Constant uncertainty and changing government guidance have been among the hallmarks of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet despite this, many organisations are realising that taking a ‘wait-and-see’ approach is no longer an option – particularly with the government’s furlough scheme ending on 31 October. Now is the time for businesses to chart a roadmap for recovery and to resume, rebuild and reimagine their future business.

The big picture

Too often conversations about returning to the office centre around estates and property or how quickly we can get everyone back to the office. While these are important considerations, in our view they are somewhat narrow. The conversation should be about business performance and how we can take what we have learnt during lockdown to create a higher-performing business that offers a better experience for employees and customers.

One thing that is reasonably certain is that the impact of COVID-19 will be with us for some time. So, it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to go back to working the way we were before. The companies that thrive over the next phases, as we rebuild and recalibrate for the next normal, will be the ones that master distributed working. They will be able to perform regardless of location and blend physical and virtual for even better performance.

Coronavirus aside, there are good reasons for chasing the benefits of distributed working. It’s not just about functioning well in the current climate but creating a high-performing organisation that is ready for the future. This is a journey that we have defined as a series of ‘maturity’ levels. As may be expected, most organisations are currently only at Level 2 – even those that have adapted well to the global pandemic.

Level 1: Hope and pray

This is the base stage and one that hopefully many organisations have left behind in the COVID-19 crisis. Those still at this level have yet to realise the world around them has changed and won’t go back to normal for a long time – if at all. They are not thinking about how to incorporate distributed working into their working practices and, for now, they are muddling through with virtual working, doing the best they can, keeping things moving until they are back in the office.

Level 2: Offline online

This is where most organisations are today, having been forced there by the necessity of lockdown. They may recognise that distributed working is here to stay, but they are not adapting to it with new ways of working. They have effectively moved the ‘offline office’ online through the use of basic remote tools like Zoom, Slack and Office 365. And by replicating physical processes using digital tools, they are forcing the medium to adapt to their ways of working. At this level, 9-to-5 working is still the norm; the office is still the primary identifier of corporate identity and Zoom fatigue is a commonly touted catchphrase.

Level 3: Advancing through experiments

The pandemic has given some organisations a glimmer of hope that there is a better way of working. Maybe not how we’ve been forced to over lockdown, but by taking advantage of some things that are working well. Once organisations ‘see the light’, there are generally two underlying principles that they subscribe to.

  1. The pandemic has fundamentally changed work as we know it and in the long run we must adapt or die.
  2. We can no longer think of an organisation as an entity occupying a physical world, but one that needs to operate a blend of physical and virtual – and in order to do this, we need to rethink processes and adapt to the medium.

This level is all about experimentation and finding ways to make distributed teams work for you. And therein lies both the opportunity and the danger. The opportunity is the promise of performance that follows and if you’re able to push through it’s well worth the reward. The danger is getting stuck; dismantling the machine leaving you with processes that don’t work like they used to nor how they are supposed to. The most important aspect of this level is that it needs to be temporary – it must be a stepping-stone to high performance. Getting stuck here is the classic Level 3 maturity trap.

At this stage, you will start to see glimpses of how distributed working can be effective. Speed of decision-making is often the first sign. It’s far easier to get the right people together quickly in a distributed environment than a physical one. Varied meeting lengths is another – there is no reason (other than diary software) for all meetings to be multiples of 30 minutes.

Most importantly, this is a period of adaptation and it takes sustained effort to keep it moving. This stage is all about managing change and the adoption of new technologies as we operate in the unfamiliar environment of the greatest health crisis we’ve seen in our lifetime.

Level 4: High performance through distributed working

The point of reimagining or recalibrating is company performance, where distributed working provides new advantages and benefits previously thought unattainable. This is not just about saving costs on estates and property but sources of true competitive advantage.

  • Access to talent – if you’re not tied to physical locations (and particularly if you’re able to recalibrate to work asynchronously), then the world is your talent pool. When you’re looking for the best and brightest, it really doesn’t matter where they are. And it’s not just about location but about reaching into more diverse talent pools. There are even amazing new start-ups that can facilitate payroll anywhere in the world.
  • Geographical reach – if you can work anywhere, you can serve customers anywhere. While this may not work for all industries, there are many service industries that other than for critical periods, don’t always need to be where their customers are. Even in hardware-related industries, technology such as 3D printers is helping to redefine logistics functions.
  • Boosting innovation – spurred by the ability to collaborate more effectively, especially as you combine this with access to broader talent and extending geographical reach.
  • Improving productivity – the lockdown has shown us that there are times we can be more productive working from home. Many of our office environments, while good for collaboration, kill productivity. A Stanford study by Nicholas Bloom showed why working from home can make you more productive. And if that’s true, shouldn’t we be changing our workspaces to be even more collaborative and letting people get the best from both their office and home environments?

But we’re never going to get this right with token gestures and half-hearted experiments. We need to learn quickly from experiments and flip them into sustainable working practices – which means we need to:

  • create operating models that work effectively in a blend of physical and virtual environments. This needs to be rapid, data-driven and context-sensitive. (Read our article ‘Why beautiful operating models fail’ to find out more.)
  • recognise that first and foremost, COVID-19 is a health issue, and whatever we design needs to keep employee and customer health (mental and physical) at the forefront. Our partners at Maximus UK do a great job of outlining this in their article, ‘The clinical foundations to your new operating model’.
  • engage at all levels with clarity, communicating the changes and the greater purpose behind them.

All of this requires considerable investment, but the performance benefits make it so much more compelling than a cost-saving narrative around estates and remote working.

Level 5: Pioneering

Beyond performance, some organisations are embracing distributed working, not just for the performance benefits but because it also drives their purpose and culture. Companies such as Automattic, which makes WordPress on which a good third of the web is built, have 1,200 employees and no office. It doesn’t mean they never come together physically – just that they don’t cluster around a physical office to do it. As we start to step into new technologies that bridge physical and virtual, like virtual and augmented reality, Internet of Things and 3D printing, it’s the bold pioneers that will show us new ways of working and further disrupt work as we know it today.

We are keen to hear your feedback on where you are, what experiments you are running, and how you are seeking to reap the performance and cultural benefits that come from Level 4 and beyond.

SPIRO COMITIS | CLIENT DIRECTOR

Spiro leads our energy and utilities sector. He has helped energy companies to drive large-scale and complex transformations, implement new operating models, integrate capability and use technology to adapt to a decentralised and decarbonised world.