Management Matters
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Management Matters

Managing Flexible Work Better Post-Pandemic: You Can’t Hide the True Human Cost of Treating People Like Machines in the Balance Sheet

Post-2020 hierarchies are being scrapped. And there’s no turning back from two years of flexible work.

Photo by J. Balla Photography on Unsplash

Companies looking to attract and retain talented people need to offer more choices in projects, work hours and locations.

Tech companies and agencies have had a head start in managing a flexible talent pool.

But despite years of practice, they’ve got one thing very wrong.

We still manage productivity the same way we did in the industrial age — by spreading the cost and sharing the machine across multiple assembly lines to minimise downtime.

We’ve replaced machines with people, even though the two aren’t directly interchangeable.

This makes it impossible to create sustainable improvements in efficiency and knowledge sharing.

The benefits of having more experienced people support multiple teams simultaneously look good on a balance sheet.

But that usually means you’re overlooking the cost of personal motivation and team performance.

I’m guilty of it myself, and that hasn’t been for the lack of effort.

I want to work with the most talented people and enable them to do their best work at my company.

But talent costs and all costs need to be accounted for.

Experts splitting their time into multiple teams takes a toll on personal motivation.

The feeling of constantly chasing but never really catching up is exciting at first.

But that quickly turns into stress, fatigue, and burnout because you’re constantly struggling to manage your time, energy and input across multiple projects in the same day.

It also makes it challenging for a team leader to keep people engaged and build a culture of high performance when experts keep coming and going.

On top of managing the project team, you also get stuck in an endless loop of bringing people up to speed. This not only weakens the group but makes it challenging to build trust.

Flexible work is here to stay. This time, we need to do it better.

After seven years of leading project teams as a consultant, I’ve learnt that priorities shift, people leave, and you’ll be expected to deliver more with fewer resources from time to time.

And it all happens as experts hop on-and-off your project like passengers on a rush-hour train.

It may not sound like much, but how you approach your operations within teams and across the organisation makes a big difference.

1) Set clear priorities and make them visible to everyone.

Priorities can’t be set in a vacuum.

Model transparency by sharing how work-loads, responsibilities, and priorities are shared within the team and the organisation.

Set clear rules and stick to them.

Involve experts in decisions that concern their time and effort. This creates social accountability and encourages discussion and feedback.

2) Commit to a hierarchy of goals.

I’ve used both Lead Measures and Key Results to track projects, but I use Dr Angela Duckworth’s Hierarchy of Goals when setting team-wide goals.

  • Low-level goals are what you do day-to-day. It’s the work that keeps the project on track.
  • Mid-level goals are the milestones that you accomplish over defined intervals.
  • A high-level goal is a driving purpose behind the project.

Everyone on your team must understand the hierarchy of goals and be clear on their contribution to each.

3) Be supportive and demand higher performance.

This is where I’ve dropped the ball most often.

Being demanding isn’t the same as being controlling or inflexible. It means holding yourself and others accountable to the same standards.

Safety and trust go hand in hand.

Allow people to feel safe when taking risks, make sure they have the right skills and resources, and celebrate progress.

4) Do not promote a high-level goal that doesn’t resonate with your team’s passion and priorities.

Some things give us energy, and others suck it out of our very core.

You may not always have every detail about the new people hopping on your team, but without it, you’re handicapped.

I learnt this the hard way.

Since then, I’ve been using a simple but very informal method to stay on top.

Writing a short project memo that I share with every new member.

The memo should include the goal hierarchy and a clear description of your expectations from the expert.

I also ask the expert to respond with a memo including the following details:

1. What technical skills or knowledge are you bringing to the project?

2. What do you expect to learn from working on this project?

3. What is something about your way of working or schedule that the team should be aware of?

4. What’s the secret skill that you’re bringing to this project?

As Dr Duckworth said, commitment to a shared purpose, a focus on constant improvement, and mutual trust are all hallmarks of a gritty team.

And we should all strive to create the kind of culture which attracts people to do their best work together without compromising their mental health.

Because the human cost of treating people like machines is too high for any self-respecting manager.

Originally published at on August 4, 2021.




There's plenty out there for the C-suite. What about the rest of us-the high potential managers & up-and-comers. The future C-suite. Real leadership & management advice for front- and middle-management. A publication focused on management matters, because great management matters

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