March 2020 | Point of View

The new reality of workplace culture

Today’s digital interactions will have long-term effects

The new reality of workplace culture

The sudden, mass move to widespread remote working is an unprecedented event that will create adaptive behaviors and force new norms. From comfort with video chat to collaborative project software, our current reality is supercharging what were before slow shifts. 

Now is the time to consider how to make your digital workplace function at its best, what aspects of your culture and operations need to adapt, how those adaptations will be implemented, and what changes may stay with us after the worst of the crisis passes. Good or bad, the habits and norms you create now will shape your organization and its culture for years to come.

It can be hard to grasp the realities of how different this is and will be. But with no choice but to proceed ahead, companies are going to have to make the best of it, and in doing so will engage in a massive, cumulative learning process that will set them up for further success if they anticipate and adapt to the lingering effects. 

Expanded remote work options are here to stay 

There is no longer a debate about how or if to allow remote working — due to overwhelming external events, we are now a nation of remote workers. Everyone is forced to use the tools. And everyone is forced to learn how to use them to the best possible advantage. But everyone can learn. Just ask grandparents who are video chatting through Zoom and FaceTime all over the country. 

Comfort with video chat and collaborative software will naturally skyrocket as this rapid adoption moves us past a cultural tipping point. Companies will make the existing tools work for them and their workforce, and in doing so will prove to themselves that a remote workforce actually works. 

This will carry into the future as companies open more remote work options to employees. In turn, it will give companies additional flexibility and better continuity. Commercial real-estate needs could look radically different in the future as corporations account for less desk space and the cultural implications of being on- or off-premise flatten. 

Companies that were leaders in building adaptive digital workplaces are already seeing significant benefits in employee satisfaction, retention, resilience, and productivity. Research from Global Workplace Analytics estimates each full-time remote worker saves a company between $20,000 and $37,000 per year. And those figures are on top of an additional $10,000 to $13,000 in bottom-line gains from reduced turnover, absenteeism, and real estate along with increases in productivity.

Intentional interaction and the future of meetings

So much of the in-person communication we typically do at work is non-verbal or by chance. It happens in the moments when you see someone in the elevator, walk by their desk, or pass them in the break room. Abruptly removed from this environment, how companies and employees move forward with everyday communication will define their success. 

We have seen a rush of new meetings requests as casual in-person desk chats turn into scheduled call time. It will become more important than ever to think about personal work-life boundaries and strategies for controlling your calendar. Days in a row filled with back-to-back calls rob us of focus time in a world that is growing more distracting. 

While watching out for out-of-control calendars, be aware of the extra steps communication now requires. Understand there is still a limitation with the video-conference tools so that even in IM, an individual's openness to chat is not clear. Initiating the message to talk can be a barrier to collaboration, but also might be an extra step that leads to more thoughtful work. Leaders and managers will need to build open lines of communication. 

Companies are quickly discovering that virtual working doesn’t mean just moving from physical to virtual meeting rooms. They are using digital workplace technologies like wikis, chat, and whiteboards to intentionally and collaboratively think through problems and make decisions asynchronously. This doesn’t just alleviate the meeting burden. Executives are finding that they can make decisions more quickly and push problem-solving and decision-making responsibilities down to the right levels of the organization. As this happens, the role of meetings will fundamentally change.

A radically different role for managers 

Managers and managing styles will need to change, sometimes radically, from the business-as-usual mindset. Managers will no longer be able to have impromptu chats and check-ins. They will need to be more intentional and thoughtful about how they organize their own thinking to interface with a managed team. Effective examples of intentional interaction could include hosting virtual office hours, scheduling smaller 15-minute scrum stand-ups, virtual happy hours or lunches, creating a Microsoft Teams channel to promote ongoing dialogue, and structured one on one check-ins.

Regular communication with direct reports will be essential to getting a steady, accurate pulse on the business challenges that will inevitably rise to the surface. The actual “people management” aspect of many senior executives’ jobs is one that is too often overlooked. This is a time when it’s never been more important to be a good manager. This is a time for more hands-on coaching, development, and relationship building. 

Long before the current pandemic, many companies were learning their managers are spending 35-40% of their time doing a combination of administrative tasks and other work that could be delegated to lower level employees. Once reclaimed, this time can be repurposed to running more productive operations, driving sales, improving customer experience, and cultivating loyalty. Companies that have done this have undeniable results as they:

  • Reduce operating costs by up to 15%
  • Improve customer experience by up to 5%
  • Drive top line sales by up to 2%

They do this by helping their managers be better managers. This shift is an opportunity for organizations to rethink how managers do the work of managing and see real benefit in the process.

Employee fulfillment and team dynamics 

The last few weeks of video conferencing from our homes have given us all a chance to see our colleagues as their most authentic selves — shushing a baby or trying to stop the cat from blocking the camera. Seeing our colleagues' kids, pets, home offices, silly Zoom backgrounds, and comfy clothes has enhanced feelings of employee engagement and fulfillment. And that sense of employee fulfillment is one that leaders need to prioritize and continue.   

The current situation and the future of remote work will make the distinction between “doing work” — or being “at work” — and “delivering value” more pronounced. How can company leaders help their employees to feel as fulfilled as possible while rewarding value and contribution?

Where culture and business case meet 

Company cultures will undoubtedly change because of this shift. Leaders have the opportunity to shape these changes intentionally; otherwise, they will happen organically with unpredictable results. Leaders will need to reexamine their fundamentals and ask themselves: 

  • What is our value proposition? 
  • What role does our culture play in our value chain? And how are we differentiating?
  • How does our culture enable our ability to differentiate and deliver on the value proposition? 

When they can answer those questions clearly, the important next step is to identify those critical aspects that need to be preserved and then take steps to embody them in a new way. 

Leaders should be looking for where the biggest leaks are in the business and what the solution scenarios look like in a remote world. Which departments are having the hardest time adjusting? Where are you struggling in sales? In customer service? Are project kickoffs getting stuck? 

This monumental shift is not a fad, but a fundamental paradigm shift that we’ve been observing over the course of years. It’s simply been accelerated by a global pandemic. You can certainly accept this as temporary crisis and put stopgap measures in place, or you can use this as an opportunity to fundamentally change your business for the better. That will require reflection, intentionality, and leadership. Leaders who step up to that challenge will find it to be rewarding and beneficial for both the employees and the business in the long-term. 


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