By: Itai Green
The COVID-19 epidemic has had a tremendous effect on many aspects of our lives and resulted in a significant change in the workforce, and on the very way that individuals and organizations work. Suddenly, without warning, it seems that the entire business world shifted to Zoom and its competitors in a day, since it offered a concrete solution to the challenges raised by the current crisis.
What this crisis taught us, is that the ability to adapt quickly to changes is vital: These can be technological changes, major world events as well as disturbed markets.
No one wants to end up like Nokia, disturbed by the market. We all want to end up like Netflix, or like Zoom. To be the disrupters, or the ones riding the wave, being the very first ones to adopt new technologies.
The pace of the world is changing. Just think about it, it took Graham Bell’s phone 75 years to reach 50 million users. How much time did it take Zoom? In order to compete successfully, companies need to adopt more technologies and innovate, or they will be left behind.
We must understand that what used to work, will not be enough for the future. Luckily, this crisis also taught us that companies could quickly adapt themselves if they know how to, and if they put the needed effort into it. Processes that used to take months and years, suddenly, took weeks and even days during the last three months.
For example, when managers wake up in the morning, they think they know who their competitors are, but things are quickly changing. In a world where Alibaba offers hotel room service robots and car vending machines, and Amazon has entered the insurance industry, the rules of the game have changed.
On the bright side, the COVID-19 is a unique opportunity for corporations, startups, entrepreneurs and individuals to learn, improve, and most importantly, evolve and adapt.
One such area where companies need to familiarize themselves better, is in the area of remote work. Remote working and distributed collaboration are not new topics. These topics have been discussed and examined thoroughly in the past. In fact, remote work has been popular for several decades now, as most employees in large, global companies, work from home at least partially.
According to Prof. Phanish Puranam from the INSEAD business school, one main problem with remote working is that communications are often not synchronized, partially as a result of time-zone differences. These delays in communication may lead to misunderstandings and disagreements. This is only enhanced by the fact that in some channels, such as e-mails, employees are often not exposed to facial expressions, body language and the tone of voice, things that are taken for granted when talking face-to-face.
Beyond that there is also a structural problem. When working in an office, there is a potent effect called random interactions. These are unplanned, informal interactions, next to the coffee machine, that bring you into contact with people you are not officially expected to be in contact with. These and are in fact, the life and blood of the organization, where a lot of the innovation and novel thinking comes from. When working outside of the physical environment, the organization is in risk of losing this potential.
With that said, there are also significant advantages to working from home, the biggest among them is flexibility, meaning the ability to work from anywhere, and possibly, at any time. Working remotely also assists in reducing biases in group decision-making processes.
Professor Phanish reports that there are systematic differences in the strategies one can use for coordinating remote work. These differences can be described as ‘seeing the face’ vs ‘seeing the hands’, meaning, an approach based on communicating directly in real time, vs a strategy focusing on collaborating in real time.
A company with two teams or individuals working in different locations that need to coordinate their work has two main approaches it can take in order to deal with this need.
One option is to reduce the need for coordination by making the teams independent of one another. Another approach is to accept the need to coordinate and find ways to better manage it, either actively by ongoing communications such as video conferences, or by tacit coordination, such as shared files.
There are substantial differences between working from home after COVID-19, and working from home before the epidemic. The main difference is that during the pandemic, people did not work from home out of choice, or they were likely not forced to do so. Since people chose to work from home in the past, it was expected that these people would be biased when asked whether or not they were more or less productive when working from home. The pandemic was a global experiment where people did not have a choice, so it is quite likely that fewer people will report positively on the experience. Additionally, a second difference, is that since this was a global experiment, a large segment of the population was working remotely at the same time.
Professor Puranam and his colleague, Dr. Marco Minervini, have launched a survey on remote work, early in February 2020, as a response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Dr. Minervini states an interesting finding: Technology is currently more ready than organizations are.
80% of the responders claimed that their technological infrastructure was effective at supporting remote work. With that said, only 60% agreed that their organizational processes supported remote-working effectively, and only 52% agreed that their managers supported remote working effectively. Companies were correct in focusing on technology and getting it right first, but companies must focus now on getting their organizational design right.
A second, important finding in the survey was, that only 24% of responders claimed that they were less productive when working from home, while 41% agreed that their productivity improved by working remotely.
The research by Professor Puranam and Dr. Marco Minervini lists positive and negative correlates for productivity. One factor that was found to have a positive effect on productivity, is the hierarchical level. Managers of managers were often most productive when working remotely. Another factor for higher reported productivity was previous experience in working remotely, with the most significant gap found between those with no previous experience at all, and those working remotely at least once a month. A third, strong predictor is work-life balance, those that reported having a higher work-life balance also reported on higher productivity. Finally, responders that were happier about avoiding commuting also reported on higher productivity.
Two predictors were also found for low productivity: Employees that need social interaction in order to accomplish their tasks, as well as employees that miss social interaction with colleagues, reported a lower level of productivity. A second aspect that was found to be a negative predictor was distractions at home. The more distractions reported, the lower the self-reported productivity was.
Interestingly, there was no effect found for industry, company size or the nature of work in any of those indicators.
The research also found that the majority of organizations focus on text messages and video conferencing when working remotely, while few organizations made extensive use of shared repositories. This takes us back to ‘seeing the face’ vs ‘seeing the hands’, and it appears that majority of companies prefer ‘seeing the face’ over ‘seeing the hands’, despite the fact that these solutions can be highly problematic as they are less flexible.
In fact, these companies are attempting to emulate face-to-face communication when working remotely, instead of adapting themselves and adopting new practices, suitable and perhaps even preferable when working remotely.
Professor Puranam’s and Dr. Marco Minervini’s offer several important recommendations:
The remote working shock created by the COVID-19 crisis has given us an excellent opportunity to rethink our work processes and redesign our organizations. The use of core locations and physical interactions have long been taken as granted, but in fact, they are a luxury. Does it still make sense today, for our health, for the environment, and for the health of the world, to have so many millions of people, working in crowded offices and commuting every day? If not, what can we do about it?
The second point is that socialization may change. We can learn a lot from gaming companies about online interactions and online socializing. Younger generations are already used to this different sort of socialization. On the other hand, while work will become more global, perhaps socialization will become more local, with closer relationships being formed in the local context of one’s neighborhood and home.
Another point is that working remotely leaves a digital footprint on how our organization works and how we as individual collaborate. This can help managers understand their organization better and provide them with the tools needed in order to redesign them to work better.
Further, this is a fantastic point for managers to develop new skills, especially regarding communication: When working remotely, it is essential to be sharp and avoid the need for clarifications and verifications.
Finally, it is important for companies to stay ahead of the curve. Companies must always innovate and rethink their use of technology and their organizational practices. Companies that will not adapt, will be unfit for this emerging new world, and will not be able to stay ahead of competition, least to say, survive.
To help conclude this article, in a productive way, we remind that advanced technologies are here to help with this new world. Luckily, Israel as the Startup-Nation offers various solutions that can assist companies as they transform themselves, change their working process and learn how to better provide the tools and practices needed to effectively work from home.
Among these companies, we can list the following:
Fleeq – The company allows managers to create bite-size training and explanatory videos in minutes. The solution simplifies remote communication and localization by letting anyone, anywhere, deliver a visual message about content in and information in the workplace.
StarLinks – The company offers a web-app using Organizational Network Analytics to engage and guide employees in building their social capital through personalized micro-coaching challenges.
Cassiopeia – empowers managers that lead fully or partially remote teams to maximize workplace experience. Their solutions deliver actionable insight and boosts team collaboration, belonging and mental health, by analyzing communication patterns within and among teams.
Totemtime – The company has developed team building activities that can be done from home, as well as in-home escape rooms suitable both for employees as well as families.
Enerjoy – The company offers a motivational platform for sales and customer service representatives, which is unique in utilizing Artificial Intelligence to create personalized challenges that increase sales and revenue while freeing expensive managerial time.
Glean Labs – Glean Labs is an automatic employee competency platform for large R&D organizations. By gleaning and analyzing data, Glean’s algorithms automatically identify and continuously update employees’ skills, knowledge, and experience.
About the Author
Itai Green is the founder and CEO of Innovate Israel. He is one of the dominant leaders of Israel’s corporate open innovation. Itai is recognised as a leading player in Israel’s startup ecosystem and is at the forefront of launching its growth at a rapid pace. Itai leads innovation processes by connecting global corporations with the Israeli startup community to create advanced technological solutions; focusing on IT, consumer products, pharma, finance, travel, e-commerce, retail, banking, insurance, energy, construction tech and IoT. Itai is a member in several startup advisory boards. In the past, Itai was head of business development and Innovation at Amadeus IT Group in Israel, amongst other prominent positions at Elbit, CEO at Maxtech Technologies, VP Business Development at Techtium and the co-founder of JerusalemOnline. Itai is the founder of the ITTS community (Israel Travel Tech Startups). ITTS houses 350 Israeli traveltech entrepreneurs and strengthens the internal collaboration between startups, as well as increases the level of engagement between startups, multinationals and investors. Itai has also created the IITS community (Israel Insurance Tech Startups) for the Insurance start-up sector.
Email: [email protected]
Featured image via Unsplash.