We live in a world that is increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). In 2020, these factors became more pronounced when the COVID-19 pandemic directly compelled leaders from across all industries to pivot to an entirely virtual workplace, essentially overnight. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders have been faced with the challenges of:
- Leading an increasingly geographically distributed team working in various types of workspaces.
- Embracing new policies, practices, and technologies.
- Adopting the mindsets and behaviors required to be more of a “work-from-anywhere” work culture.
- Establishing and building a network of early adopters, empowered and equipped to continually assess the ‘health’ of the workplace and champion improvements along the way.
- Ensuring HR leaders and managers can model desired behaviors and enable the workforce to adapt to these new ways of working.
In speaking with leaders from many types of organizations over the past few months, we’ve heard their overwhelming exhaustion by this combination of challenges. However, leaders are equally surprised and delighted about the changes brought about by 2020. They are pleased with how positive the transition has been and how agile, resilient, and productive their teams have behaved, despite the challenges that come with this disruption. And those who made significant shifts with a purely temporary, crisis-driven philosophy in mind have slowly started to make necessary, more longer-term changes.
As COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket across the U.S. and parts of Europe, the reality has set in that these new ways of working are not changing back to the way they used to be any time soon. In fact, most organizations have decided not to require non-essential workers to come back into the office until the summer or even the fall of 2021. What’s more, the most progressive organizations have accepted the wisdom of Albert Einstein, who said “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” Those organizations are seizing this moment to shift to a more virtual ‘workplace’ over the long-term in an effort to drive efficiency, productivity, employee engagement, agility, and, ultimately, the long-term sustainability of their workplace(s).
As a boutique women-owned consulting firm focused on helping leaders enable their teams to adopt and advocate for change, we believe all companies should leverage this time as an opportunity to make a more permanent shift to an increasingly virtual workplace.
There are four things every C-suite executive must do to jump-start this process:
- Identify your current vs. desired level of ‘virtual’ workforce.
On a scale of one to 10 (one being 100% in-person, 10 being 100% virtual), how ‘virtual’ was the structure of the workforce pre-COVID? What is the desired level of ‘virtual’ team post-COVID? Note, many companies are anticipating a shift from approximately 10% ‘virtual’ to upwards of 50% or even 80% ‘virtual’ at some point in 2021.
- Clarify the tangible vision for the desired state.
Once there’s alignment around the desired level of virtual work, leaders must clarify a more tangible vision for what it will look like in practice, beginning with details about which roles and teams will be expected to work where and when. Be clear and decisive about which employees will be expected to work from home or in the office, and how frequently. Base these decisions on a defined set of work-related criteria that are applied consistently to all people. To support this balance, make sure there are plans in place to evolve the company culture into one that is increasingly driven by outcomes (vs. activity), proactivity (vs. passivity), community (vs. individualism), experimentation (vs. perfection), work-life blend (vs. separation of work and life), and diversity, equity. and inclusion (vs. old norms and conscious or unconscious bias). Finally, create a specific blueprint to outline the changes and enhancements regarding mindsets and behaviors, workplace policies and practices, enabling tools and technology, and workspaces (both on- and off-property).
- Assess readiness to adopt that desired state and activate the change.
After creating a blueprint for the desired future state, map out various stakeholder groups, assess their readiness to adopt the desired future state, and create a change plan. Stakeholder groups should be mapped from the CEO to the most junior-level employees, including senior leaders, middle management, supervisors, and all employees. Take the time to understand their levels of openness, comfort, or dissatisfaction with the current state, and readiness to embrace a new way forward. Understand what’s needed to help stakeholders adopt the mindsets and behaviors, policies and practices, and tools and technology of the future; and to help them thrive in re-defined workspaces. These insights will inform a meaningful change plan that unlocks widespread understanding of the desired state, empowers leaders to drive change from every level in the organization, equips employees with the skills and abilities required to thrive in a more permanent ‘virtual’ workplace, and engages all stakeholders in a two-way dialogue to maintain trust and connection along the way.
- Integrate these new ways of working into business-as-usual, and measure your progress.
If a thriving, more virtual workforce is going to really ‘stick,’ organizations need to hire and onboard people who can thrive in ‘virtual.’ Companies must also build the capability to coach and develop, manage, reward and grow people with the mindsets and behaviors required for the desired state. Set up business operations to maintain and evolve this type of workforce, and establish metrics to closely monitor progress.
Although the process of shifting permanently to a more virtual workforce may feel easy for some and daunting to others, these steps are critical for anyone wanting to minimize disruption and ensure sustainability over the long-term.
Written by Christine Andrukonis.
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