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Looking ahead: dispersed working, hopes and fears
Echo's Advisory Board assesses next steps across five key questions:
1. Many organizations will have to adapt significantly in order to survive and prosper. How best can leaders ensure some continuity amidst the change - and that they sustain levels of trust during a period of massive disruption?
Continuity is a key word – and it’s proving very difficult to provide when the disruptions persist, and uncertainty remains. Leaders need to be brave enough to take a long view, living up to their core purpose, while ensuring that progress is consistently tracked and reported on in short increments. Adaptability – done responsibly and consciously – is the name of the game. Taking time to pause and reflect about potential consequences and outcomes (rather than being tempted into instant responses because of a sense of urgency) will lead to better decisions that in turn will engender trust.
People can handle almost any disruption at work if they understand the ‘why’. Too often, the reason for change is just quickly stated, and the organization is asked to focus on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Always come back to the ‘why’ as a leader, and keep developing depth and nuance, as well as an appreciation of what is being accomplished.
Now more than ever organizations must stay true and authentic to their purpose and their contribution to the future of their stakeholders, and the broader society. Then as business strategies evolve, communicate the future direction in an honest, transparent, and timely way to all stakeholders, particularly employees.
Trust can be developed through honesty and transparency relating to uncertainty— leaders being willing to say they don't have the answers and prepared to explain uncertainty, its origins, and solutions to deal with it.
Clarity of communication and commitment to the core values of your organization will be more important than ever over the next few months. Customers and employees will forgive honest mistakes; they will punish duplicity or hypocrisy. When making changes, leaders should try explicitly to root these in the reasons why their organization exists and what it seeks to achieve.
This puts a lot of pressure for leaders to be even more visible to their staff/teams, making virtual internal communication even more important than ever. Staff don’t want to learn about things first from twitter or the media.
2. Organizations have become used to dispersed working, with many staff on furlough. How can leaders create a stronger sense of identity, collaboration, and purpose in this context?
Dispersed working is going to be an accepted and encouraged way of working into the foreseeable future. Identity will be developed through expression of strong values, sense of purpose for the dispersed organization. These will have to be carefully communicated and reinforced through the more infrequent opportunities for face-to-face meetings
Given the changing nature of the advice re the pandemic and the differences across regions let alone between countries, staff are key. Dialogue, openness, regular communication, asking for views and opinions, consulting appropriately, and using all channels is critical. Leaders must lead and be authentic in these tough times.
Visibility matters more than ever within your organization when staff are dispersed or not even working. Catch-up sessions, with lots of interaction will pay dividends. Challenge staff and empower them to take initiatives that bring people together. And make sure that you never ask something of them that you aren't prepared to do yourself.
Stay connected in multiple ways (not just via video). Be accessible. Be open. Listen. Be flexible. Show vulnerability and humility – it’s OK not to have all the answers. Seek meaningful feedback – not just about outputs, productivity, and targets but about mindsets, behaviors, and feelings. Seek a better understanding of what type of environments and stimuli people need to be safe, effective, and fulfilled. Those WFH share a growing concern over the reduction in levels of energy, creativity, and innovation, along with a growing frustration by those who take their energy from others. Leaders are letting people choose what will work best for them, from online collaborative tools such as Miro to ‘COVID-secure’ in-person brainstorming sessions.
An organizational home is not a place, it is the sum of my experiences and my relationships in the company - and how I see my role in helping to achieve the strategy. Leaders must foster a conversation (mostly digital today) that nurtures our bonds and leaves us certain that our efforts matter. Not just likeable and shareable messaging, but a mix of broad internal communication and targeted dialogues - a digital MBWA (Managing by Walking About).
At the outset of the COVID pandemic, smart organizations focused on their internal audience first. However, as time has gone on, many have shifted to concentrate on external stakeholders. They neglect their employee base at their peril. With a disaggregated workforce, maintaining an empathetic personal connection at every level is more important than ever. Where the organization has a strong sense of purpose and lived values there’s a valuable foundation from which to meet the evolving challenges.
3. Many issues that firms are facing are contested politically – looming elections in the US, Brexit in the UK, the impact of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and the response to COVID-19. How do organizations manage their reputation most positively in this context? Should Business leaders in this highly charged and social media age be more opinionated?
For me, this links back to the ‘why’ of an organization. If that purpose is clearly articulated, expressed, and ‘lived’, then leaders should know how to act and what to express. How can companies make bold statements on a website about ‘our commitment to diversity and inclusion’, or ‘people are our greatest asset’ when their leaders remain silent, don’t have an opinion, or aren’t ready to stand up for what’s right or what needs to change? In these turbulent times, employees will respect leaders who have, and show, a clear moral compass and who are ready have courageous conversations.
Business leaders should express their thoughts about key issues in a way that shows their views on how a fair society should address these challenges. If relevant, they should link their statements to how failing to address imbalances and injustices might impact the business environment, and how the company should live its role in society.
In this new world, organizations are expected to have a point of view on social issues. That expectation is greater than ever. Having a planned, strategic approach is critical. What you will talk about and what won’t you? How does it connect to the business? Does the point of view match the organization’s values? Acknowledge that employees and customers will have a range of opinions and may not always agree but the organization must be true to its values.
A huge challenge, at a time when governments are moving away from adherence to long-established principles, such as the rule of law and the principle that international agreements, once made, should be honored. Organizations will sustain their reputations by holding to principles and business leaders should, now, be prepared more than ever to speak in defense of their principles.
Leaders should accept that their employees and customers have strong opinions on many of these issues and feel the impact on their lives. Make sure you understand these feelings. Support employees and ask them about their experiences. Test whether your organization's behavior, products, and services disadvantage anyone. Publish the results - more than you are legally required to do - and speak out when you have evidence, clear actions, and know your subject. There's no need to preach. Calm, clear, thoughtful leadership from business is what people are looking for.
Business leaders need to ensure that on important matters – such as these - they are prepared to make their views known both internally and externally. There is a need to help Government to understand business issues, working with your trade association, business organization to make the voice of business heard.
4. On the basis that what gets measured gets done, what KPIs should boards and leaders focus on ahead?
What do our customers think of us? Do our employees think we are moving in the right direction?
Engagement levels with all stakeholders, down to an individual level.
A former CEO I worked with used to insist on ‘approximately useful’, rather than ‘precisely irrelevant’. This seems like a sensible maxim for today and one against which boards and leaders can re-assess their existing measures, KPIs, risk registers etc. and focus on the ones that REALLY matter. Which are the ‘make or break’ ones in both the short term and the long term (likely to include financial stability, capital allocation for long-term value creation, people and mental health wellbeing - including of top management – let’s not forget the pressure they are under), stakeholder engagement and loyalty, patterns in customer behavior etc.). What new ones may be needed because of the current environment? Perhaps to improve/accelerate decision-making, ensure operational redundancy needs, assess cyber security/IT capabilities etc.? Think resilience, resourcefulness, and pragmatism.
In many sectors, the cost of delays in project delivery caused by societal friction is increasingly important - paired with advanced stakeholder interaction monitoring. Local community groups impacted by a project might successfully align themselves with a key NGO - but is the organization able to spot and counter such moves early? Broad context analysis based around key indicators - some can be found in complaint resolution systems; others will fall out of social media research or be seen in the intensity of government intervention. Getting a big picture view early and regularly is key.
The ideas - that what gets measured gets done, and that performance can be judged in terms of KPIs - can be questioned considering recent developments. Much in organization life cannot be easily measured - for example, current concerns under present working conditions are for levels of anxiety, stress and general wellbeing, but exactly what, that can be measured, can reduce levels of anxiety and stress, and improve feelings of wellbeing? KPIs focus on performance, but exactly what should be focused on to judge performance - commitment, productivity, organization performance and success over the longer periods? Interesting to read on this is https://hbr.org/2020/06/are-our-management-theories-outdated
Important that there is a shared sense of KPIs at senior level which is then clear both to the organization and stakeholders. Leaders have shown in many cases that pay/reward of leadership takes second place to supporting staff and seeking to keep as many jobs as possible. Given all businesses will be affected by the pandemic targets set in 2019/early 2020 will need revision and probably constant revision. However, leaders should recognize that the purpose of the business is where reputation will be judged today and tomorrow.
5. What is your greatest hope and fear for the future?
My hope: Past norms and the status quo have already been massively challenged and we have seen amazing demonstrations of response and resilience. I hope that the experiences and lessons learned are an urgent catalyst for positive, courageous, disruptive, and integrated thinking and action around huge societal issues such as climate, inequality, privilege, health, and social care. Greatest fear - the opposite: leading to populism, intolerance, a surveillance state, growing social apathy, inequality and growing divides and tensions.
Greatest hope - that politicians return to making policy rather than live the adage that ‘politics is show business for ugly people’. So that companies can act with greater certainty and address key issues - climate, energy use, water use, resource stewardship, sustainable living, good treatment of and manifest respect for people - in a fair operating context. My fear? We will get to a point where COVID is ‘behind us’ but, because of inaction or inappropriate action, these other issues may well have increased in scale to the detriment of us all.
Hope that we come to our senses, to begin to deal with the real problems - immediately, a world-wide public health problem, shortly, the pressing consequences of climate change, unsatisfactory models for economic life, social inequalities- we face. Fear? That we don't.
Hope would be that many of the changes in many sectors not least how people work - greater flexibility, greater home working, changing the delivery model - are positive and business and political leaders need to embrace. The fear would be that it isn’t the early but that latter part of next year that a vaccine is available and by that point the economic hit has further entrenched inequality.
Hope that the pandemic, following the financial crisis, will encourage and enable us to develop better companies, a more equal and responsible capitalism, and a stronger sense of common purpose across the world. Greatest fear - that the forces of protectionism, fear, nationalism, and big-power rivalries will prevent this from happening, and drag us in a negative direction.
Fear – The current resurgence of global and national irrational, toxic division and polarization will accelerate, threatening the long-term prospects for peace and prosperity. Hope – The world solves the current pandemic crisis by the end of 2021.