It is a commonly told tale that when he arrived in the New World, Cortez burned his ships so that the only direction to proceed would be forward.  There would be no turning back.

In many ways, it is a pity that this option is not available to organizations struggling to move from the 20th to the 21st Century in approaching organization design.  In three other posts, we have begun to set down the limitations of traditional approaches to organization design from the capacity to evaluate performance through to empowering teams.

Now, with organizations scrambling to meet the challenges of sustaining continuity in operations in the face of COVID-19, the limitations of 20th Century approaches and thought are being laid bare. It is not just a question of fit or utility, it is the realization that there are better ways. Technology-enabled teams can be free. Free to work across a variety of settings, free to interact with colleagues and clients not bound by geography or time, free to reflect on the true purpose of the work and how best to get it done. However, it is not simply what the New World can offer us, it is also recognizing what the traditional approaches have been taking from us. 

More than twenty-five years ago, one of my senior staff came to me to tell me he had to resign. He had been serving away from his home country for almost ten years. His father was ill and he needed to move home with his family to help care for him. I was greatly saddened by this news. Tossing and turning through most of the night, I just could not accept this was the only possible outcome. Why could he not just work from home? In 1994, this was essentially unheard of. There were no policies to govern such an arrangement and there were many details which would need to be addressed. Most importantly, the rest of the team would need to embrace this arrangement and the implications on their work.

A 20th century response to this would have resulted in the resignation of a highly-valued staff member, and all of the associated impacts – loss of organization knowledge, continuity, impact on the rest of the team, the need to recruit, train and integrate a replacement, etc. Yet all of these potentially negative impacts could be avoided by simply changing the rules.

In the end, we found a way to make it work and have learned many lessons along the way. The most important of these lessons is that for such an arrangement to work, you must focus on the purpose of the job over the structure in which it is carried out.  We need to have expectations regarding outputs and you have to let go of time as a variable. Frequent calls in the evenings and weekends became a norm with neither of us the worse for wear due to these changes. 

I also saw all that we gained, the retention of a highly talented staff member, at ultimately a lower cost, the extension of our working day and the capacity to reach a greater range of clients, and new perspectives on our work gained by stepping back and thinking more about purpose.  And, we enabled a valued member of the team address an important family issue, which we all will face in time.

Word spread around the organization regarding this unique employment arrangement. We had many teleconferences with other offices to describe how it worked and what needed to happen for this to take place. A few offices actually tried to pursue this approach, but none lasted more than a few months. When I enquired why they did not continue, it all came down to people on both sides could not meet the demands that this approach required.  The flexibility on time, the need to articulate expected outcomes and just the out of sight out of mind syndrome which made the offsite worker feel isolated and the home office feel detached.

In Birches Group, we continue to enable virtual work in many forms, from perpetual to occasional. It is not always easy and not all instances have been successful, but we have learned that as difficult as it can be, the benefits of not only retaining and motivating talent but also challenging how we approach work have paid off many times over. It has also underscored for me the dark, and yes insidious, side of the traditional approach. Under a traditional approach, the control orientation on input suppresses original thought and expression. It hamstrings us into an increasingly antiquated view of work defined by time and place. The vertical hierarchy and the mindset it creates is progressively toxic and will be a continued impediment to team empowerment. Isn’t it time to start thinking differently about this?

We have been living in this New World now for a few years. We know the freedom it has brought our small firm. We know it is a major factor in staff retention. Like Cortez, we also concluded there is no going back.  COVID-19 has confirmed what we already knew — this is the future of work and we have been able to adapt to it better than many firms because of the flexibility already built into our organization. Now that we have arrived in the New World, in our future posts we will focus on how our new society is built, how we create a culture of empowerment and shared responsibility. As we have already asserted, this requires as a first step to look at how we characterize work and liberate this definition from a control/input perspective to a purpose/output perspective. To get to the New World that is the essential first step, to think anew about what we do, not just how we do it.

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