Australia appears to have flattened the curve of coronavirus and our organisations have delivered a significant amount of change in a very short period of time, shifting their workforces into distributed teams and yielding some impressive outcomes that may give rise to a reworking of work.

COVID-19 has challenged Australian business to deliver a significant amount of change in a very short period of time and, for the most part, many have risen to the challenge of enabling their staff to work from home safely, stay connected through technology, and stay focused on productivity and outcomes.

As we emerge from lockdown and focus on getting the economy going, it’s easy to speculate about what the near future will hold as the executive moves into a new phase of leading and managing distributed teams. But it does beg the question: Will we aim to return to business as usual or has the pandemic opened up new ways of working that will become the norm?

Quay was joined by several senior business leaders in a virtual collaboration session to discuss the challenges and opportunities that have been created as a result of the pandemic, to engage on how they’ve taken their organisations through such significant change, and to share insights on the lessons they’ve learned.

What emerged is that most organisations have been able to adapt with somewhat impressive speed to migrate their teams working remotely efficiently, to help them get connected, and to make the transition to working as distributed teams as smooth as possible. We also discovered that some were still grappling with or starting to resolve a number of challenges and the opportunity to share both the issues and insights with peers was a good forum to understand what was working for other leaders.

The challenges of managing a distributed workforce

Most of our cohort reported that their teams have responded to the pandemic very well despite the disruption and several leaders also pointed to considerable improvements in both turnaround and delivery as processes have been streamlined to get everyone up and running. In many cases, it was because individuals and teams took initiative to adapt and streamline processes to support the transition.

As their people rallied around ‘doing what needs to be done’, some of the key insights for success included adapting existing processes, enabling people to take initiative, fast-tracking some projects, and utilising technology existing platforms as key enablers to manage substantial change.

The conversation did, however, flag that many are still working on how to ensure that their teams are able to operate at optimal levels as they transition to distributed teams, including:

  • Maintaining morale and staying engaged with colleagues as staff work remotely;
  • Onboarding new staff and returning staff to their workplaces under very different circumstances;
  • Ensuring that as the newness of technology fades that staff can remain both engaged and productive;
  • The potential need to shift to hybrid work environments where some people work from home and others return to a socially distanced workplace;
  • Optimising performance and at the same time ensuring people are coping with the changes in how they work;
  • Steering teams through protracted periods of significant change as restrictions lift and we redefine what “normal” looks like at work and at home;

Let’s explore these in more detail.

Maintaining morale within distributed teams

Many of our participants acknowledged the need to ensure that they try different approaches to maintaining morale and engagement as the dynamics of the team and business’s needs change.

Some individuals, such as those that work in project-oriented roles, are generally performing better with the scale and rate of change as it’s normal working practice to have to adapt to change. People in BAU roles, on the other hand, have had mixed response as some staff flourished with extra time, more focused meetings, and reduced commute times, while others have struggled with the loss of structure, incidental social interaction, and face-to-face management.

Leadership have experienced similar challenges in that working remotely has flagged issues around managing communication, access, change, and the nuanced insights of how well their teams are preforming or struggling that arise in incidental opportunities for feedback i.e. the so-called corridor conversations.

What the collaborative conversation revealed is that leadership needs to ensure that there are multiple approaches to managing their teams’ performance. Some of the initiatives that organisations used included:

  • Making it possible for individuals to connect easily and seamlessly with their leadership, enabling staff to book time into their calendars, and being visible.
  • Team initiatives that allowed leaders and colleagues to call out specific wins at both team and individual level
  • Utilising in-house platforms to showcase individual efforts, professional experiences, and provide feedback
  • Engaging on technology platforms such as Zoom, Skype, Teams, and other connectivity tools for both work-related activity and social initiatives that helped their teams stay connected, engaged, and motivated
  • The value of regular check-ins with people to help to sustain performance as well as pick up the less obvious people challenges when teams are not co-located.
  • The importance of understanding people, their personalities, work styles, and trying to accommodate their needs – where it’s possible – to support engagement through change.
  • Looking beyond their work performance to support staff wellbeing, particularly as not all people show when they are struggling.

Being able to see and engage with staff in different platforms provided leadership with the opportunity to engage in an informal way and assess whether there are issues or challenges that need to be addressed. However, many of the participants acknowledged that managing people through uncertainty, anxiety about their roles, and the turmoil in a challenging environment is considerably more difficult when it can only be done virtually.

Managing new and returning staff

One of the more interesting insights from the session’s participants was the acceleration of projects that have been planned and now activated, which meant that in some cases, new staff were being brought into the business to work with established teams. In most cases, the projects impacted areas of the business that normally wouldn’t require new staff, but who required additional capacity or expertise.

Onboarding new staff during more normal times is often challenging enough, however engaging staff during the lockdown meant that the onboarding processes had to be adapted. New people would experience a very different introduction to organisational culture, meeting colleagues virtually rather than face-to-face, and being inducted into their role in a very different way to the established teams.

Most leaders acknowledged that bringing new starters into the business without having met in person introduced some unique challenges and risks as many new starters had not been interviewed fac. Merging new starters or new teams into existing teams made it vital for leaders to proactively engage on a range of levels including one-on-one conversations,

Similarly, staff returning from leave would face a very different work environment and ways of work.

Leaders recognised the critical challenges both for individuals and their organisations, with many working through ways to streamline their onboarding process from weeks down to days, ensuring that WH&S policies were clearly communicated, facilitating work from home arrangements—including safe work environments—and getting their teams trained on new tools, technologies, and projects.

Managing Workplace Health & Safety

One theme that emerged very quickly in the Collaborate session was that most organisations were well equipped to execute their workplace health and safety strategies for new starters and returning staff.

Examples included ensuring that the right tools, equipment, and systems access were set-up quickly and efficiently, however also looking at innovative ways to deliver the tech to homes, e.g. via Uber, or make it safe for staff to come into the workplace to collect what they needed to work from home. Others asked their staff to undertake ergonomic assessments of their home work environment to help them work safely or adapt their workspace to align with organisation WH&S policies.

With the likelihood of some staff resuming their roles in the workplace, new WH&S measures will need to be put in place to ensure that it is safe to return. Adapting workplaces may mean removing hot desk policies, ensuring shared spaces are regularly cleaned, staggered access into the office, appropriate social distancing, and other WHS policies.

Adapting to an Agile way of work

One of the clearest themes emerging from the leadership discussion was the adoption of Agile as a way of providing structure for distributed teams.

Agile as a methodology lends itself to the nature of the challenges being experienced by leaders in the sessions, as it was facilitating cross-functional and cross-team integration in ways that supported the rapid change unfolding.

Agile has often been viewed as requiring the co-location of teams, many organisations were recognising its merits as a way to support people to be both productive and innovative, without getting too far down various rabbit holes.

While some organisations were already on the Agile journey, others were only starting to adopt some of its practices, such as daily stand-ups, celebrations, showcasing scrums, and ensuring that work was being delivered at a cadence suitable to the environment.

As one of our facilitators has delivered Agile in many different environments, he observed that Agile would serve well to provide structure into what may seem like an unstructured environment and pay dividends for both the business and staff. Agile as an organisational mindset and a methodology can deliver the structure that enables leaders to succinctly define expectations, tasks, and work packages that sets up a team for success. It may also feed better into existing or modified governance within the organisation.

Our facilitator also suggested that organisations that are less familiar with agile ways of working would be well served by engaging an Agile coach to support their teams to embed an Agile mindset and techniques into standard work practice.

Steering change in a ‘new normal’

Communicating change is very challenging when it is a moving set of pandemic goalposts outside the control of business or where there are multiple locations with differing restrictions or relaxing of restrictions.

As we explored some of the challenges of communicating change, one participant zeroed in on the value of bringing in in a change specialist to help communicate the organisation’s approaches, methods of engagement, challenges for performance and people, and to help manage the risk of change fatigue.

There was recognition among many of the participants that change management as a strategy will become a critical part of managing both the here-and-now and the longer-term initiatives, particularly around driving sustainable change into organisations that are now distributed but may move to a hybrid team of co-located and distributed teams.

Those organisations that can focus on removing ambiguity, setting clear expectations, bringing teams along on the change journey, and position their teams to pivot or reposition where necessary will enable their teams and groups to manage performance far more effectively.

A shift in leadership: survive first, then recovery

As many companies enact the ‘survival, then recovery’ playbook, there’s a reality that leadership during a crisis and recovery may well need to be quite different to leadership in times of growth and optimism.

The long-term transformation plans have not been shelved—in fact, in some cases, projects have been brought forward or accelerated—however, focus has landed squarely on the short-term: revenue generation, cutting costs, executing quickly, and being able to adapt quickly to change. Stewards who understand the business and its values may well be far better placed than visionaries to lead through recovery.

What is important to recognise, however, is that we are in unprecedented times of change and that we may not have all the answers. The collaborative sharing of what’s working and what we as organisations struggle with has yielded some fantastic insights from this group, however, there are other observations that may require the same intentional focus for our leaders going forward. For example:

  • Here and now: Most organisations are focused on the ‘here and now’ challenges to ensure their teams are up and running – both for new or inflight initiatives and business-as-usual operations.
  • BAU will need to change: As the ‘here-and-now’ activity starts to wind down and we focus on the mid-to long term, how will we need to continue to evolve our organisations to meet the needs of co-located and distributed teams? Project Teams have adapted well as they are used to focusing and being measured on outcomes but what about BAU ? do we need to start thinking of BAU work in similar terms?
  • Are our leaders looking after themselves as well as their teams? How do leaders ensure they are looking after their mental, social, and physical well-being when their efforts and energy is spent on recognising and managing the needs of their teams?

As Australian states are progressively lifting restrictions in staggered timetables, another key issue for leadership is on the table: managing the wellbeing of staff who may be returning with varying degrees of mental health needs after experiencing significant stress resulting from isolation, changes to home and income, or anxiety about returning to the workplace.

What the session showed us is that intentional leadership will be essential to successfully steer and managing distributed teams as they adapt to ongoing uncertainty and a return to focusing on productivity and outcomes-whether they return to the office or continue to work from home. Trust, vision, sincerity, purpose, clarity, confidence, and the ability to actively lead people through the challenges of working in new ways will be critical tenets of leading through to recovery.

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