Organisation design for remote working

The Organisation Design Community recently launched a podcast series, Making Remote Work. So far they’ve recorded around 12 episodes and have invited one guest per episode.  I got an email from them earlier last week saying, ‘Now we are thinking of creating a panel as well (it is more engaging and conversations tend to flow better) and would love to have you as part of it if you would like to.’

The email continued, ‘Until now, on the podcast we’ve had only 2 [organisation design] practitioners, the others have all been academics. We have touched on various subjects – leadership, teamwork, coordination, cooperation, history of remote, negotiations, values, transparency. We have not yet touched on Organization Design for Remote Work. Would this be something you would like to talk about?’

Having replied with something on the lines of ‘Thanks for the invitation, yes, that would be great’, I’ve spent the last couple of days wondering about the phrase ‘remote work’.

It’s easy to think it’s about the common response to the current coronavirus pandemic.  Companies are asking employees to work from home, rather than going to an office or workplace.  As Dave Cook says in his article,’ Many of us have had little choice but to resort to remote working in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It is just days since Google, Apple  and Twitter were making headlines by ordering their employees to work from home, but you could now say the same about lots of companies.’

Clearly, there is that forced aspect of remote work – additionally, there are other ways of considering the phrase ‘remote work’.  For example, it could refer to:

  • Work that is done in a specific physical workspace location but which is digitally delivered in real time e.g. telesurgery  or robotic surgery  or drone warfare.
  • Work done physically on a work site but where the workers are remote from their homes and families e.g. astronauts, or construction workers.
  • Work that is done in ‘virtual organisations’, designed to have no, or minimal, physical space but where the workers are doing a variety of jobs, physically remote from other workers, but linked through technologies.   These virtual organisation employees may or may not work from ‘home’, e.g. Uber drivers work from their cars,  while workers at social media management company Buffer, ‘a fully distributed team of 85 people living and working in 15 countries around the world, may work from home, coffee shop, …’
  • Working conditions and/or culture, on or off a physical site that promote a sense of feeling remote e.g. distance from frontline to leader, or lifestyle of garment maker to customer of garment.    This is sometimes reflected in the language of ‘HQ doesn’t understand what’s going on’ or ‘ivory tower executives’ or in pay scales – a recent UK example is the £54m bonus payment. (Ocado delivery drivers can expect to earn £21k per year, taking each one of them 2,570 years to earn the equivalent of £54m).

These are each very different types of ‘remote work’ but across them are some common themes where we could/should be designing.  The themes are:

Perceived, and felt, fairness – which could include the explicit design of pay systems, and the implicit value placed on workers by their organisations and societies.  It’s fairly obvious that in the current situation, typically the higher paid knowledge workers are working ‘remotely’, often from home and the lower paid frontline workers are keeping society’s oils wheeled in the day to day – caring for the sick, making food deliveries, serving in essential retail outlets.  An opportunity to address, is the divide between knowledge (remote) and front-line workers reinforced by pay differentials and perceived value to society.

Cultures of community and belonging – an HBR study conducted in 2017 of 1,100 employees found that remote workers feel shunned and left out whether that is the same now that more people are working remotely I don’t know, but given the explosion of articles on managing remote teams I suspect so.

Interpersonal interaction design – this may be a new area in organisation design  but I have seen many articles on issues of building trust and relationships  in an only on-line world – for example, this National Geographic one ‘Zoom fatigue is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.’ If more of us are going to be working online away from the day to day/face to face contact with colleagues then we need to think carefully about ways to replicate the value of this.

Designing for innovation and creativity – Look at the many articles on MIT’s building 20 for example or why living in a city makes you more innovative and you’ll see that putting people randomly together fosters innovation and creativity.  An organisation design challenge for now is how to develop equivalent types of physical space that encourage this, whilst maintaining some of the norms of distancing we may be required to adopt. See the British Council for Offices briefing note on Covid-19 and a similar guidance note from the  British Retail Consortium.

System and process design – in a 25 April article The Economist notes that ‘The pandemic is liberating firms to experiment with radical new ideas.  Some of these will persist after the crisis passes.’   I’m seeing the systems and process redesigns they discuss happening in organisations I am working with.  I think these new designs will, as The Economist suggests, persist. They include:

Organisations being ‘forced to raise their corporate metabolism and overcome analysis paralysis’, this requires redesign of decision-making processes, delegation and authority levels, as well as changes to funding streams and budgetary controls.  They illustrate with the example of Sysco ‘a big American food-distribution firm [that] built and entirely new supply chain and billing system to server grocery stores in less than a week.’

Emboldening managers to change risk management systems in order to try out, at speed, risky new ideas ‘on larger groups of customers.’   Many organisations are swiftly designing and introducing rapid prototyping/testing systems for example Nike’s ‘deft digital pivot’ to online shared workouts or HP’s ‘acceleration of 3D as a service’.

Experimenting with new distribution channels– ‘Google has expanded the use of its Wing drones to deliver medicines and other necessities in rural Virginia’,  while Uber has rapidly expanded its Uber Eats delivery business.

Redesigning supply chains– COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of complex global supply chains built on lean manufacturing principles.

Command and control processes changing in ways as yet unclear – some aspects becoming much more authoritarian others becoming more open and transparent for example, investing in open-source software or engaging customers in open-innovation efforts.

How are you thinking about ‘remote’ and do you think the pandemic will change organisation designs and the way we design organisations?  Let me know.

Image:  Virtual team building activities

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