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Whether or not there will be a full return to work, increased remote working is looking inevitable.  With it will come a plethora of consequences and options that will and have already changed the way we work.  We know from disruptive organisations that have been working remotely for years that this will not simply result in new working protocols and practices.  What successful disruptive organisations that have been working remotely for many years tell us is that it will also change the hierarchy, organisational infrastructure and crucially culture and team dynamics of corporates permanently. 

Within a heartbeat, disruptive innovation, heralded as the most influential business idea of the 21st century has become the new normal. The speed and aptitude for corporates to adapt and change their operations has been impressive.  Many have proven their capacity to do this.   For example npower moved 75% of their workforce online in two and a half weeks, a project that would have normally taken 18 months.  Furthermore, many organisations including npower have, at least in some areas, increased productivity, attendance and customer satisfaction. 

At the same time, the energy and adrenaline involved in responding to a crisis can create a pink cloud reality which will need to be backed up with a sustainable response to what is going to be long term change.  For that to happen, corporates will need to keep their foot on the pedal of disruptive innovation and look at adopting the organisational change that will ensure profitability, customer satisfaction and continued employee engagement.

The task ahead: Responding to ultimate catalyst of disruptive innovation
Covid19 has possibly been the biggest catalyst of disruptive innovation in our working practices in the shortest period in the history of work.  As the return to work continues and the working from home experiment has been a proven success, new options for work are emerging and need to be considered.  Many want to continue working from home, some are frightened to return, others are frightened about not returning.  What is clear is that there will be increased home working and so engaging employees and customers will demand a willingness to learn and innovate. 

Disruptive innovations tend to be produced by outsiders and entrepreneurs in start-ups rather than existing market-leading companies. With the sudden levelling of the playing field, practices that would have been deemed as too risky or unprofitable have been adopted instantaneously and have mitigated risk as opposed to expose organisations to additional risk.  Widescale upheaval of business practices have been universally deemed the most risk averse way forward.

Some clear themes are beginning to emerge from disruptors and the corporates that have emulated them.  They challenge hierarchical infrastructures and require more trust being put in employees.  At the same time, organisations need to sustain performance and accountability.  For that to be successful requires an approach which incorporates an organisational-wide capacity to resolve conflicts or tensions and transform them into opportunities for creativity and change.  These include:

  • Emotional intelligence from the ground up
  • Building a culture of empowered entrepreneurialism
  • Collaboration above competition
  • Harnessing technology
  • Becoming more human

Emotional Intelligence from the ground up
Lockdown has undoubtedly had a visceral effect on employees and the return to work can be equally as traumatic for some.  Bubbling in the background are the tensions of potential future job loss coupled with the weight of significant trauma experienced during the pandemic (grief, marriage breakdown).  Added to the mix is the increase of low-level anxiety and fear across society.

On the other hand the pressure for organisations and their people to deliver results and ensure team cohesion is acute.  This will often require high levels of creative thought to pivot and take advantage of new opportunities.  Fear and anxiety left unchecked are the antidote to creativity.  Consequently, organisations and their employees will need to build their capacity for emotional intelligence and resilience in order to rebuild.  Mental health will need to be taken more seriously than ever to ensure, for example, that home working doesn’t descend into isolation and depression. More importantly it will become an opportunity for innovation.  In practice, this will mean that employers will need to build capacity for their employees to have the following:

  • Self awareness: our ability to understand our propensities, recognise the emotions we are feeling and manage or moderate our behaviour accordingly
  • Social awareness: our ability to recognise emotions or thoughts and empathise with others
  • Self management: our ability to recognise our emotional state and ensure positive or constructive behavioural responses

The truth is that no company will suddenly make their employees emotionally intelligent, it is a long journey.  Rather, it can become an aspiration and a value that enables employees to grow into.  A move towards vulnerability as a strength.

Building a culture of empowered entrepreneurialism
Increased remote working requires employers and employees to grapple with various moving parts.  These include employers feeling able to trust employees to self-motivate, self-regulate, engage and, at the same time, tow the line.  They raise new questions of what “the line” is and how new standards and norms will be communicated.  Can an employer really believe that their employees will suddenly become more empowered, more self sufficient and, frankly, work the hours they are paid for?  Can the hours we work become of true secondary importance to the results we deliver? 

What we start to see when asking these questions is a move to treating employees as consultants.  In the consultant relationship, the consultant may be contracted to work a number of hours but is essentially judged on the results they deliver.  Effectively the employer/employee relationship becomes more of a business provider / client relationship.  The results are interesting. 

Following on with the npower example, attendance at their call centres, a sector where attendance is notoriously low across the board, increased over lockdown.  These employees who knew they will in any event lose their jobs in the takeover by EON next year, chose to turn up.  Much like a consultant that is paid for a period of time until their next assignment, they work according to their lifestyle and deliver to the job specification.  Equally they were motivated to muck in and get the job done notwithstanding what their future might hold.

Clearly the dynamic is complex, employees could easily feel less supported and, with an irresponsible employer, they might be.  But, they could also feel more empowered not only in their job but in their options for future positions and, potentially, more motivated.  From a transactional analysis perspective, it is also easy to see how this could encourage a movement away from the Parent/Child dynamic and towards the Adult/Adult dynamic resulting in a more mutually respectful and respected relationship.

Collaboration above competition
In a competitive environment, collaboration feels counter intuitive.  However, as basis of remote working, it has proven to be a vital building block for growth.  The most profound example of this is Open Source, a term which originated in the context of software development to designate a specific approach to creating computer programs which anyone using the internet today benefits from. 

As Open Source the company explains, it developed into “a programming culture or set of values adopted universally.  Open source projects, products, or initiatives embrace and celebrate principles of open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community-oriented development.”  In other words, it is a product development tool reliant on collaboration.  It is a process whereby my success builds on as opposed to eclipses your success.  As a result, I become more invested in your success and vice versa.

In real terms this means that employees need to be motivated to be more open, to learn and trust each other and find ways to pull together and collaborate towards a common goal.  New skills will be needed to address the challenges and will not necessarily depend on how long we have worked in the organisation or how far up the tree we are.  In order for creative growth, all ideas will need to be put on the table to enable innovation.  Loan wolves will get lost in the same way a quiet voice is obliterated in a zoom call.   

Harness the Technology
In the blink of an eye a huge section of the workforce adopted online meetings in lockdown but little did many of us know that this was only the beginning.  Once online the technology and potential technology was staggering. 

From a training perspective this was particularly interesting with developments in immersive learning suddenly becoming commonplace.  It is striking how effectively subjects such as empathy to be taught and practiced from behind a computer screen.  Equally technologies such as Kona, start to use artificial intelligence to help companies understand the working styles and communication preferences of team members and allows managers to predict and manage interactions.

As with all technology, it needs to be engaged with, enjoyed and played with.  What is clear is that engagement with what is available will, in turn, make that technology increasingly useful and make interactions we once thought impossible, commonplace.

Becoming more human
Covid19 has forced many of us to reckon with our humanness.  Our frailty but also our compassion and love.  Real life, human pain and joy was re-presented to us in sharp refrain.  No-one was exempt, everyone went through it, globally.

For all the pain and disruption, Covid 19 triggered a re-awakening of some of humanity’s and therefore the workforce’s most basic of human instincts.  It was that pulling together, that joint effort which enabled such radical swift disruptive change.   What that tells us is that when people are motivated they will pull together and what motivates us is human connection and the lack of it.  Further that technology supports this and does not detract from it.

With all the automation and technological developments, the key to integrating the magic of disruptors into the corporate world is an investment in people and developing an increasingly empowered workforce.  Those corporates who recognise the value of our humanity will then be in a position to engender radical but also sustainable disruption as well as employee engagement.

Louisa Weinstein – Author of The 7 Principles of Conflict Resolution & Mediator & Trainer at The Conflict Resolution Centre

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