One of the strange benefits of remote work during COVID has been the opportunity to study the impacts of working remotely to work on both individuals and the organizations they work in, on a scale not seen before. The widely shared early observations indicate that companies have seen leaps in productivity while the line between work life and home life blurs or in some circumstances disappears. At the same time, the absence of social contact at work has sucked some of the excitement and fun from the workplace, but virtual collaboration appears to be a success. Beyond this COVID has provided the necessity and the opportunity to create some fundamental changes and improvements in how we work.
We’ve changed how we work
The need to respond quickly to changing market conditions has required leaders to give authority to local teams to determine the best ways to work and deliver services. These decisions vary depending on local conditions and impacts, as regional and local governments imposed their own restrictions on how to deal with COVID. Add to this the demand on organizations to accelerate process and technology improvement initiatives and senior managers have had to put trust in their people to lead this work. Team members themselves prioritize what they are working on and are allowed to set priorities and make trade-off decisions.
Technology is supporting us in this change
Necessity and safety have driven the need to accelerate the use of technology and the related cost savings has proven the value of that decision. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other collaborative software allow us to bring people together without the cost of airfare and hotels. These tools allow for expanded representation and creates opportunity to bring in fresh perspectives and diversity to decision making. Safety has driven the need to work virtually and cost management reinforces these workplace changes at a time when cost management has become paramount.
Employees are being trusted to get on with their work
Many companies are applying the agile development principles to how they manage including the implicit agile values of openness, accountability and trust. Senior management is sanctioning teams, granting them the accountability and authority to complete their work and getting out of their way. And teams are taking it from there. We are seeing examples of:
- Virtual teams planning projects, bringing on new members who have the necessary skills, and making the decisions on how to best complete their tasks.
- Teams prioritizing what they are working on and making trade-off decisions that were formerly the domain of senior management.
- Local teams, managers and frontline workers, are listening to their customers and making better decisions than remote management.
Senior Management work is changing as well
For many years business educators have talked about the importance of equipping and trusting people at all levels of organizations. There is nothing new to the mantra of giving people the authority to make decisions regarding the work they are accountable for “if you trust associates, they will be trustworthy.” What is different in the COVID era is senior management has gotten out of the way of employees by necessity. Balancing the constant need to respond to COVID, managing costs and sponsoring projects has more than filled their buckets of work. Employees get on with the day-to-day operational management and improvements to their organizations. Meanwhile senior management can focus on strategy execution, capital allocation, and other general management work.
Effective management is about adding value to working teams and enhancing trust. People managers have had an opportunity to deepen and hone their “people management” skills in response to the virtual work environment. These leaders have had to increase their understanding of individual team member needs and consciously stay connected to help their team members stay engaged.
Sustaining these improvements
When management grants their employees decision authority aligned to their accountabilities, management signals that employees are to be trusted and are encouraged to get on with their work. Providing people with the resources they need allows them to make decisions related to their assignments, report back on progress, ask for advice when necessary and course correct as required, which are the hallmarks of an engaged workplace.
The approval of vaccines has signaled that a return to normal is on the horizon, and begs the question – How do we keep from slipping backwards once COVID is behind us?
The risk of slipping back is very real. Prior to COVID, organizations, which have embraced the concept of improving engagement through broader delegation of accountability and authority, seem to find ways to inadvertently slip backwards, as they put controls in place. Risk management, expense management, freezes on head count are all programs that can have the unintended consequence of pushing decision authority higher up the organization, diminishing individual accountability and undermining trust as they go.
While today there are no other options than to support the trust and autonomy given to employees during COVID, management must be vigilant when this worldwide social experiment comes to an end and ask the question “How will this new control or guardrail impact employee autonomy?” The right solutions will involve controls that protect your organizations and don’t infringe on autonomy.
Eliminate redundant layers of management
Some organizations have had so much success they are asking the question “Do we need all of these levels of management?” The next question to ask should be, “What value does each layer in the organization provide to the level below?” Answering this question will start your journey to ensuring that your organization has no more management overhead than is required.
Formalize accountability in your management systems
Review your management systems to understand what supports increased accountability and engagement and what gets in the way. From redefining roles that reflect the accountability and authority that has been established during COVID to setting performance contracts that establish objectives, reflective of these levels, the tools of your management system will allow you to formalize these gains.
The new way of working is here to stay
COVID has not only changed the way we work it also changing the way we live. The exodus of people from downtown that started with millennials abandoning their matchbox size condos to temporarily return to their parents’ homes outside of the city has continued unbated. For those who have been able to successfully work at home, the knowledge that their work can be done remotely, and taking it upon themselves to make this a way of life. People are permanently moving to more affordable areas where their housing dollars go further. Vacation properties are being scooped up in areas where strength of internet service has been become almost as important as the views. Daily commutes, for many, will be a thing of the past as physical location will be dependent on the nature of work being performed. Employers will need to accommodate these changes if they are going attract and retain top talent. From management systems and organization structures, to changes in policies and ways of working, the way we work in 2021 will be permanently changed.