The real challenge of remote working

The overnight transition to remote working has been a remarkable example of organizational agility, but it is not without its challenges.


The real challenge of remote working

The overnight transition to remote working has been a remarkable example of organizational agility, but it is not without its challenges.

Many organizations have been able to deploy technologies that enable their people to work from home, but creating a spirit of community and cohesion has been more difficult.

With employees seeking a sense of stability, security and connection in uncertain times, it is already apparent that the ability to shape effective and inclusive remote teams will be a new superpower in the war for talent.

But the challenge will be about more than engagement and employee experience.

Rising expectations – and new challenges

In the wake of the pandemic, there is more scrutiny than ever before on companies’ ability to live their values, and to create value for society.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it took many companies a decade to understand that real change would come not from tighter rules, but from the culture of their organizations.

By developing the ability of their people to make good decisions and do the right thing, many companies have overseen a fundamental change in how they operate.

But examining how the most successful companies have developed their culture underlines the scale of the challenge as they transition to new ways of working:

  • Many companies have focussed on the tone from the top, ensuring that leaders spend time with their people to communicate and role model clear expectations.
  • Others have concentrated on the character of their people, embedding a shared sense of responsibility to do the right thing through better recruitment, selection and training.
  • And others have spent time on strengthening the human connection between their people, making time and space for teams to build mutual trust so that they feel confident and supported in raising ethical dilemmas.

In an environment which lacks the cohesion and community of the office, every one of these techniques will face new challenges.

Setting clear expectations through a visible leadership presence – “management by walking around” – is already more difficult. Hiring decisions are made harder by greater barriers to meeting face-to-face. And strengthening bonds between colleagues is more challenging when every interaction is filtered through a screen.

Leading the way: unknown unknowns

As a leader, while I may be confident in the strength of my organization’s culture, and the robustness of our systems, I now need to ask some tough questions to understand the longer-term impact of remote working.

And I need to go beyond engagement surveys to drill down into the critical indicators that can give me confidence in my people.

At Principia, we have been partnering with our clients to roll out our Ethical Culture Index (ECI). The ECI provides deep-dive analysis of every aspect of ethical culture, geared towards one key question: can the organization and its people consistently do the right thing?

We are already seeing striking results. People report having many fewer informal interactions with their colleagues, with an impact on the level of trust in their teams. And, perhaps most importantly, we see a significant drop in people’s sense of belonging.

Why is this important? We know from our work that a sense of belonging and connection to the purpose of the organization, is the single most important factor in determining the way that people behave and the decisions they make.

From insight to action

Data from the ECI, often combined with deep-dive engagement with employees to understand their day-to-day experience, is already enabling leaders to target and prioritise action.

Faced with the most seismic change to their organizations in decades, leaders are drawing on insights from ECI data to prioritise investment in retooling existing initiatives and launching new programs to strengthen trust and belonging – building confidence that their people can do the right thing, every time.

About the author

Rob Hayward is Chief Strategy Officer of Principia, where he also serves as Engagement Director for key clients.

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