Remote Work is a Huge Challenge for Enterprises. It’s Also a Huge Opportunity.
The tools and processes required to support remote work can be a massive asset for enterprises, even after teams return to the office.
As companies respond to the COVID-19 virus by encouraging employees to work from home, thoughtful management can minimize disruption and create new opportunities for front-line workers. If your organization does not have a strategy for enabling a digital workplace, now is the time to build one
In March of 2017, IBM reversed several decades of policy by calling its remote workers back to the office. The move was a dramatic turn for a company that was an early advocate of remote work; the company had over 2,000 remote workers way back in 1983 and in 2009 estimated that 40% of its 386,000 employees worked remotely.
Some IBM employees saw the move as part of a broader cost-cutting effort (many remote workers did not want to relocate to a new “hub” and sought new jobs). IBM said the shift was focused on increasing innovation, as close-knit teams could collaborate more effectively in person.
Regardless of IBM’s motivation, the truth is that enabling remote work is very, very challenging for large companies. The complexity of managing strategic initiatives across thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of employees in different functional areas and different locations has been too daunting for many established organizations to overcome.
The upside is that the tooling and processes required to support remote workers can be a massive asset for enterprises, even if the remote work need is temporary. A well-managed digital workplace unlocks innovation by connecting talented employees across functions and geographies and enabling a more meritocratic system in which skills and accomplishments are better documented and recognized.
The Hidden Challenge of Remote Work
The internet is littered with tips and guidance for managing remote teams. Most of these articles focus on productivity tools and management practices for direct, one-to-few teams.
The challenge for large organizations is much more complex. Keeping strategic initiatives moving through different functional and geographic groups, data silos, and political climates is difficult even for the best-run organizations.
For decades, business leaders have tried to solve this strategy execution challenge with technology and processes for improving collaboration and innovation. Billions were spent on software and big-ticket consulting firms. And while organizations undoubtedly saw some gains, strategy leaders still don’t see the big leap forward materializing. According to Gartner, only 30% of strategy leaders believe their efforts are aligned with strategy.
Why? Because the big challenge of strategy execution is alignment — not alignment between executives or even management teams, but alignment between work and skills. Put simply, most organizations fail to execute on strategy because they don’t how to put the right people on the right work at the right time.
92% of strategy leaders say resource allocation is a significant barrier to strategy execution.
Not surprisingly, alignment is also the hidden challenge of remote work. When employees are distributed into a virtual space, management has more difficulty identifying the skills they have at their disposal and deploying them to the right projects.
Solving this challenge requires two steps. First, every large organization should build an inventory of the skills within its workforce. Second, leaders need to map all existing high-priority work to those skills in order to assess skills gaps and resource readiness. Preferably this would all happen in one central system.
Employee Engagement and Remote Work
The digital workplace offers tremendous upside. By aligning critical work to skills in a central system, business leaders can break through several barriers that hamper employee engagement.
First, a digital workplace is a perfect way to enable innovation by connecting employees who would never bump into each other in a physical office.
In 2017, Royal Dutch Shell rolled out an initiative to drive digital innovation. One of the first projects they launched was a reverse mentoring initiative, in which the team identified 50 people within Shell who were qualified to help senior leaders understand different aspects of digital innovation (eventually 8 of the 50 were selected to participate).
Shell used the Catalant platform to catalog the right skills and solicit volunteers. Caroline Missen, Business Advisor to the Downstream Director, says the initiative showed them how limited job titles are when searching for specific capabilities for a defined project.
“What was interesting was that these people came from all parts of the organization, and very few of them were working in what we’d call digital roles. Most of them were pretty junior in the organization and they were hidden,” says Missen.
The success of that project sparked a larger initiative within Shell to think differently about how it could close the gap between strategy and execution by quickly aligning new projects to strategies, accessing and allocating the right people and capabilities to those projects, and tying the results of those projects to business value.
Building a digital workplace can also help employees feel more engaged with the most important work at their organizations. At many organizations, the same high performers are tapped repeatedly for important projects, leaving others in the organization frustrated.
One of our customers, a large firm in the finance and insurance sector, chose to partner with Catalant in part to give employees transparency into the most important work in the organization, and a path to contribute to that work. Key projects are posted in Catalant, and employees are encouraged to update their own skills and raise their hands to join the effort.
Employee engagement can pay huge dividends down the line. In fact, says Allan Steinmetz, founder of Inward Strategic Consulting, employee engagement is one of the best-kept secrets in business. A recent Gallup study of over 100,000 people in 150+ countries found that companies in the top quarter of employee engagement saw a 17% lift in productivity over those in the bottom quarter. Top-performing companies outperform their peers in almost every category, from workplace safety to employee turnover.
“It’s pretty simple: When there is alignment between employees and the customer, productivity increases,” says Steinmetz.
How Are You Building a Digital Workplace?
As more organizations move toward a digital workplace, whether temporarily or as part of a large transformation effort, it is important for business leaders to consider the how. Part of the effort is enabling your employees to communicate and collaborate more easily, but it’s also time to rethink the way your organization aligns strategy and execution.
The Gartner report Cool Vendors in Human Capital Management: Transforming Talent to Drive the Digital Workplace (complimentary download here), which includes Catalant as a Cool Vendor in the category, states how “A lack of insight regarding skills required and skills that will be retired as a result of the digital workplace is creating challenges for organizations that wish to plan with accurate predictions for the digital workplace.”
Every company today has an opportunity to improve its ability to understand the skills required for strategy execution and align skills to work. There’s never been a better time to get moving.
Building a Digital Workplace
The transformation toward a digital workplace has been in progress for almost two decades. Some of the most successful technology vendors in the world achieved their position by digitizing previously analog systems and processes, freeing teams and employees from the constraints of the office.
According to analyst firm Gartner, the digital workplace “enables new, more effective ways of working; raises employee engagement and agility; and exploits consumer-oriented styles and technologies.”
But how do companies enable a digital workplace? The most successful organizations focus on tools, behaviors, and insights.
A digital workplace requires a suite of tools to enable communication, task management, and more. In the past decade, tools like Slack and Zoom have made communication and networking easier than ever. File sharing applications like Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive allow remote employees to track files and documents. The right toolset not only improves productivity but also increases opportunities for innovation.
Managing a digital workplace requires a different set of behaviors than managing an office. As more work and collaboration moves into a virtual space, leaders should focus more on employee engagement, consistent communication, feedback loops, and expectation setting.
Task management and workflow systems help keep work flowing across digital platforms, but gaining real visibility into the overall progress of major initiatives requires a broader effort. Leaders need to invest in systems and processes for defining and capturing desired outcomes in a digital space.