The coronavirus lockdown has not just been an interruption to companies’ operations – it has accelerated massive changes that were already underway.
There is no going back to a time before digital transformation and remote teams. In addition to planning the return to the office, HR should anticipate and strategize for an ongoing transition to a virtual organisation.
This is not a drill. By building upon changes made during the lockdown, HR leaders can make their organisations more resilient and competitive in an increasingly digital world.
The rise and rise of remote work
The shortcomings of working in an office are well-documented. Yet millions of employees keep spending the majority of their time at their companies’ headquarters. Or at least they did until 2020. Now, a spate of publications is again sounding the death knell of this older, nineteenth-century mode of work.
The coronavirus lockdown has largely proved the prediction that organisations would become more location-independent. Just like with AI, it is not a question of if – but when. By 2017, 81% of employees in developed countries were regularly working with people at a different location. Thus, remote teams were already becoming the norm before Covid-19. Still, the inertia of company processes kept most employees in the office. Now, the lockdown may have become a tipping point.
Executives at three of the largest companies leasing offices in Manhattan – Barclays, JP Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley – “have decided that it is highly unlikely that all their workers will ever return to those buildings”, reports The New York Times. New York City may never be the same.
Another company – Twitter – just announced a radical new policy. Anyone who is able to work remotely can “do so indefinitely” with no restrictions. Employees are welcoming the change. The lockdown has again demonstrated that many people prefer working remotely, which can have benefits for their wellbeing and productivity.
For all these reasons, the key question for HR is not how to return to traditional work. It is how to enable an effective transformation into a resilient, innovative virtual organisation.
Set remote teams up for success
Virtual organisations have many advantages, but they also face unique challenges. They cannot simply replicate the processes of location-based companies. A different style of leadership is necessary, according to executive coach and bestselling author Peter Ivanov.
How can companies reap the benefits of remote work, now and in the future? Peter shared insights from his method for working in remote teams in a recent MERIT webinar.
#1. Teach executives to lead with purpose
Many leaders see office-based work as a way to keep people accountable. While remote work also provides opportunities to track employees’ productivity with digital tools, this is unlikely to bring results, Peter cautioned.
Remote employees are in danger of becoming disengaged. The solution is not more control. It is to create purpose. Leaders of virtual organisations can boost productivity by giving people a sense of community and ownership of their work. For example, company meetings should not be focused on the leader or on a specific issue, but rather on the way different teams are working towards the organisation’s goals, Peter advised.
“In a poorly led team, sometimes the manager calls a meeting if there is a problem, and starts some finger-pointing,” Peter said. This can sink virtual teams’ productivity. Instead, leaders should model personal responsibility and inclusion, and leadership development programmes should teach them the techniques to do so.
#2. Enable bottom-up innovation
In a purpose-driven company, everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction. Individual and team objectives should be aligned with the business strategy, Peter stressed. In great virtual organisations, rational goal distribution is ensured by design. How does this work in practice?
Executives and managers should chart longer-term objectives and break them down into smaller parts. Then, each person should choose their individual goals out of those set for the team. This approach pairs top-down strategy with bottom-up initiative. Each employee contributes directly to the bottom line, and at the same time, they are driven to invent new, efficient ways to meet their goals.
#3. Create institutional knowledge
When people choose their tasks out of a common set of goals, this makes everyone’s contribution visible. Each person “feels like a hero for bringing their unique skillset to the table”, Peter explained. The team and the company are then motivated by their shared strengths.
If everyone knows the strengths of the others, this also boosts collaboration: the barriers to asking for and getting help are low. Moreover, the company can recover more quickly from disruption. Knowledge sharing means that employees can easily pick up where others left off. Rather than encouraging competition between individuals, Peter advised, leaders should promote a shared identity: they should “strengthen the ‘we’ and fight the ‘I’.”
Establishing a virtual company culture
Ultimately, leading a distributed organisation means creating a virtual company culture. This requires emotional intelligence so that leaders can empathise with their employees and foster a sense of belonging. It also requires design thinking: executives should be able to set a clear vision and break it into its constituent parts that different teams can then take responsibility for.
HR leaders need to make sure the C-suite have the competencies they need to achieve this. HR should also help create digital processes that ensure cohesion and collaboration. Ideally, every company meeting, training programme, or employee evaluation should reinforce a sense of purpose.
With these principles in mind, HR can help make virtual organisations more agile, innovative, and resilient than office-based ones ever were.
To discover more about digital innovation and the future of work, claim your complimentary pass to the MERIT European Summit in Paris, 18 September – “Rethinking Learning in a Connected World”. This boutique event for CHROs and CLOs is co-hosted by LinkedIn and will take place in Microsoft’s Paris headquarters. Places are limited – reserve yours now.
By Ani Kodjabasheva