LagomWorks Research Series: July 2020
Keywords: Organization Design, COVID-19, Remote Working, Remote Integration, Distributed Organisations
Introducing the disconnected today
Allow me to paint a picture of a typical Friday in the office, circa January 2020. You arrive at work having taken the bus, the train, a cab or maybe your own set of wheels. You put your bag down at your assigned workstation, call out to your colleague to join you at the breakout area for your morning cup of joe where you discuss the previous evening, the meetings lined up for the day, and the deliverables due next week. You attend a meeting with your client at their office a few city blocks away, share a motley meal and jokes with the team in the ‘Friday Funday’ potluck. Come afternoon, you join your Manager for a cup of tea at the tea joint across the road, close out the plans for the coming week, pick up a package at the concierge desk, and join the team for a drink before heading home.
For most of us, this was a Friday at work, give or take an activity or two. This is how we formed our connects at work, and engaged with our organisations. Six months on however, for many of us it may just be a world which we look back upon with more wonder than familiarity. A recent Gartner poll suggested that 48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after the COVID-19 pandemic, as against 30% before it.
With many of our ‘taken for granted’ facilities going away, integrating a remote workforce is emerging as a challenge for organisations. And for the small few who were already working from home, an increase in domestic responsibilities as with children being schooled online, is in a sense pushing them further away from the archetype of an engaged and integrated workforce.
Integrating the Workforce
Benedict Anderson (1991) suggested that print capitalism played a principal role in the birth of modern nation states as ‘imagined communities’. Organisations are not entirely different, with a diversity which is consciously imagined as an integrated entity, sharing socio-cultural traits, and looking to achieve common, articulated business goals. Integration is thus about the different parts and units of an organisation – teams, functions, businesses, and geographies – interacting in a way that allows them to function seamlessly with each other. I argue then, that an integrated workforce is primarily inspired by three interconnected levers.
- The Organisation: Integration with the organisation is typically identified by the association and alignment that an employee has with its larger purpose, vision, mission, values and culture. It is thus driven by what the organization stands for and the kind of actions and communications that it (the organization) and its representatives are involved in. In the absence of a physical workspace, since there is limited emphasis on these key messages, the organisation comes to be imagined differently by employees.
- The Role: Integration with the role is essentially the connect between employees and the nature of the work they do. It is driven by the engagement they feel for the way the work is defined and carried out on the ground in the everyday, taking into account quality, outcome and impact.
- Enablers: Integration with the enablers of the organisation is, simply, the phenomenological alignment with the ecosystem – people, infrastructure, processes, policies – which the employee has through their experiential, interactive affordance. Relationships with people whether fellow colleagues, team members, supervisors, or even other staff, in formal as well as informal settings, occupies perhaps the top rung amongst all enablers.
Challenges posed to integration
In today’s COVID-impacted world, most organisations have a certain proportion of their staff working remotely. For many in fact, remote working will be the ‘new’ norm, especially with the adoption of the distributed organisation, as a model of structure.
The challenges of integrating a remote workforce are multi-faceted – right from an overt dependence on technology products to information asymmetries – and can lead to a lack of engagement, sub-optimal utilisation of resources, as well as dips in productivity. Interestingly enough, these challenges often influence each other, in a manner blurring the lines between cause, effect, and remedy. Principally however, they can be categorised as:
- Optimising work distribution and performance – Since Managers also work remotely, they also struggle to clearly define, distribute and deliver work on one hand, or outline accountability and productivity norms across roles, on the other hand. As a result, Managers tend to gravitate towards assigning work to a ‘chosen few’ in the team, who run the risk of burnout.
- Well-suited work space and atmosphere – As obvious as this may sound, employees struggle with finding a conducive workspace at home, especially if there are other members of the household who have similar requirements. Right from a good, ergonomically designed table and chair, to a fast, stable internet connection, to a quiet surrounding, employees struggle to find the ideal setting. This can adversely impact work and productivity. Then of course, are household responsibilities such cleaning, cooking, and child-care which demand time, energy, and mind space.
- Trust, communication and personal connect – The ancient adage of ‘To see is to believe’ is an unconscious bias particularly relevant in the remote working setting. Organisations struggle to ‘trust’ their employees to do their jobs as effectively as they would have in a physical office space. Additionally, the lack of face-to-face interactions – both formal and informal – imply that relationships are limited to work conversations, leaving a lot to be desired in terms of the ‘human touch’. A lack of ‘mutual knowledge’ among remote workers translates to a lower willingness to give co-workers the benefit of doubt in difficult situations.
- Alignment with company culture, values and purpose – While working remotely, employees are unable to ‘experience’ the organisation in the same way as when in a physical office space. What is particularly hard for employees, is the act of connecting with the organisation on some of the softer, more intangible aspects.
So, how can remote employees be effectively integrated?
There is unfortunately, no magic spell or miracle cure. Yet more reassuring, the trick lies not in reinvention, but perhaps going back to the basics, to tried-and-tested methods, and thereby focusing on the fundamentals. Among the trifecta of the Organisation, the Role and Enablers as the three levers of integration, a possible list could look somewhat like what I outline below.
- Align the ‘tone at the top’ with regular communication, using various media, for different sections of the workforce, highlighting the organization’s values and reemphasizing its purpose and mission – why your organization is doing what it is doing. It is imperative that the leaders of the organization continue to speak the same language as before and invest in even more frequent interactions with the larger workforce.
- Design a clear transition plan for the organization, highlighting changes to various aspects of the organization – strategy, structure, business imperatives, processes, etc. Measure and communicate progress at regular intervals.
- Get involved in social-impact activities that resonate with the organization’s DNA and resonate with its employees, and clearly communicate the actions and the impact on the larger society. In a COVID-impacted world, employees are looking keenly at what their organization is doing for them and for society as a whole.
- Clearly identify and align individual capabilities with work. While this has always featured on an organization’s agenda, it is an even greater imperative today, given the need to ensure engagement in a remote working scenario.
- Design clearly defined teams, and provide them with a shared goal(s), connected with the larger business goal, and lay out expectations, accountability, decision making authority, governance mechanisms and outcomes. Ensure fair distribution of work, mapped to capabilities.
- Design robust learning and performance management processes and systems which allow employees to continuously upskill, assess themselves and continue to grow in the organization. There is also a need to provide the required training and preparation for the new tools and technologies being used, for remote working. Allow for regular performance check-ins that dovetail learning needs and/or role redesign.
- Set up clear processes and procedures with accountabilities, timelines and outcomes. Remove ambiguity in how certain tasks need to be performed, who needs to perform them, and the output expected from the task.
- Equip the workforce with the most suited tools for their work and ensure a seamless transition from one to the other. Invest in tools across the employee experience journey – chat, project management, video conferencing, scheduling, and so on.
- Drive a culture of communication, collaboration, openness and trust through regular updates by leaders/supervisors, driving open communication and providing forums for it, conducting regular check-ins in both one-on-one and team settings, simulating virtual ‘water cooler’ settings, organizing periodic informal gatherings and striving to look beyond the ‘work’ a person does, and taking genuine interest in their lives. Make it a point to appreciate even small gestures. Define the cross-team interaction and collaboration protocols and provide adequate opportunity and tools for it. Encourage open feedback conversations across teams and between levels.
- Clearly define, implement and communicate remote working policies. There is a need to relook at policies such as leave, performance, benefits in a COVID-impacted world to overcome the challenges stated above. Define clear working hours and encourage employees to take time off. Provide avenues for emotional support.
So, what’s next?
Rutz et al. (2020) refer to the ongoing pandemic and its attendant lockdowns, and socio-economic fallout as the ‘anthropause’, alluding in great part to the moniker ‘The Great Pause’ it has earned in public culture. By extension, the corporate world is seeing companies in either one of the following three states:
Reacting to the pandemic. Here, organizations are understanding the impact the pandemic has had on them and are trying to design and implement necessary changes.
Living with the pandemic. Organizations that have ‘passed the tide’ of the pandemic, and are clear of the initial, substantial impact it has had on them, have now settled into a stable phase of working within the circumstances.
Designing the ‘New’. In this phase are organisations which have accepted the changes that the pandemic brought and have invested in tapping into the opportunities proffered by the new normal.
Irrespective of the phase that your organization may be in, it is critical that you identify the differences that your workforce, remote or otherwise, has in terms of their needs, and take the necessary steps to integrate them on the three levers I have attempted to outline here. With the pandemic having had a multifarious impact whether social, cultural, political, or economic ways, organizations need to do all they can for their most valuable asset – their talent.
Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
Rutz, C., Loretto, M., Bates, A.E. et al. (2020) COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife. Nat Ecol Evol. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1237-z