As a topic, the digital workplace is nothing new. For years organisations have been grappling with how to set up virtual teams — whether for regional expansion, flexible working to attract talent, or collaboration in a growing digital ecosystem. As employees isolate in homes across the globe to slow the spread of COVID-19, the implementation of remote working has been accelerated — beyond what almost anyone planned for.
Business is quickly coming to terms with the technology required, but beyond that is a larger question: how do we enable a holistic implementation of virtual working that balances the dimensions of the intellectual, emotional and physical? Our advice is by addressing people’s heads, hearts and hands.
We make decisions every day for ourselves and our teams, but with remote working — and without physical oversight — it can be hard to align them to achieve desired outcomes. The last thing a business wants is to stifle the autonomy and ownership that makes work rewarding for its people, but it is a difficult balance to strike at the best of times, let alone in periods of uncertainty when it is tempting to take back control. Giving teams a shared understanding of company direction will encourage them to work towards it, as will involving them in decision-making processes — which should be collaborative and inclusive of thinking and interaction styles.
‘Prioritisation’ in a corporate context usually brings to mind annual planning. Plans are typically set and forgotten until the process comes around again the following year. But what happens to those plans when things change unpredictably, and then keep on changing? To counter the confusion, prioritisation should be ongoing to allow course correction in evolving circumstances. Consistent and clear logic will enable teams to adapt quickly in day-to-day work and navigate collaboration with other teams. For leaders, it will lend clarity and efficiency to discussions around trade-offs. This is of paramount importance in a digital workplace because alignment is harder to achieve when teams and leaders are not necessarily co-located.
Water cooler chats, corridor conversations and impromptu interactions contribute to the invisible connective glue and culture we take for granted when co-located — and often forget to account for when working apart. These moments bring together diverse and tangential perspectives that lead to great ideas. Conversation doesn’t even necessarily have to be work-focused as procrastination has been shown to lead to creativity.1
Organisations focus on business continuity and individual wellbeing, but less frequently plan for cultural continuity. This goes beyond virtual drinks and music playlist and speaks to the bonds of social cohesion amongst team members. In high performing teams, these ties help employees support each other both emotionally and in their work; navigating stressful situations, promoting mental health and enhancing self esteem.2 Put appropriate thought into maintaining and reinforcing this culture so employees don’t lose their sense of belonging. And if supportive bonds didn’t exist strongly in teams before, a new work environment is an opportunity to establish them.
Trust is a key success factor in ensuring a digital workplace thrives. The digital world and screens can put up an extra physical barrier which leaders and teams need to actively address to build psychological safety and trust. When people are working remotely, there are many unknowns to make leaders uneasy: they can no longer see productivity without the visuals and sounds of ‘busy-ness’ to reassure them, and they cannot judge the reliability of employees through facial and behavioural cues. The move to virtual working requires a trust leap. It is crucial for maintaining the social fabric of the business and pursuing common goals, and it is essential in building relationships and loyalty. Leaders who imbue a sense of trust are more likely to be followed, and will empower their autonomous workforce. As the strongest links in motivation are autonomy, mastery and purpose, a trusting environment must be the foundation of the digital workplace.3
While COVID-19 may impact the economy through changes in employment, the necessary temporary cessation of industry, and unknown growth prospects, it will also take a toll on mental health.5 Depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact; the estimated cost to the global economy is US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity.6 And that’s in ‘normal’ times — during the current pandemic, isolation, stress from job insecurity and ‘always on’ work overload, could exacerbate this impact.7 The challenge will be in how businesses proactively promote mental wellbeing in remote/locked down environments.
The lack of fit-for-purpose collaboration tools is a common pain point impeding productivity. Good tools ease information sharing and give visibility to work, provide connectivity and quality interaction, and encourage inclusion through equal contribution access. And if you don’t provide them, people often find their own, exacerbating inefficiencies and security risks. One of the biggest considerations is knowing the right mix of tools and how they will work with existing technology architecture, network and cyber security. The essentials? A digital work backlog, virtual whiteboard, document suite (where people can work on documents at the same time), instant messaging, and video conferencing.
Gyms have closed and sporting equipment is selling out.8 While some people are craving their daily exercise, others are becoming sedentary. Working from home, there are generally less ‘incidental’ breaks such as chatting with passing colleagues or going to the kitchen (unless you are also homeschooling children!). The irony is that maintaining connection and social cohesion in the online environment means spending more time in meetings in front of a screen.
Not all employees will be set up to work from home successfully. Whilst sharing pictures of ‘innovative’ or rudimentary home office set-ups may be amusing at first, it is cause for concern. Your organisation has put a lot of time and effort into setting up physical office spaces to manage the risk of physical injury — are your people safe in their home office spaces? It is in the best interest of businesses and individuals to take care with occupational set-up.
The near overnight move to the digital workplace has been challenging to everyone affected — business and employees alike. But by being open to new ways of working and instituting tips that will encourage everyone to take care of their heads, hearts and hands, business can embrace a new kind of usual.
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