shift in management thinking and practice.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Fortunately, there are a number of business leaders who are highly skilled at managing networks, and whose companies can provide insights on how to manage effectively in a rapidly changing world. While the innovative products of these vanguard companies are well known to us, their innovative management approach, which leverages the collective intelligence of everyone to rapidly respond to business problems, has remained stubbornly hidden in plain sight.

Amazon, Apple, Google, and Zappos are examples of companies whose proficiency in building and leading peer-to-peer organizational networks has been a cornerstone of their market success. W. L. Gore and Associates, the makers of Gore-Tex, Morning Star, the worldís largest tomato processor, and Linux, the open-sourced operating system, have decades of experience in leading businesses that are designed as fully self-organized networks.

These seven companies, along with twelve other vanguard organizations, are the subjects of my book, Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World, which describes the fundamental framework of organizational networks and the innovative principles and practices these companies use to effectively design organizations around speed and collaboration - two attributes that are essential for managing in these days of the coronavirus.

Key Differentiators

The capacity to rapidly aggregate and leverage collective intelligence is a key differentiator and a powerful competitive advantage for the wiki management companies. This explains how Wikipedia displaced the two-centuries-old Encyclopedia Britannica and why Google - the last entry into a crowded market but the first to use collective intelligence to rank web pages - rapidly became the go-to search engine. Both of these examples are demonstrations of the popular adage that nobody is smarter or faster than everybody.

Another key differentiator is that, unlike traditional hierarchies, which are notorious for communicating information on a need-to-know basis, peer-to-peer networks are highly transparent and very proactive in building a holistic shared understanding about the work to be done. Because everyone has a firm grounding in whatís important for customer delivery, networks have a powerful advantage over their micromanaged counterparts: They are capable of highly effective self-organization. This capacity for self-organization is the driving force behind the storied success of both Wikipedia and Linux. And it is likely to be the differentiator between those companies who made the rapid transition to the new normal and those who stumbled badly in coping with the unprecedented circumstances of a world suddenly transformed by the coronavirus.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

The day will come when this pandemic is behind us, and when that happens, we may look back and be surprised to discover that, for many businesses, the coronavirus may have been a blessing in disguise. The only way to manage a distributed network of workers is to adopt a network-based organizational model that leverages collective intelligence to build a holistic shared understanding that, in turn, enables an extraordinary level of self-organization to rapidly solve problems.

Those organizations who realize that designing organizations as distributed networks is an idea whose time has come will have a powerful organizational asset that they can use to meet the disruptive challenges of digital innovations, such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and blockchain, which also hold the potential to turn business as usual on its head in short time.

If you would like to learn more about the principles and practices of this innovative management model, Doug Kirkpatrick of NuFocus Strategic Group and I are offering a four-module online Crash Course in Managing Distributed Workers. In this program, we share with you our first-hand experiences in how we applied the principles and practices of network-based management to become market leaders in our respective industries. The first module is available for free and can be found at

The distributed network is indeed an organizational idea whose time has come.

About The Author

Rod Collins
Rod Collins

Rod Collins is the Chief Facilitator at Salt Flats and the author of Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World (AMACOM Books).