Avoiding the Pitfalls of Virtual Organizations
Updated: Mar 17
We're in the midst of adopting a new reality. One that has been solidified through navigating the year 2020. Although there is much uncertainty around what 2021 will bring, what is certain is that remote and hybrid workplaces are here to stay. As organizations make critical decisions around the type of accommodations they're willing to offer their employees, a hybrid (or distributed) work environment is the preferred favorite of 80% of employees surveyed by Owl Labs [i.] The question leaders need to ask themselves now is: How can we make this way of working sustainable? By understanding the major pitfalls to avoid while generating sustainable virtual operations, you'll be able to equip your workforce with the tools necessary to avoid the expensive consequences of neglect while keeping your employees engaged.
Organizations that have been founded on and have grown their employee base with in-person operations for their entire existence may need to reevaluate their core values. Like all strategic initiatives, these changes must start with evaluating your current core processes. As employees continue showing higher rates of productivity and an affinity for their new work environments, they're hoping employers will keep this arrangement. Forced migration back to the office because of lack of knowledge or resources on how to adapt could lead to losing 50% of your current workforce [i.] This is why keeping your subject matter experts (SMEs) and employees engaged through quality feedback is critical during this stage and can only happen through modifying your current collaboration channels to be structurally fit for hybrid and remote employees.
After your organization makes the determination to sustain hybrid and remote operations, do not assume that your staff's virtual literacy is proficient enough to adjust to working more independently in these environments. The dynamics of individual availability will change, and those that have been more dependent on the skills of a co-worker seated close by will no longer have that omnipotent luxury. Awareness of how to use virtual collaboration tools and applications are the cornerstone to maintaining professional and casual relationships with co-workers, regardless of location. With the combination of Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and now even Generation Z all working together within organizations, noticing variations in virtual literacy skills is unavoidable. Most of these applications have some amazing features that make working remotely in a team just as productive (if not more) than in-person collaboration. If employees aren't aware of what the application's capabilities are or feel uncomfortable using them, then they will not be utilized in the way they're expected to be.
For organizations that aren't able to hire on-demand resources to fill the L&D needs of their staff, utilizing the organizational support of co-workers to assist in understanding the functionality of technical collaboration applications is the beginning to bolstering more effective communication, which is a leading factor in workforce engagement. This is also true for increasing the quality of interpersonal interactions. A different way of working requires different social skillsets, centered around quality, rather than just frequency, of a conversation with a co-worker. Understanding more about the person's preferences for social situations, like if they prefer small-group to large-group interactions, structured conversations vs. the free-for-all happy hours, will give you the best insight on how to grow those relationships.
As your organization's process management systems begin to evolve, priorities around performance management and expectations must evolve as well. Your organization is now on the 'remote work spectrum', meaning that you will permanently have employees that are working from everywhere, relying on one another to get things done. Leaving employees in the dark around how their purpose is tied to an organization's shifting strategic initiatives will negatively impact their emotional wellness and work/life balance. To combat this, engage your employees by asking for feedback around what their performance expectations are while working hybrid or remotely and what benefits or modifications to current policies they require in order to remain successful in their environments. Use this information as a baseline for creating a plan with your management and team leads around what should be expected in terms of frequency, consistency and quality from project deliverables. This will also give your management teams a better idea of what their talent acquisition strategy and pool should look like for a better cultural fit.
After clarifying employee responsibilities and expectations, you'll also need to establish what professional development looks like for both hybrid and remote employees. Physical presence in the office will no longer offer those casual observations and conversations that get employees “noticed” by the manager. Inadvertently, this can lead to increased siloed operations for hybrid or remote employees because they believe they’re the 'out-group'. To prevent this, increase the amount of informal and intentional conversations with your staff around their performance. Note that this is different from a formal performance review or monthly one-on-one. For example, holding a consistent "office hour" daily at a time that you know most employees will be available will give everyone an opportunity to have some time to talk with you. If only a few employees scheduled time to talk, use the rest of the time for outreach to check in with all members of your virtual staff around how they've been doing lately, opening the door to further discussions about their expectations if any confusion remains.
While more organizations continue to adopt permanent hybrid and remote work models, how we measure employee engagement will evolve as well, directly impacting an organization's ability to retain talented employees and loyal clientele. To combat unwanted attrition rates successfully, it becomes even more essential that leaders develop a deep understanding of how workplace location, organizational support, processes and procedures, work/life balance, emotional wellness, and inclusion in professional development impacts virtual transition efficacy. By ensuring that your employees feel that they are part of these changes, and not afterthoughts of it, will lead to having a happier, healthier, more sustainable and profitable, organizational future.
i. Owl Labs (2020). “State of Remote Work, 2020”. Available at: https://www.owllabs.com/state-of-remote-work/2020