By Ben Waber, Ph.D. in Organizational Science, President and Co-Founder at Humanyze
There’s understandable anxiety around the spread of COVID-19 across the world. While countries like China that were hit early have started to recover, globally the public health risk to vulnerable populations is still quite high. As governments and health organizations begin to prioritize public health, companies are beginning to consider various strategies to help reduce the health risk of their employees. In doing so, it’s important to keep in mind the health of the organization as a whole and find the right approach that will work for your employees and the company.
Remote work is, of course, an important tool to use during high-risk periods. Reducing interaction slows the spread of disease. It also has the impact of dramatically changing how people collaborate, in some cases other tools can be employed during low to moderate risk periods to help reduce the spread of disease while not impacting performance. This includes steps such as closing office doors, changing seating arrangements, and even scheduling additional meetings (longer conversations and meetings reduce the number of short, unplanned interaction across teams, which research shows is one of the main vectors of disease spread in the workplace). Whatever next steps are taken, companies need to consider that the right processes are in place in order to make this transition successful and quickly be able to adjust so that employees have the necessary tools to continue their work.
Understanding Your Teams To Prioritize Remote Work Strategies
As companies weigh their options and consider remote work, organizational analytics can be employed to proactively identify parts of the organization that can easily shift to working remotely. These teams are ones who have a high percentage of offsite communication and a low level of informal meeting time, as their work-styles easily translate to remote work. Other teams include those with low levels of exploration (spending time with other teams) and a high degree of adaptability as they are more likely to quickly adapt to remote work.
During higher risk periods such as we are seeing now with COVID-19, other teams will also have to work remotely, and it’s here that leaders need to pay close attention to a number of collaboration patterns that could be negatively affected. Given that the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to last for a few months, leaders will need to respond quickly in order to mitigate its negative effects.
Actionable Steps You Can Implement Now
When it comes to organizational health, we expect exploration to suffer most heavily. When people are remote they tend to interact less with people they don’t already know, creating information silos. To combat this, companies should arrange informal cross-team remote events, like lunches, coffee sessions or other opportunities for team members to connect.
Lower alignment is similarly worrisome. Teams that need to coordinate but don’t may find that work across the organization grinds to a halt. A top leadership priority should be to ensure regular check-ins across organizational boundaries, even if it’s only 15 minutes each week. Otherwise, coordination that is usually solved by informal interaction is likely to be lost.
Finally, it’s important to ensure the continued adaptability of the organization. Management needs to dynamically connect with employees across the company, in order to quickly understand the pulse of the organization and address problems that emerge. If not, people could return to the office at the end of the health crisis, only to find that they’ve lost months of time to the competition, and their workforce is less engaged.
Additionally, companies who are able to test remote work policies before they’re deployed can use it to reveal any blind spots in their processes, such as incomplete IT support or insufficient tools (Do employees need external monitors and headsets in order to get their job done at home? Can the company’s VPN system handle the expected amount of traffic?). Given the time-sensitive nature of the social distancing around COVID-19, companies should focus on identifying the most important informal collaboration behaviors they need to maintain over the coming weeks and implementing processes to support them and keep track of their effectiveness, such as virtual open office meetings, and other types of interactions that allow for informal interactions.
It’s important for organizations to do their part during a crisis. This means supporting public health while at the same time supporting employees and their work. Keeping an eye on an organization’s health has never been more important.
About the Author: Ben Waber (President and co-founder of Humanyze) received his Ph.D. in Organizational Science from MIT for his work with Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s Human Dynamics group. He is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, and previously worked as a senior researcher at Harvard Business School. Waber’s work has been featured in major media outlets such as Wired, The Economist, and NPR. He has consulted for industry leaders such as LG, McKinsey & Company, and Gartner on technology trends, social networks, and organizational design. His book, People Analytics, was published by the Financial Times Press in 2013.