How remote work and home office affect management and leadership.

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:

  1. Accountability for equipping people with the necessary skills and ability for virtual collaboration.
  2. Accountability for implementing social norms and interpersonal behaviour in a virtualised workplace.
  3. 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

Home office. That’s not what we had in mind.

What you learn when the desire for freedom suddenly becomes a reality.

An essay from May 2020.

Comment: I’ve been invited by AvePoint Germany to write this essay and host a little webinar. The essay was originally published in German on the AvePoint Website and the sign-up for the Webinar (July 8th 2020) can be reached here. Illustrations provided and Copyright 2020 by AvePoint.

In recent years, the digitalisation of information work has led to much discussion about change and the “new work” model. With more flexibility, concepts such as open office space without individual offices (Open Office Space) and the disappearance of fixed seating (Shared Desk Models) have established themselves. Mobility and the (theoretical) independence from physical presence at the workplace have made the call for home office and work-life balance ever louder. The ever-increasing quality of virtual collaboration was quickly introduced as an opportunity to reduce travel costs. In the recent past, the struggle for a reduced carbon footprint has been added on top.

Quietly, the expected performance and the sheer volume of tasks have skyrocketed for many people in “information worker” roles. Answers and contributions were no longer a question of days or hours, but of minutes and seconds – whether working hours, weekends or holidays. Nobody ever explicitly asked for this, but high performers just go the “extra mile”.

Effectiveness, knowledge networking and seamless collaboration across time zones and continents were the consultants’ promises to executives and top management. The physical office and the need for personal presence became more and more the epitome of “old thinking” and the “old economy”.

Then came the global pandemic in February 2020: COVID-19.

Within days, the constant desire of many employees to work from home and to spend less time for commute and business travel became a new reality. Offices were empty, and the virtual meeting rooms were packed back to back. The option of spending more time at home became an inevitable permanent state.

What seemed utterly impossible for business and IT managers had been turned into a global pilot by a virus – without a test phase, without training. The business case was simple: survival. Operational roles that previously seemed impossible without presence and meetings that would not deliver the desired results without the journey of 20 people halfway around the globe were successfully made from the kitchen table. Driving people without good reason out of the safety of their own home was quickly greeted with head-shaking through all levels. 

Gathering the insights of two years in two months.

This turbo-digitisation has resulted in an almost global test field for the complete virtualisation of knowledge and information work. Not in the laboratory, but in real work scenarios, we were allowed to experience how desire and reality would stand side by side.

Learning 1: Perhaps we meant something else with freedom.

It didn’t take long for the idea of working close to the family to be caught up with reality. In theory, wanting to be free to organise one’s time often ignores an essential factor: the others – and not just colleagues. Many quickly wished for a touch less time with children or partner and more “face time” with colleagues. Who would have thought that?

Being able to work more from home and not having to spend all your time in offices or conference rooms has one factor that is often underestimated: the infrastructure – and not just a stable WiFi. Workspace, chair, table, break room and “space for coffee-kitchen chats” are factors that influence a working day and sometimes also give it structure. Suddenly the office no longer seemed so “old economy”.

The physical working environment has become something that people suddenly long for. Perhaps even as much as the previously glorified freedom of “working anywhere, anytime”. I’m sure that in the future it will be more the desire for balance and not the complete discarding of the so demonised work and office shackles.

Learning 2: IT is genuinely only the means to an end.

The fact that modern, digital work equipment is only as effective as the people who use it does not need to be discussed in detail at this point. However, the compact and seamless era of almost complete virtualisation of communication and collaboration has once again highlighted two essential aspects: The use of digital tools requires a clear, shared understanding of “which tool we use for which task”. After all, without this agreement, things will quickly become more complicated than they were before. After all, the complexity of the joint tasks does not change but becomes higher since direct interaction is lost. Information no longer flows well, communication seems bumpy, expectations of each other and sometimes of oneself are not met. None of this helps to build trust in the new digital tools and virtual teams.

This explicit agreement becomes particularly relevant if there is no general concept, guideline or recommendation beforehand. The more people are left to their own devices in virtual collaboration, the more critical it becomes to consciously deal with the “Ways of Working” before starting to work together. The “how” becomes at least as necessary as the “what”.

In addition to the agreement on the use of the tools, there are rules for working together. This is because indirect communication and cooperation via tools such as MS Teams or Slack, as well as direct exchange in many and sometimes long virtual meetings, needs a clear framework.

Preparation and follow-up work takes on a whole new meaning. The way to present, to be interrupted or to prepare contents must adapt to the new circumstances. Otherwise, humanity and empathy are the first building blocks of social togetherness, which will get lost in the new set-up. Because the informal exchange during breaks – “feeling” the others – does not take place if every break is also a break from the screen.

The fact that human (i.e. visual) interaction with colleagues is limited to virtual space can quickly become a psychological and emotional burden. Not only because the direct feedback, for example via facial expressions and gestures, is lost. Sitting in video conferences from morning to night has quickly led to massive media fatigue. The tendency towards shorter meetings was compensated for by the sheer number. More than one person shared with me that at the end of the working day, there was simply no energy left for a digital exchange with family and friends.

This experience will undoubtedly give a new direction to the desire for “more time from home working”.

Learning 3: People deserve more trust

Let us not delude ourselves: the following certainly does not apply to the whole. But it applies to considerably more people than middle management, in particular, could have dreamed of.

Presence does not equal productivity. This was the main argument of those people who demanded more flexibility and working hours outside the office. For too many managers, however, the belief in real contribution and seriousness from remote workplaces was not given.

The COVID-19 situation has temporarily turned this desire of the employees into the norm. The result was remarkable: projects continued. Customer service teams were available. Customers were served. Strategies and plans were developed. Without business trips, commuting and endless meetings.

In addition to this vote of confidence, there was another factor for mutual success in this situation: When it counts, people help each other.

The use of digital tools for communication and collaboration was no longer optional with the overnight switch to the home office. Everyone had to participate, no matter how much experience they had or how comfortable they felt with it. This led to an unprecedented level of understanding and patience among colleagues. Video conferencing bingo (“I think you’re on mute…”) quickly became one of the most widespread memes on the Internet. If you take a close look at this bingo, it is symbolic of the shared experiences and hurdles that had to be overcome on the lightning journey into “new work”.

Without extensive training and day-long introductions, people have come together in the new, digital world. It happened to such an extent that at least for once the wheels did not stop to a standstill. Sometimes the impression was created that the motivation was there to prove how well it all works.

Learning 4: Leadership is also care

Thanks to Simon Sinek, the last few years were shaped by the “Purpose” theme, the “why are we doing this”? This new meta-level of leadership was certainly the icing on the cake in the sermons on new management in the role of “coaches” and “guides” for employees and teams. 

In light of the Corona crisis, this discussion has receded into the background. The focus has shifted to cooperation and collaboration. However, managers who had previously failed in conveying the shared purpose is in for a rough ride with a 100% virtual organisation.Making it clear to people that they have to pay even more attention to others as part of their own work is the task of managers. Consideration for the level of experience and well-being with digital tools of the people at the other end of the line is essential. 

It is important not to suddenly lose parts of the organisation. The quality and above all, the clarity of indirect communication is also a new requirement. If a quick clarifying question also slips into virtual space, a communication overkill will develop quickly. So the question “Does the other person understand what I mean right away?” becomes a vital part of one’s own work. Jamming everyone’s calendars with video and telephone conferences without breaks must be prevented in the same way. Home office or any remote work does is not feasible in 10-hour live broadcast.

Rest periods, “being offline” and sharing without video is something managers need to pay more attention to. The natural environment for balance and recovery has been lost in the new digital world. Managers urgently need to promote awareness of the need for a break and rest time.

I find it charming, though, that playing children, life partners bringing coffee and sword fights in the background of video conferences have become a tolerated aspect. I wish we could maintain this new “professional ease” in dealing with each other beyond this time.

What comes next: tidy up, get everyone fully on-board, get in the new swing.

Slowly but surely normality returns to our working life. Offices fill up – albeit still with caution and distance. There is a little more life on the streets again. There are more planes in the sky.

Now it is time to process what we have learned and catch up on things that have fallen by the wayside at the necessary speed. Not only out of the danger of a new lockdown situation but also in terms of sustainability for more “virtualisation”, we must now lay a solid foundation.

We have to finally onboard the people who were forced to go along and have entirely lost sight of their comfort zone. Not everyone has felt at home in the digital world right away, and even now, many still feel like they are in a foreign place. It may have a bed, but it’s not your own. It is unsustainable to believe that everyone has been able to acquire the skills and behavioural patterns on an ad hoc basis that are needed in the long term for a more digitalised work model. 

Anyone who now invests in consolidating and stabilising the common, digital foundation is doing so based on a reliable and robust wealth of experience. This should happen before the practice becomes theory again – and at the end of the day, no one will really want to have another go to get this chance.

It’s not office OR home office. It’s the right balance. Like everywhere in life.

I am getting more and more confused by all the articles that predict the end of the physical offices. I agree that we have learned a lot from the COVID situation. But this learning is not exclusive to companies and managers. During the time of lockdown, I had the chance to talk to a lot of people in information and knowldge worker functions – including my wife. What became clear was that the reality of the extended remote work experience didn’t meet the expectation towards it.

I genuinely believe that the three main experiences will set the stage slightly differently for the future: 

  1. Social isolation and disconnectedness from colleagues
  2. The lack of work ergonomics and informal routines
  3. Virtual meeting fatigue combined with the discomfort of a lack of non-verbal feedback and communication

In July I will deliver a short essay and two webinars (one of them public, if you’re interested) about this. So I don’t want to dive into this much further… (suspense drum roll…}

BUT… It baffles me that even now a significant portion of authors and media outlets see only one or the other. So I couldn’t resist writing this short comment and deliver a few predicitions of my own:

My predictions for the phase after we have settled in the new normal

  • Leaders will have to deliver more groundwork in people empowerment and alignment than just singing the “purpose song.”
  • Asides urgency and purpose the concepts of social norms and behaviour for virtual teams will become essential new management content.
  • Everyone will have to act on the difference between physical and virtual workspace more consciously to make sure that both settings work out.
  • People will ask less for extended remote work and home office but will seek more balance between physical and virtual presence.

Virtual StorylineWorkshops: addressing the needs of a new business reality.

Workshop design and facilitation are paramount to my work as a business coach. The fact that I will not be allowed on-site at my clients for the foreseeable future made me re-think this building block of people empowerment. On miro.com, my tool of choice for creating a virtually endless workshop canvas, I am sharing with you:

  • The cogs behind planning and executing virtual workshops
  • The main differences to real-life workshops
  • The scenarios in which to use them

If you want to know more about Virtual StorylineWorkshops, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

My “Train your Designers” offering to equip your people with the skills to plan, design and conduct StorylineWorkshop stands. However, it now comes with a lot of tool training and onboarding as part of the package.

My Gamification Gold Nugget Slides from IntraNET Reloaded from Home 2020

As promised here’s my deck from today’s presentation. Thank you very much for being part of the virtual conference, see you in November and STAY SAFE ❤

Recording of my presentation

…and the slides to click through

Gamification Gold Nugget – Join me at Intranet Reloaded from Home 2020

This year’s class reunion will be all virtual – conferencing from home, so to say. Please join my session on Office 365 Onboarding with the help of Gamification (April 28, 11.10 CET).

I will be talking about the advantages of a gamified approach and share a concrete plan/scenario, which you can adopt/adapt and run – even in the current times.

Details on the slot on day 2 on the WE CONECT website here

Don’t miss out on this wake-up call for society

Due to the nature of my work, I spend a lot of time by myself preparing, thinking, creating. Never before have I felt less alone sitting by myself in my home office.

People who I primarily work with, reach out just to check-in on my health and well being – no other reason, just that. Unknown neighbours and people I have never talked to, smile at me and greet me on the street while I’m taking in fresh air during a walk.

The realisation that we’re humans

During an online meeting with one of my clients, he took a minute to take care of his little daughter. All she wanted was advice on the clothes she should wear, and to know if they’d go out on the bikes later. It took him just a couple of minutes to help her and be her dad – not the program manager on a business call. No harm done. No lack of professionalism. A simple, humane act in the middle of doing business.

Deutsche Telekom tweeted on their support channel @Telekom_hilft: we are still here for you, there might just be a meeow from the background of the home office.

This level of “being real people” is my vision for all of us in our work-life. I know that we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 15 years – but there is still so much more to gain.

Solidarity. Compassion. Togetherness.

These character traits aren’t just necessary to get through the current global crisis. They are what we need to improve our work life. The more we care for each other and the shared purpose, the fewer rules, regulations and control we need. Today’s situation shows which traits leaders really need to lead, and what managers need to look for in staff: humane and fair behaviour.

Currently, survival and protection of the weak are strong catalysts for behavioural change. We need to retain this feeling for when things begin to return to a sense of normality again – regardless of what “normal” may mean after this.

Looking out for each other and making sure that individual behaviour contributes to the bigger picture should become an integral part of behaviour in the business world, not just a mission statement. It should become something that determines whether people fit in, more than project performance or commercial success.

And maybe, just maybe, the reset that lies ahead of us will help us to overcome the purely commercial-driven business world and change our values. As businesses and as a society.

(Written amid the global Coronavirus crisis)

Two years. 170 people. Countless experiences.

I can hardly believe that is has been two years since I embarked on my freelance journey. One thing for sure: it has been the best decision in my business life so far.

A few weeks ago, four workshops for four clients happened to be scheduled in one ten-day row. In-between, only one and a half weekends gave me time to re-charge in my beloved mountains.

My 10 (and a bit) days included…

  • Half a day of alignment in a crisis (8 people)
  • Two days of “gamified” community empowerment (20 people)
  • Five days of facilitating between business and IT (30 people)
  • Three days of design thinking for a digital roadmap (15 people)

Even though I should have felt drained and exhausted, I felt rewarded and full of energy. Experiencing how people enjoyed the storylines I had prepared for them was simply unbeatable.

This experience made me look back on my two years as the “Digital Sherpa”. I realised that I have interacted with over 170 people of various functions and hierarchies. I have designed and facilitated over 30 workshops. I have helped to create and initiate four large digitalisation programs. My business network has introduced me to four entirely new clients. I was part of a meeting with a board executive, out of which only that executive left with a to-do-list and the statement “this is not how my meetings usually end“.

The most important thing of all: I had fun.

Don’t get me wrong…in particular if I have worked with you before the Digital Sherpa set off to climb his mountain. I have been privileged to be part of incredible initiatives. I have travelled the world probably 10 times, if not more. I have been treated more like a friend than as a consultant on many, many occasions.

Nevertheless, the last two years have been a unique journey.

Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

Mark Twain (Source: GoodReads.com)

So, I haven’t worked one single day in the past two years. I have found my true passion: help people feel comfortable and confident in times of uncertainty, change and challenge.

If you have been part of my journey, I want to thank you. If you haven’t been part of it yet, let’s give it a shot…

I’d love to share my passion with you and your people.

CampSherpa – Your People. Empowered.

I’ve toyed with the idea for quite a while: build impactful change and transformation teams with a combination of training and design thinking workshops. That’s why I am now launching CampSherpa. It’s the next evolution of my work with client teams and entirely focussed on the transformation from the inside.

The goal: Empowered change teams.

I genuinely believe that companies shouldn’t outsource their digital future. Even more so, the way towards that future must be designed and led by internal talent. CampSherpa is designed to activate that talent and equip it with the right knowledge and inspiration to lead the way.

The approach: Seeding purpose and thought leadership through creative collaboration.

A tailored Storyline Workshop design will provide the setting and framing for a training and coaching sequence. Guided by corporate and transformation objectives, the sessions will provide guidance and content to facilitate team and knowledge building.

My role: The Sherpa.

I will provide the framework, facilitate the preparation of the journey, help with the selection of the right participants and conduct the sessions as moderator and coach. I will lift the heavyweight along the way and make it easy for everyone involved to feel comfortable while being challenged.

Curious?

OR

There are no “generations” at the workplace – only people.

A TED talk I watched over lunchtime today inspired me to write this article. In the talk, Leah Georges talks about her take on how generational stereotypes hold us back at work.

I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of the page.

Assuming a “generational” divide is misleading.

When I started my journey in internal digitalisation, the field was heavily driven by the “the millennials are coming” theme. The fear of a new, digitally savvy generation at the workplace drove companies to introduce all sorts of modern technology tools.

Only occasionally, the workforce and future users were part of the process and asked for what they struggle with or where they believed to benefit from new digital support potentially. One fundamental assumption of all initiatives was the affinity of all young people to digital and in particular social tools.

This assumption has two main issues:

  • It creates the hypothesis that young people don’t need proper support when it comes to “digital at the workplace”.
  • It creates the impression that today’s talent, which is clearly older than 25, isn’t equipped to adapt or – god forbid – teach the use of modern digital tools.

Lack of purpose and change management

Frankly, if there is one generation, that will respond poorly to a lack of purpose and a proper framework to work in, it’s the digital generation. If there is one thing literature, trivia, TED.com and Simon Sinek teach us about the youngsters, then it’s the new emphasis on a sense in life as well as work life.

It’s not just the work-life-balance anymore that Generation X (= me) was/is striving for. Work has to have more purpose than just a monthly paycheck.

This need for purpose is particularly relevant in times of change, globalisation and internationalisation. The more geographically and culturally cluttered teams are, the stronger the common foundation needs to be.

Leaving out the mighty silver surfers

I can honestly say: I’ve met more mid-50s with great curiosity and will to learn than early-30s. If someone tells me that it’s the new generations that are solely driven by digital, I happily refer to my cousin (end 20s) who needs approx. two weeks to answer a WhatsApp text.

If we leave out the “older” generations in the change process, we don’t tap into two paramount pre-conditions for success:

  • Substantial knowledge on how business is happening in real life and the shop floor and what’s needed to unlock hidden potential #
  • A truly connected and experienced crew that knows their way around and can open doors we didn’t even know existed

So, let’s no longer base change and change management on generational stereotypes and assumptions. Let’s address the humans behind the age of birth and build a sustainable and robust feeling of belonging and “we”.

Enjoy Leah’s TED Talk, which inspired me to write this…

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