Virtual organizations and remote working require more than technology to succeed

By Marcus Coetzee, 17 June 2021.

Technology has progressed so that people can work remotely and organizations can operate virtually.

Many of us have been fortunate to be able to continue with our work despite the challenges presented by the Covid-19 lockdown. I cringe when I think of how lockdown would have worked in the 1990s or early 2000s, and how we would have suffered with the technology that was available at the time.

For many employees, the lockdown has vindicated what they have been trying to tell their bosses all this time – that they can work from home and don’t need to come into the office every day and waste time in traffic.

But working from home has brought its own challenges. Few organizations have been designed to run virtually. Although technology has enabled the remainder of us to get by, the true power of virtual organizations has not been harnessed. In this article I explain why some bosses will be anxious to get everyone back into the office, and how some organizations have been able to master remote work.

The recent experiences of working from home

The pandemic has provided most of us with an opportunity to work from home, and this has had a mixed response.

On the one hand, employees:

  • have found that they work longer hours and are overwhelmed by meetings, both of which which compromises their ability to produce quality work;
  • have struggled to manage the boundaries between their personal and work lives;
  • with children at home have experienced the additional pressures of childcare when they were unable to outsource this to schools and crèches, or get nannies to come in and help.

And on the other hand, employers:

  • have experienced the freedom of being able to have and reach employees wherever they are;
  • have also seen how they can reduce their office overheads by allowing employees to ‘hot desk’ or only come into the office on some days each week;
  • have struggled to adapt to managing a remote workforce and trust that their employees are actually working.

Knowledge work requires a different mindset

For the past 20 years I have been working from home, coffee shops and clients’ offices so I have insights into the merits of all these environments. I have also been fascinated by the organization designs and new ways of working that modern technology enables us to adopt. I’ve been most consistently inspired by the team at Nozbe who advocate the following motto:

“Work is not a place you go. It’s a thing you do.”

What I’ve noticed, and what has been made obvious by the recent lockdown, is that the widespread adoption of remote-working technology has not been matched by a shift in organizational processes and culture. This has undermined the quality and ease of remote work.

I recognize that some leaders have explicitly designed their organizations to function remotely so that employees are not overwhelmed by Zoom meetings and not disadvantaged when they cannot chat to their boss over a cup of coffee in the kitchen or be seen working late at their desk.

Unfortunately, for the most part, organizations that are capable of operating virtually still adhere to the industrial-era paradigm that their workers are part of an assembly line, and that if you can’t see them being busy, then they are not really working. But knowledge work, which is work that requires lots of abstract knowledge and brain power, does not operate according to this strict industrial-era formula where ‘busy work’ is associated with productivity. For example, I have one eccentric colleague who might spend a day pacing up and down his office or home, drinking espressos and thinking deeply. Then he would have a moment of brilliance which would save everyone a month’s work or catapult his clients forward strategically. This type of knowledge work cannot be forced into an assembly line, and attempting to do so would undermine the results.

Some organizations are very good at remote work

I have spent a lot of time observing and reflecting on the characteristics of organizations where remote work is possible, and where it is being done well. There are three distinct behaviours that appear to be associated with such organizations:

  • The first behaviour is that the managers clearly specify the work that needs to be done, including when it is due, guidelines for how it should be done and the level of discretion and the resources available to the employee when performing that task. The managers then have an irrefutable system for recording each delegated task and being able to follow up appropriately and judge how well it has been performed. (I use a task-management app and the ‘Getting Things Done’ methodology to do this in my own work.) While this approach to delegating work appears logical and simple on paper, it is much harder than it appears. Many of the managers that I have encountered have been unable to do this effectively. This means that they are unable to achieve the four outcomes of good leadership.
  • The second is that these organizations are discerning about how they communicate and when to use each of their technologies. They enable asynchronous work, where employees do not need to be working at the exact same time. I subscribe to Nozbe’s Pyramid of Communication whereby uninterrupted and protracted periods of meaningful work are prioritized. Meetings are then reserved for only when they are required; they don’t become the default setting for communication. The same applies to emails, which are reserved for when they are necessary to communicate with outsiders, since there are other more effective methods of collaborating on documents and communicating about tasks with colleagues.
  • This third is that these organizations provide employees with the tools that they need to work remotely in an effective manner. There is nothing as frustrating as not having a decent internet connection, monitor, webcam, earphones, microphone etc. when trying to work away from the office. While laptops are portable and convenient, they are not as comfortable as a proper workstation where everything is set up nicely. Furthermore, employees should not be the ones to bear these costs.

While technology has enabled miracles in how we are able to work remotely, this has not necessarily meant that organizations have been able to do this effectively. This achievement would require shifts in how organizations think about productivity and how leaders manage their teams.

I suspect that the organizations that have been able to make these shifts will continue to derive the benefits of operating virtually, be able to attract and retain talented staff from all over the country, and even the world, and develop an outcomes-orientated culture. In contrast, organizations that have been unable to do more than operate the technology, will likely want their staff back in the office as soon as lockdown permits so that they can go back to their industrial-era assembly line.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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