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Coronavirus has rippled across the world, taking hundreds of thousands of lives and changing many millions more. One striking side-effect is that across many organisations, urgent necessity has become the mother of management invention. The pandemic has ignited new initiatives, refreshed old ones, and compelled managers to reassess an approach still often based on being close to their staff. 

Many companies jump-started plans for remote working that they are unlikely to reverse — even if some workers are struggling to do their jobs in cramped or unsuitable apartments.

Others have found the crisis revealed employees’ hidden skills and allowed managers to deploy staff more flexibly. Some companies have even scrapped or subverted internal hierarchies, or challenged longstanding norms of corporate culture.

As the landscape changes, particularly for white-collar staff, it is not only the workplace itself that will look different, but potentially the way in which work itself is done, organised and overseen.

“We were all thrown into the deep end of the pool at the same time,” says Kelley Steven-Waiss, chief innovation officer of Here Technologies, and founder of Hitch, a cloud-based service matching skills to jobs. She says “the future of work, where work is done remotely and not in an office” swiftly became reality.

As companies cautiously reopen offices after lockdown, many are experimenting with new ways of working © Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg

Yet, while the forced, simultaneous global nature of lockdown has eased, there are also doubts about how many management innovations will persist — or whether they are innovations at all. 

Laszlo Bock, who used to be head of personnel at Google and now heads Humu, a company he founded to analyse and encourage staff engagement and performance, is one of the doubters.

“I haven’t seen anything tremendously creative or innovative,” he says. “We moved from the adrenalin phase, to the real estate phase — ‘maybe we don’t need that office any more’ — to the adulatory phase: ‘Now we have a return plan!’”

Futureproofing operations

Among the possible benefits that will endure after the crisis is the recognition — among staff and managers, and across office and manufacturing roles — that, under pressure, many workers can adapt and apply themselves to tasks that fall well outside their stated competencies.

At Danone in Mexico, for example, the crisis interrupted a complex project to retool and introduce a new bottle shape, brand image and environmentally friendlier production process for Bonafont, the French food group’s best-selling mineral water

‘If you’re in the office and others are remote, everybody has to act as though everybody is remote,’ says Job van der Voort, founder of Remote.com © Christopher DiltsBloomberg

Travel bans prevented Ocme, the Italian machinery provider, from sending a team of technicians to Mexico City to carry out the work. Instead, without interrupting production, they worked with Danone teams from the region, who were trained via Zoom video calls and allowed on to the shop floor only one or two at a time to ensure social distancing. In the final phase, the machinery was successfully reprogrammed remotely from Italy, with minimal interruption to the output of 36,000 bottles an hour. What was usually a four-day initiative took two weeks to prepare and implement, but the whole operation cost less than a hands-on switch would have done. The plant is now set up for future remote training and projects.

More important, Emmanuel Faber, Danone’s chief executive, says the emergency change in approach reflected a company-wide shift that he believes will stand the group in better stead for what he calls the “Covid world”. He predicts a permanent change to a more flexible workforce, in which, say, Mexican factory workers are able to use their newly acquired technical skills, and office-workers can be more easily redeployed, if necessary, to logistics centres and factories.

“There will be [more] lockdowns and we will need to continue to have that flexibility,” he says. The changes pioneered in Mexico and elsewhere will contribute to the group’s efficiency and productivity.

The crisis has demonstrated that many workers can adapt and apply themselves to tasks that fall outside their typical roles © Nathan Laine/Bloomberg

“Some of these roles that we thought had to be physically present really don’t, some of these roles that we thought were risky [to reorganise], they can handle it fine,” says Paul Krebs, head of transformation at Koch Industries, the big privately held US industrial group. He was speaking during an online discussion with Pat Pettiti, chief executive of Catalant, a software platform company that Koch and MassMutual, the US insurer, use to promote better use of workers’ skills.

Mr Pettiti is another enthusiast for increased agility in working methods. Freed from the constraints of the physical workplace, staff who would previously have “walked down to your office to see you [are] now working with colleagues in Singapore”, while managers are hiring outside contractors and consultants to fill gaps. Mr Krebs says the crisis has “opened up creative ideas” about how Koch can “flow talent across the business but also “plug in external talent”.

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Of more than 7,500 staff at MassMutual, 98 per cent were forced to work remotely during the pandemic. The crisis has accelerated the use of the Catalant platform that lets workers see available projects and roles more easily, and gives managers insight into workers’ skills, via their LinkedIn profiles. By sending everybody online for evaluations and appraisals, it has also levelled the playing field for staff. Teresa Hassara, head of workplace solutions, says MassMutual has had “really positive feedback — when everybody works remotely, it feels like everybody has a fair shot”.

“Historically, [workers in] companies have just grabbed people closest to them on an org chart and asked them to solve it,” adds Brian McGarvey, human resources leader for US and Canada at GE Healthcare, part of General Electric. “In the next year to 18 months, I won’t be able to recruit talent early in their career unless they can work remotely. And why do I even need to hire that person? I could use them 20 hours a week.”

The coronavirus crisis has jump-started many companies’ plans for remote working — plans that they are unlikely to reverse © Hulton Archive/Getty

There are darker sides to novel or different ways of working. If, for instance, companies decide to hire the cheapest labour remotely, they will remove opportunities from skilled workers in more costly developed countries.

In other cases, presenteeism — judging staff by whether they are in the office rather than by what they produce — is being recast with a sinister remote-working twist. Concerns are rising about the surveillance of staff working outside the office, through monitoring of screen time or keystrokes.

Layered on top are the risks of overwork, particularly in white-collar professions, as the boundaries between the home office and home become blurred. Early in the crisis, multinationals rolled out mental health apps as they became aware of the risk that the new situation would load greater burdens on to staff who were now out of sight of team leaders.

Ms Hassara says MassMutual’s managers are encouraged to check in with staff more regularly and keep an eye on the time-stamps of emails and messages to make sure that “when people are working at 11pm, it’s a choice and not because they’re suddenly working 60 or 70 hours a week”.

Hierarchical issues

As companies cautiously reopen offices after lockdown, they are also becoming aware that hybrid teams, part on site, part remote, pose new challenges. Job van der Voort, founder of Remote.com, which he set up to help organisations navigate local rules about remote working, insists that “if you’re in the office and others are remote, everybody has to act as though everybody is remote. If you don’t do that, then there’s a really big bias and it’s very hard for people in the office to see the effect. Latency of a few 100 milliseconds [on a video call] can make all the difference.”

Mr van der Voort adds that in a world of “asynchronous working”, all documents have to be “public and discoverable” to avoid individuals having to wait for colleagues in other time zones to wake up before they can address a problem.

When all employees work remotely, real or perceived bias towards those not in the office is reduced © Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

For Humu’s Mr Bock, though, most companies are still missing a big opportunity to “fundamentally re-examine what the employer-worker relationship, or the worker-worker relationship is going to be”. 

The risk, he says, is that “companies haven’t considered the second-order effects” of some of the consequences of widespread remote working, including how to integrate the people they hire and how to maintain a corporate culture.

Humu itself has developed formal and informal processes to encourage more interaction between online workers. They include setting up a virtual “infinite meeting” — into which colleagues can drop for a casual chat — and engaging an interfaith minister to discuss issues with individuals. “Better than an app, HR or therapy,” says Mr Bock.

Some employers are experimenting with the abolition of job titles and the encouragement of more flexible application of skills. MassMutual’s attempt to break down hierarchy predates the crisis, but several other organisations have used the crisis to rethink the structure of work and jobs. Emaar, the Dubai property developer, announced in July that the pandemic had prompted it to eliminate job descriptions, to reflect that it “is not a collection of talented individuals, but a team of great pooled talent”.

Pat Pettiti, chief executive of Catalant, is enthusiastic about the increased agility in working methods since lockdown © Bryce Vickmark/FT.
The pandemic forced 98 per cent of insurer MassMutual’s staff to work remotely © Gado Images/Alamy

Fujitsu, the Japanese technology company, has used the crisis to pursue an overhaul of its seniority-based promotion system, establish a clearer view of its staff’s job skills and accelerate measures to judge performance by output, to combat the scourge of office presenteeism in Japan. Announcing in July that the vast majority of its domestic workforce — 80,000 employees — would now primarily work remotely, it said the company was aiming for “a new style of management based on employee autonomy and trust to maximise team performance and improve productivity”.

In Germany, companies such as Siemens, the industrial group, and SAP, the software company, have rolled out remote working at scale for staff. The switch challenges collective pay bargaining conventions, as the companies adapt to measuring output from remote working rather than presence in the workplace.

Smarter working

The catalytic effect of the crisis goes beyond business. Five years after Sweden reorganised its police force, decentralising its top-down approach, the northern region’s “incident command” unit took on responsibility for co-ordinating Covid-19 responses on the ground. Markus Hällgren, management professor at Umea University, says at first the frontline officers turned to leaders at the centre for decisions, but the pandemic also “gave them a chance to try out and reinforce the [new] leadership philosophy”.

Emmanuel Faber, Danone’s chief executive, believes that the group now stands in better stead for what he calls the ‘Covid world’ © Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg
At Danone in Mexico the crisis forced innovations in the production process for Bonafort mineral water © M Sobreira/Alamy

Amy Edmondson, of Harvard Business School, says the situation presents an opportunity to “fix some of the things that weren’t working. For example, the idea that every white-collar worker should be in the office 8.30 to 6, five days a week, is silly”. Some tasks, such as running data or writing a report may be more easily achieved at home, she says — provided of course that the worker has the space and peace to carry them out. Others tasks, such as “brainstorming, reading nuance, building off each other’s ideas”, require closer proximity.

She is wary, though, about managers who change tack abruptly: “Part of the problem is either/or, all-or-nothing thinking: wanting people back [in the office] and wanting them back 50 hours a week aren’t necessarily the same thing.”

The crisis has also exposed how slow big organisations were before the crisis to adopt and enforce more common sense and humane approaches to management. 

“There is a level of intimacy now in conversations and honesty about how we’re doing,” says Ms Hassara of MassMutual, who points to how managers are “skipping levels” to talk directly to employees a few layers below them in the structure.

Some companies have rolled out mental health apps in order to support staff who may struggle to fully switch off when working from home © Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

She uses the example of the Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted during lockdown, as an illustration. “We have been having a lot of conversations about social justice and managers are engaging in those conversations in a far more personal way than they ever have before [because] in a way we have been in each other’s personal lives because we have been ‘in’ their homes.”

Mr van der Voort says: “You should value people by their work and coach them. It should be easily visible and accessible, so managing people from that aspect shouldn’t be that different.”

The reality remains, though, that before the pandemic, many managers lagged behind best practice and seemed reluctant to change old habits even as productivity flagged. It may take more than a once-in-generations crisis to change that.

“Most [business] leaders are realising it’s easier to make big changes,” says Mr Bock, with cautious optimism. “That’s huge, because traditionally change processes take for ever. People are building new resolutions about how to stay connected and how to care about the human being on the other side. There’s a possibility that the quality of management will actually improve.”

A possibility. But by no means a certainty.

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