Whilst we are all dealing with the challenge presented by the spread of coronavirus and assessing the threats, there can also be opportunities to enhance ways of working post-crisis. With businesses in the process of, or preparing their plans to, shift to full virtual working, it is a good opportunity to examine the effectiveness of how work is actually done in the physical workplace, whilst trying to replicate it virtually. Some good questions teams and workgroups should to be able to answer include:
• Is the initiative that we’re working on approved?
• Does everyone who should be working on it know that they are working on it?
• What is the priority of each initiative we have to deliver?
• How will we work together to deliver this effectively?
• How will key decisions be identified and made?
Asking these questions often reveals that we have a very high tolerance for uncertainty in our ‘BAU’ or Business As Usual working modes. When co-located and working with regular physical interaction, we have many social cues and norms that we rely on to smooth over the inconsistencies and uncertainties to allow us to keep key work moving forwards. Working together in our offices can inoculate us to the routine ambiguity.
For example, research on decision making shows that in meetings, although often all parties leave the room believing a decision was made, no-one has a consistent view of exactly when in the meeting the decision itself was made and what the key inputs were that led to that decision. We are often happy with such emergent consensus, but in times of crisis there are approaches that are far clearer when BAU is interrupted.
The British government has been instigating its COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) committee protocol to address the Coronavirus threat. Actually held in briefing room E, the agenda is highly structured to ensure that decisions are taken based on a very clear set of inputs, that all in the room understand the decision made, and everyone leaves the room ready to implement the decision in a unified fashion.
Similarly, we believe organisations need to consider carefully appropriate structured modes of working when switching to full virtual working. What is tolerable in BAU may be fatal in remote interactions where those enabling social cues and norms are removed. Famously, some communication studies have suggested that 55% of our communication is through body language. To mitigate this, many of the basic approaches from project management can be an excellent model to apply to delivering key initiatives whilst continuing to collaborate remotely, and the step up in delivery capability can endure afterwards.
Once working virtually, we suggest that to create sufficient structure around everything from meetings through to major transformation programmes, the following cycle is followed:
The aim is to establish clarity around what, why, who, where and how. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and how you kick off a virtually managed piece of work sets the tone ahead. Clarity is the watchword and scaling can help take a read here – for those on the call, “how clear are you on a scale of 1-5?”.
When working remotely, the temptation can be to plan in isolation. But a plan created without everyone’s inputs will miss key elements and the ownership needed to get commitment to deliver.
3) Execution and Control
Here, time invested in initiating and planning pays off with the smooth running of your meeting, online conference, key initiative, or change programme. It is most important to establish a relentless rhythm of execution that cuts through all the other distractions during this crisis and maintains the situational awareness of the team assigned.
For many, this mode of remote working for an extended period will be a novel experience. It is important to check how virtual teams feel they did and feed the learnings back into the next initiative. Skills and discipline in AAR (After Action Review) are key here, from simple scaling again (“how did we do 1-5?”), to fuller process improvement techniques.
Aside from this basic cycle, there are many other project tools that can compensate for the loss of BAU conditions. Prioritisation, stakeholder management, reporting, communications, decision mapping, governance, dashboards, end-to-end workflows and playbooks all help orientate virtual and temporary teams of purpose struggling with BAU in greatly changed circumstances. In particular, revisiting risk should not be neglected, rather than assuming everything will unfold as it did pre-crisis – the risk matrix will change significantly.
However, the biggest contribution is the application of the project mindset that calls out any initiative as no longer something that will somehow ‘just happen’, but focuses the collective efforts of a diverse team behind effective delivery. Retaining the benefits after the crisis has passed and normal working returns also requires some discipline, but avoids the loss of hard-won lesson. Plan for a serious closing effort to capture what worked well during remote working and incorporate it into an uprated BAU capability (step 4 above).
Some may argue that for many companies, BAU is already akin to flexible working scenarios and certainly, more and more businesses are heading in this direction. The result of the coronavirus outbreak will be a true test for those already instigating remote working within day-to-day life and for others, it may be a struggle to implement these changes and keep collaboration within teams. Either way, this has accelerated us all into the need for remote working for business continuity. The difficulties lie with maintaining a thriving and vibrant work culture without that face-to-face interaction, whilst also trying to keep a high level of employee engagement. This is not only a wake-up call for organisations, but also an opportunity to become truly invincible through change and a test for tomorrow’s ways of working.
In summary, the key areas to increase the focus on during this crisis are:
• Establish clarity
• Involve everyone in making plans
• Establish a rhythm of meetings / check-ins
• Reflect on how the team are finding the new ways of working – are the tools / software available sufficient for collaborative working?
• Extract and embed the learnings in future processes