I am writing this new essay while the Covid-19 pandemic keeps changing the paradigms of work and social life. Companies like SIEMENS and Novartis (besides all the large digital players) publicly speak about their ambition to make home office and remote work the norm. Over a decade, I have helped similar companies in their internal digitalisation efforts. Because of what I have learned in that time, I feel the urge to share my thoughts on this development – my thoughts about leaders and managers taking action and accountability for hands-on change and for empowering people to successfully climb the steep learning curve of the new digital world of work.
Summary: Getting ready for the age of “New Work” means getting prepared for seriously re-inventing management.
In my recent article for AvePoint, I have discussed my impressions of the sudden move to an “all virtual” world of work. As part of this real-life experiment, Business and IT managers were able to learn, that the virtualisation of work teams is possible on a (very) large scale. Employees, on the other hand, realised that the new amount of freedom comes with unforeseen challenges. [Read my article here in German and English]
“Managers have to become coaches and guides in a more connected and collaborative world,”
has been one of the core mantras in the age of digitalisation. “Management by objectives” or concepts like OKR* were introduced to facilitate the move away from a task-based management style. However, the meta-system (= people’s presence at the workplace) hadn’t fundamentally changed. As a result, shortcomings in that managerial transformation didn’t lead to consequences on a larger scale.
The new now: the meta-system has changed!
People can, by free choice, significantly reduce their time in the office. Even after Covid-19, after all the bold statements, managers will not be able to limit that freedom anymore without damaging corporate and leadership authenticity. Therefore, leading virtual teams will no longer be the smaller portion of managerial work. It will become the norm. This norm will add three critical requirements for successful people and business managers:
- Accountability for equipping people with the necessary skills and ability for virtual collaboration.
- Accountability for implementing social norms and interpersonal behaviour in a virtualised workplace.
- Responsibility for aligning teams on the HOW to apply the digital means to achieve shared objectives.
1 and 2 are currently treated as HR topics, but HR can only have a supporting role in the process. The accountability has to lie within the business. 3 still is something in the job description of change-agents, power users and IT organisations. All three have to become part of the set of KPI, that are used to determine successful management.
From my experience, this is a fundamental revolution. In the context of the current developments, this revolution has to move to the top of the leadership agenda.
Accountability for equipping people with the necessary skills and ability for virtual collaboration
As long as regular, physical touchpoints were the norm, digital literacy and maturity were beneficial but not success critical to teams. If people now have the freedom to choose their workplace, connecting and collaborating in the virtual space will become the new normal. What managers need to take into considerations is:
In an artificial environment, nothing will come naturally to people.
Ramping up digital skills beyond the practical use of tools will be essential. To ensure a certain shared level of knowledge and digital proficiency will be a key, if not the critical success factor for team effectiveness. Leaving the ways of working to “agile” teamwork altogether will create confusion, insecurity and eventually discomfort – the guarantee to destroy motivation and commitment.
In this special time of enforced remote work and the immediate move to the virtual world, managers have to make sure that no one is left behind as well. Not everyone will be self-sufficient enough to find her or his way into the (scary complex) world of digital work tools. Managers are responsible for monitoring participation in and response to the new set-up, they need to develop a radar where active help is required to not leave people by the wayside.
On top of it all, the majority of digital tools isn’t static. That particular aspect needs to be taken into account regularly. What might be the ideal way of applying a set of tools today might change within less than a year.
If Alvin Toeffler is right with his prediction (and I am confident, he is), then the impact on skill management and professional development will be fundamental:
This professional development, however, cannot be delegated off to the HR teams. It must be the mandate of people, line and business managers. They have to be made accountable for the right level of digital maturity of everyone in the team.
Accountability for implementing social norms and interpersonal behaviour in a virtualised workplace
Let me emphasise three significant differences between sharing a physical workspace and collaborating in the virtual world:
- Lack of non-verbal feedback and communication (gestures, mimic, group dynamics, body posture)
- Lack of informal exchange and “coffee machine” discussions
- Increased stress caused by perceived expectations towards availability (24/7), turnaround times (yesterday) and attention (likes, answers, shares, etc.)
Digital fatigue was and still is one of the main symptoms of the newly virtualised world of work. The internet is full of articles on the topic. What really stood out for me, was the notion of “over self-awareness” due to the display of the own picture. It’s distracting and causes people to behave and move unnaturally – not in an “Instagram” way but because of this unnatural mirror trigger.
Managers are accountable for establishing social norms and behaviour to keep virtual teams “human”. I am fully aware that HR will play an essential support role in this aspect. Nevertheless, I am sure that the accountability for making sure that norms are sustainable must lie with people and team managers. We need new patterns in the virtual space, a new set of rules and ethical behaviour to make the new virtual world bearable for everyone:
- People need time away from meetings and cameras – days cannot be packed with virtual meetings back-to-back.
- If more meetings and workshops are virtualised, we need to deliberately create informal space outside the formal agenda.
- We need an increased consciousness on the sender side how a message will be perceived – and that someone else might not be in “ready to react immediately” mode, even if the status is “green”.
- We have to develop skills like active listening and check-in if the non-verbal communication gets lost in space.
Responsibility for aligning teams on the HOW to apply the digital means to achieve shared objectives
Knowing the tools is not enough. I firmly believe that effective teamwork in the virtual space requires an explicit alignment on the ways of working:
- For what part of the “job to be done”…
- … will we use which function/part of the tool…
- … in what kind of way…
- … to allow senders and recipients to be confident…
- … that everyone sees the same version of the step towards the shared objective.
In the beginning, it will be necessary to have this alignment before any substantial project or initiative. It will have to be explicit before it can become the routine and some common ground. I recommend establishing rituals on the way to changing routines. That way, people will consciously conduct something in a specific fashion and gradually get used to it.
Software companies have a particular way of looking at the new world of work. From my experience, that perspective is very much influenced by their vision and own angle on digital collaboration. Due to the nature of software businesses (agile, very digitalised, very driven) this perspective might have a (significant) gap to how industrial engineering, professional or financial service firms want or can apply the digital opportunities.
* OKR | Objectives. Key Results.
OKR seems to be “the thing” at the moment when it comes to strategy implementation and business steering. From my point of view, it is only a fancy acronym for something, which should have been implemented long ago: don’t measure people’s performance on their presence and the control of microtasks. Measure their performance based on significant results on the way to achieving clearly defined goals. These goals must be connected to a bigger picture and a clear strategy to ensure alignment of all contributors.
Title Photo by form PxHere