Over seven months following the COVID-19 outbreak, when looking at the business landscape, organisations have certainly reacted fast to support workers’ health and safety and continue delivering services. Still uncertain, though, is the impact of COVID-19 on the long-term future digital and what measures will help businesses stay relevant to customers and colleagues.
In view of the prolonged impact of the pandemic, questions arise as to how businesses are adapting their operating models for a new digital workplace. The September Digital Thursday online round table was organised to help find answers to this pressing question. The discussions involved three speakers, who shared their insights and observations on the approaches to managing digital workplaces. Susan Blair and Lois Stapleton, from PWC, explored how companies should successfully navigate their way, minimising risks and looking after employees, whilst at the same time managing costs and brand, and meeting evolving customer needs. Sameena Bashey, a global executive coach and leadership consultant, shared her experience on how leaders can be more effective in leading, engaging and motivating remote teams.
Six key areas were highlighted that play pivotal roles in transforming the workplace and optimising the workforce: facilities & technologies, organisation design, skill management, leadership, workforce support and culture, and a trust-driven organisational environment.
Embracing Technological Innovations
Without embracing new technologies, the adaptation of the workplace to pandemic reality would not have been and will not be possible. Although different organisations perceive innovations differently, overall, new technologies have become enablers for changing business models. A glance at organisational responses organisations shows investments in technological innovation to enable remote working.
Technologies address the essential need of companies for continuous business operations by erasing geographical limits. This, in turn, enables companies to upscale the workforce by recruiting from a larger pool of competing candidates with more diverse skills. Companies have also been creative and open to approaches in using new technology in a way to do things differently. Whilst offering more flexibility and remote work opportunities, the wider adoption of technologies for automation can reduce the dependence on the workforce. For instance, job losses in manufacturing industry show the impact of robotics and automation on the employment landscape.
Workforce planning is the second biggest priority for organisations which should be made as a long-term response to COVID-19. The changes may impact business models, making it possible to create maximum value through the changes of organisation structure, roles, governance and decision making, employee capabilities, networks, interactions and relationships.
Organisations need to think about cost-efficient ways of operational optimisation, work on future scenario planning and rely on technologies in facilitating work routines. Companies need to rethink the role of the human resource management team in adapting to changes in people’s behaviour and appreciate the value that diversity brings to processes. In the new conditions, the HR team should be more proactive in taking a leading role in redesigning organisation processes. In a nutshell, organisation design should reflect the plans for a dynamic future, radical changes, the changing technological landscape and re-skilling.
According to the PwC report, the majority of senior executives admits that the shortage of skills creates challenges in achieving growth targets. The degree to which senior and line managers are accustomed to innovation enabling effective remote working, plays a crucial role in short and long-term business growth. Therefore, organisations need to foster skills of resilience in the virtual working environment.
There are three things to consider when evaluating the capability of the team to perform well in virtual teams. First, the approach to training business staff in the use of new technologies has to change, with the focus on self-learning. Physical restrictions and management difficulties conducive to remote working require stronger responsibility of employees in mastering the use of technologies for effective collaborations. Second, virtual collaboration skills and productivity depend on the functions of the team. IT staff rarely have problems with distant working, compared to commercial teams, who are used to interaction in physical environments. Thirdly, we also need to recognise that not all people can cope with a radical change. The capability to adapt to disruptions may depend on personality, irrespective of the function that one has within an organisation. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality framework can be used to see how introverts and extraverts behave in virtual working environments. However, personal capabilities to adapt to virtual working may change over time.
In such a turbulent time, leaders should lead organisational change and digital transformation by promoting compliance and efficiency, raising awareness, understanding and commitment among staff. Specifically, effective leadership is contingent on several capabilities.
One such capability is the providing subordinates with psychological support mechanisms to overcome anxiety about meeting productivity expectations. Over 30% of employees feel the loss of connection and human interactions, which may facilitate stress. By manifesting caring behaviour, leaders can not only improve wellbeing but also establish stronger bonds with team members and motivate their contributions to virtual meetings, having a positive effect on productivity.
Leaders should be able to clearly communicate staff roles and task purposes. The delegation of roles and responsibilities should be in line with the priorities and be evaluated using the mechanisms of tracking capacity and progress. Leaders should lead by example and convey what strategy stands for, why and how to implement it.
Finding a balance between the empowerment and control of employees is also the challenge for leaders. On the one hand, the encouragement of employees’ self-empowerment can help increase collaboration, foster the generation of solutions and help leaders optimise processes. On the other hand, reduced supervision may increase leaders’ anxiety about loosened control and the fear of not meeting performance targets. Instead, leaders need to use outcome-based performance management approaches and provide middle and junior management staff with the opportunity to act on their own and learn from their experience.
Effective leadership is also about the ability to create a learning environment, which used to be easier in physical offices, where junior staff could learn from the experiences of senior colleagues.
Empathetic Culture and Workforce Support
Based on the PwC survey, culture was found to be a leading factor of transformation failures. That means that the underlying beliefs, assumptions, values and interactions contributing to the overall work environment are not compatible with the transformational goals. For a better outcome of organisational change, the adoption of new resources, technologies and practices for the maximisation of productivity should not overshadow the focus on the workforce support.
Employees can be supported by creating an empathetic culture and a strong community caring for employees’ psychological wellbeing. Maintaining connections is critical and challenging for creating a caring environment, as the development of deeper relationships between employees through virtual teams is difficult. It is important to tailor formal and informal communication strategies by recognising individual differences.
By leveraging on technologies enabling distant collaborations, senior managers need to ensure their visibility to staff. They need to find techniques that will eliminate deliberate and unconscious reluctance to embark on and contribute to collaborative virtual meetings. Whilst leadership is a crucial element in optimising the workforce, it is important to acknowledge the need to provide leaders with support too, since only 39% of senior leaders believe that their role in managing remote working is recognised.
Against rather optimistic statistics demonstrating that 82% of line managers are able to adapt to the routine, keep up productivity and work-life balance, senior managers find the new way of working rather burdensome. Apart from psychological support, now is the time to rethink rewards, incentives and benefits schemes, as well as governance and cost reduction strategies without compromising on employees’ wellbeing. The support may be in the form of satisfying flexible working requests, training to upscale all staff in digital skills and reinforce the ways of working, including the usage of innovative technologies.
Prior to this pandemic, research had shown that virtual distance can lower team members trust by 83%, ability to innovate by 93% and engagement by 80 % (Harvard Business Review ). But as remote working is now likely to be the new norm, leaders need to develop the necessary skillset to lead their teams virtually.
Sameena explained that her P.A.C.E. model (Purpose, Accountability, Connections and Empowerment) can be used to develop intra-organisational trust, to ensure high levels of performance and employee engagement. Reigniting the team purpose, allows the leader and their team to reset the strategy, and to be aligned on the priorities, culture and operating rhythm for the future. Accountability in a dispersed team is achieved through clarification roles and responsibilities and agreement of mechanisms to track capacity and progress. Effective remote working also requires leaders to make more time to build deeper connections with the team, tailoring their one to one meetings to suit the individual, including a focus on their well-being. Frequent and creative communication is key to success, with calendars incorporating informal team meetings, such as a virtual team lunch and opportunities to celebrate and recognize individual and team achievements. Leaders that empower and encourage self -leadership and team collaboration to reach decisions enable remote teams to excel.
- Advanced technologies are changing the shape of employment in skills mix and headcount.
- Organisational design needs to plan forward for future hybrid models, process automation and job design focused on human strengths.
- Adapting to new software and business technology needs to be given space, although the most successful systems should be suited to self-learning. This is in itself a capability that employees need to strengthen.
- Leadership should be clear on task, focus and priority and abundant in terms of psychological support and team engagement, especially when working in a virtual or hybrid model.
- A culture of caring community amongst and between employees is the most successful and future-proof way of enabling business change. Without such a culture, transformation plans will derail.
- Trust*is a factor of PACE: purpose, accountability, connection and empowerment.
* Additional insights into the development of trust in organisations can be found in “The Speed of Trust” by Stephen R. Covey and “REMOTE: Offic