Sage-Gavin: Remote work brings culture front and center

By: | June 3, 2020 • 4 min read
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

“Crisis” has its roots in the Greek language: “to separate, decide, judge—to distinguish.” In every crisis, we have an opportunity to decide what we will create from it. I am reminded of this, as CHROs around the world seek to help their organizations not only cope with—but emerge better from—the COVID-19 crisis.

My teams and I are working with C-suite leaders who are stepping up to the challenge of leading during this time, and we are focusing on the opportunity inherent in times of rapid change. In particular, we see the opportunity to use this time to foster a shared resilience that may not have previously existed. These executives are moving metaphorical mountains for their people, trying to keep them in jobs, while becoming more critical to their business than ever.

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Beyond keeping people employed (the focus of last month’s column), one topic is all-consuming at the moment: remote work. So many companies are dipping a toe into the remote-work waters for the first time. And with a more remote working environment comes people who are more digitally connected to their employer than they’ve ever been. This is a huge shift in “normal” times, but even more significant during COVID-19, when many workers are dealing with health concerns, child and elder care, reduced pay and more. The demands on our people have never been higher. And that means it’s our responsibility to tread even more wisely and carefully into the remote environment.

Work culture matters more than ever.

Remote work: An eyes-wide-open approach

As 2020 dawned, I published a point of view with my colleagues that discussed how digital technologies were creating new needs for our workforces, as well as putting a new twist on some traditional needs. Its premise was that digital technologies can change the worker experience for better or for worse, depending on choices C-suite leaders make as they implement them. We certainly aren’t prescient, but looking back, we may seem so. Because now here we are, with the majority of companies steeped in digital, remote working in ways they may not have anticipated.

I see rapid progress, though. My teams work with some leading companies that are finding the enlightened sweet spot, where what’s good for an increasingly digital business is deliberately designed to be good for their workforce.

We were able to connect with Wharton professor and bestselling author Adam Grant late last year to glean his thoughts on this topic. He gave us all food for thought, as he always does: “Technology is not a cure-all. Technology is an amplifier. Whatever already exists, and whatever you feed it, becomes more pronounced and extreme. For example, if you have an always-on, bureaucratic culture and you add new technology channels, you will likely end up with workers who are trying to manage 47 different apps to communicate and manage projects. That’s not helpful. Technology itself does not create culture change. You have to intentionally change your culture first, treating technology as a resource rather than an answer.”

“Technology is an amplifier. Whatever already exists, and whatever you feed it, becomes more pronounced and extreme. – Adam Grant

Let’s take that in for a moment. As many companies accelerate into remote working environments, what is and is not working in their culture will be amplified. Adam also shared thoughts on how to ensure technology helps, rather than hinders: “In cultures that end up using technology productively, there is a value placed on relationships, not just results. Technology is not forced on people. Instead, it’s adopted in service of helping people. Technology and culture should free people up to be their best, rather than constrain them. It’s empowerment versus a perceived lack of control.”

Put another way, in a culture that elevates people, technology does the same.

So, as we move to new ways of working, we need to take a look at a few areas to be sure we’re enabling the best in our people rather than “piling on” in a time of stress. Research points to a few key areas of focus.

Digital wellness

In a world where mobile devices allow always-on connections, the boundaries between work time and personal time have eroded. During COVID-19, as many companies accelerate to meet new consumer demands, we need to ensure our people are not suffering from rapid burnout.

In a culture that elevates people, technology does the same.

As physical boundaries disappear, companies risk work culture becoming 24/7. Workers are having to put up psychological boundaries to protect their wellbeing, to keep company demands from becoming all-consuming. In many cases, those boundaries are not being respected. Employees are having to transition from one realm to the next with increasing frequency throughout their days and nights, with negative impact on their own health and their ability to contribute—at home and at work. Studies abound showing people regularly check work e-mails at the dinner table, as well as in bed.

Transparency and trust

Some companies are already using digital analytics to see more clearly how work is being done. From which teams to assemble for top-notch innovation to how to better support workers for better outcomes, leaders now have visibility into what makes their company really work.

During times of crisis, it’s a natural tendency for some leaders to grasp the rudder even tighter, reverting to command-and-control to steer the workforce in one direction. But in the most advanced companies, leaders resist this temptation in favor of a culture that supports workers helping to shape strategy, rather than just being participants in making it a reality. This radical level of transparency ensures our people are not passive recipients of something handed down from “on high” and, instead, feel ownership of where the company is headed and their part in helping it get there.

I’m always amazed at the innovation and dedication that emerges when a company opens itself up to ideas from beyond the usual management ranks. Some of our best and brightest are not in executive roles (yet), but they’re energized and want to contribute during this time. Let’s pave the way and make it safe for them to do so.

Skilling

Workers with digital skills have an advantage right now and, in many companies, are more likely to remain employed because of these skills. But every worker should have access to digital skilling. And as artificial intelligence (AI) comes to the fore, workers also need uniquely human skills like creativity, storytelling, scenario planning and more.

To help our workers now and into the future, creating individual skills profiles is essential. They’re the map not only for how to best move our companies forward through better agile teaming, but also how to move individuals into the individual resilience that will serve them well during crisis and into their future.

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Compassion Counts

As you take on the added responsibility COVID-19 has brought to human resources teams around the globe, remember you are not alone. So many of you are bringing about positive changes during this challenging time.

As you work to bring shared resilience to your workforce and company, please remember to show yourselves the same compassion you’re showing your people. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are still in the early days of recovery in some places while others are beginning to find equilibrium.

And there’s still so much good work to be done.