Ok then, COVID-19 is not yet in the rearview mirror. Most of us are just trying to keep things going the best we can until we can get back to normal operations.  Will there be lessons learned from this experience or are we going to see this as a once-in-a-century phenomenon? We have presented in other posts that this moment can serve as a turning point…if we want it to.  It all comes down to how we think about the challenges social distancing and quarantine have posed in the organization of office functions.

We have tried to make the case that the biggest challenge to embracing the virtual world is not the technology but ourselves, our mindset about work and our subconscious need for control in the manner the traditional office with its vertical hierarchies and time/place dimensions. I often think that indeed this reticence is rooted in a fear akin to jumping out of an airplane for the first-time parachuting, an activity I must confess to have yet to try.  Yes, there are unknowns in going virtual. There is a risk of failure, perhaps not as bad as your chute not opening.  Most managers are very risk averse, and hardly anyone wants to go first. This is largely because we don’t know how or where to start.

To continue the analogy with parachuting, I am told the experience is delightful, quite liberating, a true sense of boundless freedom. From both the staff member and manager perspective, moving to a virtual relationship, perpetual or occasional, can have very similar attributes. The virtual world of work is supported by two pillars which distinguish it from the traditional office — trust, and a shared sense of responsibility. 

Not bound by time and place, it is fundamental that there is a strong bond of trust between the manager and staff member, and equally across the team. So much of the structure and nature of the traditional office is about control. While not many of us still must punch a clock on arrival and departure, there are usually articulated work hours where presence is required. What you are doing during those hours may not amount to a hill of beans but you must be there and be seen. 

There is an implicit assumption that presence equals work and commitment. Perhaps this assumption would not really survive intense scrutiny. In the virtual world, it all begins with trust. Trust that when given freedom, it will be returned with commitment. After forty years of working in office settings, I know presence does not equal work and I would not want someone on my team that I do not trust.

Without the shackles of the time clock linked to office presence, what is the stimulus to get something done? Working from home or elsewhere, would I not be goofing off all day like an unsupervised kindergarten class? Are we advocating some out there Montessori-approach to work? Yes, we are. The vertical hierarchies of the traditional office usually position staff in narrowly defined input-oriented functions. We not only told what to do, but how and when to do it. This places an enormous burden on the manager, robs the staff member of freedom of thought and finally, perpetuates the status quo in all things, slowing innovation and openness to anything new.

The workplace takes on characteristics of a prison with the manager as boss/warden and the staff members keeping their heads down and not rocking the boat. The job becomes defined as a number of hours you owe the company like a prison sentence you must serve every week to get paid.  It is not only a form of a physical prison but the traditional office structure is also a prison of the mind. Since this is the world we know, we are often hardly aware of its strictures. And like long serving inmates in any prison, over time we all become institutionalized and not only accept but take comfort in the narrow cells of traditional roles. 

It is often in vogue to talk about team empowerment. Lots of fancy talk usually without much to show in most organizations. And is there really any wonder why? Given the fundamental nature of the traditional office and its insidious character, an effort to build “empowered” teams is greatly stymied from the start. It is like trying to build a new engine on an antiquated design. Are we surprised why this engine fails to start?

The second pillar of the virtual world, shared sense of responsibility, is a natural outgrowth of the quality of the virtual approach. Since I do not have the boss looking over my shoulder, I must take responsibility for my work, exercise some freedom of thought and discipline to deliver outcomes that are the expectations of my job. The virtual organization counts on me to work this way, contributing not only my outputs but my ideas on how best to get the work done. It trusts that I will behave responsibly and work toward the purpose of my role, my team and my organization.

Making the leap from the traditional to the virtual does require as a first step that we think anew about how we define work and organizational structures. In his book, Utopia, Sir Thomas More noted:

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”

We have raised our staff and indeed ourselves in this traditional structure which has in fact corrupted our thinking. We need to prepare our staff to work virtually, to overcome their “first education” about work. If we do not, they will only be prepared to be thieves and live up to our lower expectations, and we will find ourselves punishing them and ourselves at the same time.

Where do we begin? We first must recognize the reality of our legacy approaches. The traditional structure and its definitions of work and hierarchy present a segmented, segregated set of relationships:

  • The grading structure separates jobs and staff in rigid boxes which are difficult to cross. 
  • The detachment of job structures from learning and development programs fails to link growth in skills with meaningful career development and therefore, staff get stuck. 
  • The opaque and pseudo-scientific techniques which have long prevailed in job evaluation keeps managers and staff in the dark as to what is it about the job that places it in the level in which it is found.

For a virtual world to work, we must bring clarity.  Here is what it looks like:

  • Everyone must know why and how the grade structure works, and it should illuminate purpose and reinforce the value of contribution at each level. 
  • We must create stronger linkages between the growth in individual skills and the movement of staff through the grade structure, opening new career development opportunities. 
  • As a living entity, organizations must develop the capacity to recognize and reward skills growth within grades using milestone which mark a career path.
  • Like membranes of a cell in a living organism, grades must become permeable to permit passage from one level to another when certain conditions are met. 

This will create a virtuous circle of development and advancement, motivating for staff and optimizing organizational capacity as shown in the graphic below.

Again, not to sure where to start?  If I may return to my opening analogy about the first time someone jumps from an airplane.  It is a scary yet exhilarating experience. May we suggest the first time you take a tandem dive. We know how to build these structures, how to move from the rigid to the living. We have done it. If you let us, we can show you how to make this transition and how a truly virtual and empowered workforce can be created. In future blog posts we will begin to set down the road map and the tools for the journey.

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