Over the past weeks, every CEO has wondered at some point whether an increasingly remote workforce is viable and a new reality, even discussing and modeling scenarios with their boards. With COVID-19, we are living it, forced to work remotely whether we’re ready or not.
The remote workplace movement has been gaining steam. Flexjobs found remote work has increased by 91% in the past 10 years, and a 2017 Gallup study discovered 43% of U.S. employees were working remotely with some frequency. COVID-19 has not only accelerated this trend, it completely obliterated any near-term alternative. We’re amid the largest work-from-home pilot in history and CEOs are seeing firsthand if their business continuity plans hold water.
As a CEO who had to lead through the 2001 internet bubble and the 2008 financial crisis, I appreciate the question many of us are now asking: Are we witnessing a durable pivot to virtual work? This pandemic may do more than delay the return to “normal,” it will likely redefine what normal is, and CEOs are grappling with what to do next.
Learning as We Go
We’ve learned in this experiment that we can leverage cloud communication, messaging apps, and videoconferencing. We know how to quickly enable teams and foster community. We’re more confident our workforces can quickly shift to virtual. During the initial weeks of this pilot, we’ve seen the adrenaline burst of productivity, but there are signs the euphoria is fading.
What we don’t know, at least not yet, is whether the same productivity and output can be sustained; if work done remotely will remain persistently aligned to strategy; and if long-term employee engagement can be cultivated remotely. These questions have profound implications on business operating models, infrastructure, and employees.
We can look beyond the corporate ecosystem to see the collateral impact a virtual workforce has on communities, governments, and cultures. Our digital infrastructure is already seeing the effects of the massive demands being placed on it with so many logging into the internet from home. How will those infrastructures be supported in a virtual workforce world? Will remote workforce decisions reverse the recent trend towards metropolitan business campuses? As CEOs, we stand between the past and the future, bridled with the onerous responsibility of shaping a new frontier.
Virtual Workforce Dependencies
For business leaders to embrace and empower a virtual workplace, they must consider two critical dependencies: trust and engagement.
Patrick Lencioni advocates that trust is the most critical foundation of an effective team. Applied to the organization, executives have to be able to trust their teams are delivering high-value work that’s aligned to strategy, even as that strategy changes.
With good reason, CEOs commonly fear their delivery teams will inevitably drift off-strategy. It’s easy to do in the best scenarios, much more so in a virtualized, remote work environment where communication and collaboration challenges threaten this very alignment. Before CEOs jump on the remote workforce wagon, they need confidence their processes and tools support their virtual workforce in executing the work that matters most to the business – prioritized work that’s directly aligned with and contributing to the corporate strategy.
Until business leaders have the certainty their work management systems bridge strategy to delivery, they won’t fully embrace a virtual workforce. Too much is at stake. The business environment is too dynamic and competitive to permanently virtualize without strategy-to-delivery systems of record.
Executives must be able to understand the connection between the people doing the work, the value delivered, and the financial benefits of doing that work. A video conferencing app doesn’t provide such visibility, but a digital workspace that’s connected to the portfolio of strategic initiatives does.
Employee engagement is a prevalent concern amongst executives. Gallup found 53% of U.S. workers say they are “not engaged.” Disengagement is more than a disappointment; it’s the enemy of growth and profitability. While some employees prefer remote working, others find it difficult and isolating, feeling removed from the team and without a sense of purpose. It often stunts innovation, as innovation requires collaboration.
Executives want to harness the collective creativity and energy of their employee population to drive a culture of innovation. After all, real innovation comes from those closest to the issues. CEOs know their companies won’t thrive if their population isn’t engaged, lacks a shared purpose, or isn’t contributing to the next innovative idea. How do you crowdsource corporate-wide innovation with a virtualized workplace?
With dispersed workforces, companies are transitioning from employee suggestion boxes to using software that specifically engages employees and sources innovation from across the enterprise with online digital topical challenges. Until leaders implement such innovation management software and intuitive OKR (Objective Key Results) systems, they won’t feel comfortable embracing a remote work paradigm.
The Keys to The Virtual Workplace Conundrum
COVID-19 has changed everything. Business leaders have had to accept virtual work and teams have discovered ways to connect in this brave, new world. But when the pandemic dust settles, will you need dramatically less office space? Like other executives, you’ll have to make serious decisions that balance the needs of all of your stakeholders, including employees, customers, partners, and shareholders.
It’s not enough to know your workforce can work remotely. If you, as a CEO, are considering a permanent virtual workforce, you must change your business operating system to empower it. If you want to trust your employees are working on the things that matter and are delivering on time, within budget, and as specified, you need more than video conferencing apps. Yes, those apps allow for collaboration, but you need assurance they are collaborating on the most important work.
It comes down to having portfolio management, work management, and innovation management software that’s integrated and accessible to your remote workforce. These tools will become the new norm, providing you peace of mind your company has the alignment, transparency, and real-time data to enable an enduring virtual workforce.
|About Greg Gilmore
Greg Gilmore is CEO at Planview. For 20 years, he has led companies through crises such as the 2001 internet bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. He sits on many executive boards and since COVID, the topic of whether a permanent remote workforce is viable continues to come up, forcing CEOs to look at what it will take operationally to make it happen.