In 1871, the Great Fire of Chicago destroyed 18,000 buildings and left a third of the city’s population of more than 300,000 homeless. The prominent use of wood in buildings, sidewalks, and streets, along with a stretch of very dry weather, set the conditions for a simple lantern fire to change the course of a city and the many lives within it. The impact of this great tragedy can be seen in the current architecture of the city, as steel, stone and terra cotta buildings began to replace more flammable wooden structures. A less visible impact was the major restructuring of the city’s fire department and its operations after a second fire ravaged the city in 1874. This critical public service was woefully under-resourced and required a massive overhaul in how it operated and what equipment it used to fight fires. The structure of the department, organizational processes, required skills, and other key organizational elements had to be systematically assessed and adjusted to drive improvement.
Almost 150 years later, many organizations are facing a similar need to reassess and adjust business operations amid crisis. The immediate and wide-scale impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is changing how work is done and what it will take to compete in the future. Thrust into this crisis-driven change, organizations have quickly adapted where associates work and how they communicate with each other to get things done. Without much time to plan, companies have essentially been in fire-fighting mode, making the best with the tools and work processes currently in place.
But what does the next step beyond crisis-mode look like – and how do organizations adjust for the long haul? In a recent LinkedIn post, Jellyvision CEO Amanda Lannert articulated some of the implications of working remotely and requested support from colleagues to discuss mitigation strategies. This is not only a good example of leveraging the collective knowledge of a virtual professional network, but also illustrates the very real challenges organizations face in making significant modifications to how they will operate going forward.
As with any significant change to an organizational ecosystem, alignment is key. Often, a change in strategy to meet market demands causes leadership to evaluate their current operating model, organizational structure, and related processes. A crisis-driven change should trigger a similar reaction – an evaluation of where and how works gets done, potentially resulting in adjustments to impacted organizational systems (e.g., structure, work processes, people and rewards, information and metrics, leadership and culture).
Below are a few tips to consider when assessing the impact of leveraging a remote workforce as a long-term strategy for business operations.
Impacts to Work Processes
Avoid the trap of assuming work processes will essentially remain the same – that they’ll just be done remotely rather than face-to-face. A simple illustration of this is stepping up to a whiteboard with a colleague or team and co-creating a solution to an organizational challenge. The expediency of these opportunities may have previously been taken for granted. How does this work happen in a remote work environment? Does something that happened organically now have to be scheduled? What collaboration tools are needed for ideation as opposed to project management? Does this impact the amount of time needed to get to a solution?
When evaluating the impact of migrating onsite work processes to a remote setting, consider what work can be completed individually as opposed to when collaboration is needed. Explicitly define how work will be completed, make adjustments to work processes, and define what tools and technologies are needed to support different types of remote work. Avoid force-fitting legacy work processes into a remote work environment.
Impact to Linkages
Your organizational structure may not be significantly changed by having a more remote workforce, but how different parts of the organization interact to get things done will very likely be impacted. Consider where the risks of dropped handoffs are most likely to occur and reaffirm or redefine how these interactions will happen. The reality is that your part of the organization is likely not the only one changing where and how work gets done. Organizational linkages help businesses mitigate risks of any given organizational design. Identifying how this aspect of organization alignment is impacted and making adjustments will be critical for success.
Impacts to Employees and Culture
After the 1874 Chicago fire, tugboats were outfitted with fire-fighting equipment to patrol the river, and night watchmen were hired to monitor the city for fires. The changes went further than just adding resources, however, with the entire department being reorganized into battalions with a military-style leadership structure designed to improve discipline, training and service.
The same kind of thinking about required cultural changes is necessary when facing today’s crisis. Remote work has a direct impact on the skills needed to complete tasks, how performance is managed, the connectivity of associates, and the overall value proposition an organization presents to its employees. Admittedly, this isn’t an exhaustive list of people and culture impacts, but it does illustrate a few areas where intentional and explicit choices need to be made beyond how work will get done and what supporting technologies are needed. Daily standups, for example, may have been a way to informally check team and individual progress. Is this an effective way to manage performance when teams are remote? What is the right balance between oversight and autonomy when interactions between leaders and team members need to be scheduled rather than happening more organically in a face-to-face working environment? As with many choices, this will vary considerably among organizations. Too often we underestimate the skills needed to execute tasks and lead teams when a significant change occurs. We also tend to overlook the impact to those factors that influence whether someone stays or chooses to leave our organization. The critical point is to evaluate these impacts as primary factors, and not as afterthoughts.
Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic will have lasting effects on how many organizations operate in the future – just as the Great Fire of Chicago influenced the way fire departments operate today. As we state in our book, Mastering the Cube, “Alignment is key” – a statement that has never been more true as organizations adjust to effectively compete in this new working environment.