Build a “remote resilience” culture within your dispersed organisation and your people will continue to adapt to the unexpected, become comfortable with ongoing change and bounce forward into the future with you, despite the virus setback.
Do a little reading around the subject of how organisations will compete in the future and a few themes crop up again and again. It is by now universally accepted by commentators and analysts alike that strategies for success are being ripped up and re-written. Yesterday was about stability, efficiency, economies of scale and the Henry Ford-style entrenchment in a narrow set of core competitive advantages.
Then in contrast, tomorrow brings a step change in speed and the collapsing of timescales, a monumental increase in complexity, rapid transformation in technology, and a dependable uncertainty about the political and economic background in your markets.
The climate in which organisations now operate is unrecognisable. Only today I was working with a group of leaders I had the privilege of also working with two weeks prior, and their challenges and environment has changed drastically. Talk about volatility. Not only have organisations changed their physical form, but the nature of the core competencies required to survive has changed conceptually.
With the emphasis now firmly on adaptation, learning, flexibility, and innovation the cornerstone that underpins it all is the resilience of your workforce and leadership. With all the work that has previously gone into Organisational Design now in jeopardy by your office being disbanded, it is only time before the cracks in resilience start to show. Why? The initial reaction to the crisis was to throw all our energy as business leaders into rehashing the current way of working onto a digital platform and then plough on as we did before. As an exercise in firefighting many reported short term success and celebrated their transformation. However, that adrenaline cannot be sustained, either in the boardroom or at the “coal-face”. Boundaries between work and home are blurred, corporate isolation is kicking in, and the motivation of your people has changed. Leaders need to be able to cope with, and respond to, this if their organisation is going to not just survive the turbulence but emerge from it with new ideas from an increasingly agile workforce.
We are seeing the symptoms now in every organisation we work with, archetypes that we will all recognise and relate to for whom the current climate is a “perfect storm” for burnout. For those who were a corporate slave prior to lock down, selfcare is now non-existent as their behaviours are less exposed. For those who used work as a tonic, time away from their most punishing critic – ‘Their Internal Voice’, they are now trapped in a virtual space without the tools to buffer that negativity. And then the clearest area of concern; the pressure on those working in frontline roles spending long hours in PEE, worrying for themselves and their loved ones health and security.
In essence the hamster wheel is moving faster than ever for those who are still attached to an organisation in some sense. As months will soon drift into years, we can no longer claim this is temporary; the organisation as we once knew it is no more. It has become starkly Darwinian but this time in terms of the ‘survival of the most resilient’.
First used to describe the elasticity of materials, or their ability to return to their original shape, resilience as a psychological concept began to feature in the 1970’s and 80’s. In studies looking at the impact on children of certain detrimental situations, researchers found that some showed different responses to adversity. Probably the key aspect of resilience to be studied and better understood in the decades that followed is seeing it is a process that can be learnt rather than a trait possessed (or not) by an individual.
Organisations have been working on improving their game by addressing things like stress or wellbeing at work for many years. But it’s time to get a new perspective on adversity, stress and setbacks in the workplace. Having understood that work-related stressors can have a damaging effect on employees, many organisations have spent a lot of time, effort and money on trying to minimise their people’s exposure to them; employing a situational-approach with remedial tactics aimed at reducing and avoiding circumstances that can damage people’s wellbeing.
This is all very laudable of course, but the problem is now one of scale and pace. If you focus on trying to mend broken people, you are doomed to be overtaken eventually by sheer volume in the current state of play. Sooner or later you will lose the battle and become a broken organisation. Instead, you need to facilitate a resilient environment suitable to compliment the inevitably rocky road that you are travelling on. I once heard someone describe resilience to me as holding a soft ball and squeezing it in the palm of their hand, explaining ‘it is about bouncing back, returning to the original shape after pressure.’ If this is the case, then it starts with the acceptance that some things and some people are going to get knocked completely out of shape, and as leaders we need to be able to accept that and facilitate a response.
A resilient environment is the product of planned-in capabilities, resources, workflows and cultural characteristics to help avoid burnout and deliver on corporate ambitions. In the face of the volatility and uncertainty in our workforce right now and the fact there isn’t a physical context holding this environment together, it is beholden on every organisation to explore the scenarios where things don’t go according to plan, where results and data tell the wrong story, where individuals, teams, departments and whole profit centres are disappointed. Not just to interrogate them, but more crucially to plan how to respond to these eventualities, because THEY ARE happening, making our organisations vulnerable and our people burnt out.
Like an orchestra, dispersed teams need a strong point of leadership, but more than this a new breed of leader that can build resilience into an organisation without borders and without the physical walls of the office. From the top down the workforce must be fully engaged using a relational approach and know how to manage their own energy for the marathon ahead.
The remote working culture must be truly aligned with the business objectives. Everyone must communicate, communicate, communicate. Inclusivity must be the first rule of Corporate Fight Club. If you can achieve a real breadth in the different ways your people think and work, overlaid with a shared set of values and goals then you won’t just be surviving this, you will be bouncing forward, renewing your energy as you go, and scaling new heights in the performance zone.