How to navigate the transition to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • 26 March 2020

Remote working is increasing as a means of practicing social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by business in response to calls from the World Health Organization, it is having a daily impact in helping manage the novel coronavirus.

Remote working is an example of a business transformation that works on multiple levels. It serves the needs of individual employees, it provides businesses with new resilient and adaptive ways to engage with their ecosystem and deliver economic value, and it serves the larger community by addressing public health needs. With these mutually supportive returns, the rapid pivot to remote working demonstrates stakeholder capitalism in practice.

Commit to organizational transitions.

At the organizational level, the pivot to remote working requires clarity and decisiveness from the senior-most levels of an institution. Given the complex and rapidly changing situation with COVID-19, overly deliberating the trade-offs and near-term costs could literally cost lives. Once a decision has been made, commit fully. Invest in the long-term with best-in-class technology that is reliable, scalable and flexible. Get the foundations in place first.

Beyond making clear and decisive technology decisions, it’s also incumbent on leaders to embrace how they will manage their transition. A baseline requirement is for senior leaders to consistently communicate the shift and what that means to the organization with clear, concise and consistent messaging.

As work-life boundaries blur, open and frequent communication is key for setting expectations on how groups will collaborate and come together. It’s also important not to overcommit or over-promise.

At its core, a pivot to remote working requires leaders to embrace organizational change management to reimagine the future of their organization and how employees can work and collaborate. It requires an institutional mind-shift to a platform mentality, which involves identifying what assets are critical and what are contextual. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, preparing for a variety of scenarios, and then being able to move as quickly as possible in an agile and adaptive manner, is required.

Going digital means more than just using technology.

It’s easy to be caught up by buzzwords like “digital first” or “digital by default.” But working in the digital spaces is about more than just applying digital tools and technology. It is about thinking about new behaviours and making sure everyone has the ability to use any tech tools seamlessly. For example, this could include people being conscious of how their voice projects and thinking of non-verbal cues on video conference calls.

Leaders must ask questions including: Who makes the decisions about digital technology: the CEO, the CIO or the IT team? What is the reaction or perception of joining an important meeting virtually as opposed in person? Is “face time” a key cultural norm in the organization? If people are not around in person, is there prejudice or negative bias?

Strengthen a culture of inclusion.

An enabling business culture that surrounds your organization’s transition to remote working is also critical for meaningful change. Ultimately, what holds a distributed and virtual workplace together is the trust, patience and support employees have for one another.

For senior leaders, this often requires a renewed commitment to actively listening. Power dynamics don’t go away in the virtual realm. Just because people have access to a video-enabled webconferencing platform, it doesn’t mean everyone’s voices are being equally heard.

Creating a collaborative, open and inclusive virtual work environment requires everyone, leaders in particular, to first listen to their colleagues. Another attribute of remote working are the number of distractions. It’s a given that professional and personal worlds will collide in the virtual realm. Staying focused, eliminating distraction and actively engaging in the moment is critical for creating a purposeful and enabling remote working culture.

Be authentic and engage

At the individual level is arguably where the most important changes can occur. Reducing the isolation of working remotely takes commitment from individuals at all levels of the organization.

For example, what Appen, a U.S.-based machine learning company, did to combat this was to invest both in a variety of collaboration tools as well as an internal community forum where employees could do everything from troubleshooting common issues to getting to know one another.

Even more concretely, employees learned to embrace their video cameras. The power of webconferencing is the use of video. Understanding how to visually project yourself as a positive, engaging and trusted leader is a critical skill to develop.

Along with embracing your visual persona, another key area to focus on at the individual level is to be remain authentic. From a generational perspective, remote working demands a new level of individual leaders to be authentic, to openly address uncertainties and to be open with their vulnerabilities. To ensure trustworthy and purpose-driven business can be sustained on an ongoing basis, requires nothing less.

Learn together to shape the future of work.

Embracing remote work and virtual collaboration is one of the most impactful thing employers can do today to address the increasing complexity of the current public health and economic crisis.

As companies navigate their approach to remote working, it’s important to consider how we learn along the way. At the Forum, for example, we’re exploring strategies to provide virtual collaborative experiences, such as the upcoming Virtual Industry Strategy Meeting (ISM) on 25-26 March, which will focus on the related theme of stakeholder capitalism in a disruptive time. We will take those learnings to continue to improve our remote collaboration processes.

Together we can find ways to make the most out of virtual work experiences, navigating immediate disruptions like the coronavirus outbreak while also remaining focused on the longer term, systemic transitions taking place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.