In chemistry, an agent which accelerates a reaction is known as a catalyst.  Whether the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace will ultimately be catalytic or just a passing nuisance remains to be seen. However, all the elements for catalytic change in how we work are present. It is an evolution that has been slowly creeping over the workplace for over twenty years. Unfortunately, like all change, it has often been resisted, ignored, denied, and avoided, usually by management!

The imperative brought on by COVID-19, that we do something now to keep people working when they cannot leave their homes, is prodding even the most stodgy amongst us to look past, and perhaps even let go, of the traditional office workplace. Had this event occurred even thirty years ago, our choices would have been frighteningly limited. Thankfully, modern technology has come to the rescue.

The classic construct of the workplace, even the word itself, has been radically transforming now for years.  Is anyone doing “office work” of any kind today restricted or limited to what can only be done in an office building from nine to five, Monday to Friday?

These changes – shifting from a set workplace and workday to virtual work and work-life integration – have often been characterized as burdens, invasions into our personal space, a violation of a sacred separation between myself as a worker and my life as a person.  However, today, during a global economic downturn and worsening pandemic, those of us who find ourselves able to work virtually are counting our lucky stars and looking forward to receiving that continued paycheck. What will happen when COVID-19 just becomes another flu, just another illness that is treatable and no longer impeding social interaction? Even the scariest predictions anticipate that this point will eventually arrive. Will most of us retreat into the past and the comfort and familiarity of the office and the pleasant relationships we have nurtured over the water cooler?

Shame on us if we do!  The truth is we do not have to. The virtual work world has arrived and is not limited to the odd occasional day of working from home. Perpetual virtual work is a transformation which requires us to think differently about what we do and with whom we do it.  It requires a change in mindset about the value and purpose of our work, how jobs are designed and how teams are organized.

How to move forward

For an organization to embrace this new reality and be successful in the integration of virtual work into their work culture, the transformation must start with clarity of purpose – and that means clear, concise job descriptions and good organization design practices for team formation. There is a surprising lack of clarity in most modern organizations, and solving this issue is a requirement for a successful shift to virtual work.

Our job design approach uses the three factors to focus on job outputs – why something is done in the job and how the job is carried out. This results in the crafting of job descriptions with no more than six functional statements aligned to the grade of the job, linked to the Community™ job evaluation factors used to grade the job. There is much which is insidious about the traditional workplace which we all simply accept like we long accepted the divine rights of kings. To free ourselves from the 20th century mindset we must approach our work differently and our organizations must enable this change. The first step is to bring clarity, true clarity to the purpose of our jobs and how our jobs fit together in teams. Most of us are completely unaware of just how poorly organizations articulate job purpose today. What’s the symptom of this? Poor job descriptions.

Ultimately, this lack of clarity and consistency leaves staff and managers often in a fog about what is to be done is their work’s real purpose. This also inhibits freedom of action and leaves managers and staff timid to pursue work more independently, remaining huddled in the safety of the way things are versus trying out new approaches to get work done. It is necessary to become methodical in job design to bring the consistency and clarity that is needed to empower workers to excel and to complement one another.

What do we mean about methodical job design?  In Birches Group we have studied this challenge deeply.   To bring consistency to job design, it is necessary to create a template base structure which presents the components of the all jobs consistently.  We have developed such a framework based upon three elements or factors which distinguish/define the level of a job across the full spectrum of work found in any organization.  These three factors are:

  • Purpose – Why this job exists
  • Engagement – How the job interacts within the team and with outside clients and collaborators
  • Delivery – What is provided as the service ensuring timely provision and of a consistent quality

It is important to note that what distinguishes this approach to the current typical way job descriptions are developed is the focus.  In the Birches Group method, the focus is on outputs; why something is done in the job over inputs about how a job is carried out. This results in crafting job descriptions of no more than six functional statements aligned to the grade of the job values which are the foundation of the grade. Building this strong linkage between job functions and the grade of the position brings the clarity that is needed for both managers and staff to understand the purpose and how this is to be pursued as part of the team. 

Taking this approach provides another big pay off. By describing the outputs of a job over the inputs provides a ready reference for assessing performance.  At the time of the performance review only a simple question must be asked:  Was this accomplished?

The next part is easy.  With clarity we can work from anywhere.  For almost any position (and we would maintain for any office position with the appropriate technology enabled), the work can be carried out anywhere and at any time.  Leaving the office behind does demand a new etiquette in how we interact.  In Birches Group, for example, we do insist that we use cameras when talking with one another.  We need to be accessible to our teammates and clients and hopefully, find spontaneity in our interactions. 

Yes, some of these changes require new approaches by organizations to enable their staff.  We have reached a point in the evolution of communications technology where the investments are not daunting, and the payoffs can be significant.  More importantly, does anyone doubt that this is road from which no organization can turn away?  Yes, we must approach job design as the point of departure in articulating the new boundaryless organization, enable our work with technology, and think of new ways to measure our performance.  And all of this can happen… Because, now, we can.

Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world