Iterating With Remote Work

Iterating With Remote Work

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[Paul] Hello, and welcome to today's webinar, Iterating With Remote Work. I'm Paul Michelman, editor in chief of MIT Sloan Management Review and I'll be your moderator today. Today's program is sponsored by Slack. This event will be recorded and the recording and slides will be available to all attendees approximately three to four business days after the end of the live event.

We welcome your questions. To submit questions, please enter them anytime in the Questions module on the go to webinar control panel. We'll answer as many questions as time permits. If you encounter audio or other difficulties during today's program, please follow the instructions in the Questions module. Our speaker today is Kristine Dery. Kristine is a research scientist and program manager for the MIT Center for Information Systems Research.

Kristine, welcome and over to you. [Kristine] Thank you, Paul, it's a delight to be here and thank you to everybody who has joined us today. As Paul mentioned, I am a research scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, which is part of the Sloan School of Management.

And we've been studying large organizations for over 40 years. Today, these companies are most challenged by how they transform their business models, obviously for digital and we look at those challenges from a multiplicity of angles, from innovation, data strategy, digital partnering, digital business models, architecting for the business for digital, but also the challenges of designing the employee experience for digital, and I would argue that never before has that been more important than it is right now. So the research I'm going to talk about today draws on this employee experience research that we have been doing over the years and the frameworks together with a lot of data that I've collected over the last few weeks as companies have been going through the COVID-19 crisis. Nick Vandermolen and Ina Sebastian have worked with me on the original work and I'm really grateful for all of their contribution that they've made to the work that you'll see today, which is only going to be a small slice of our overall research. And I invite you to go to the CISR website to see more of this research if it's something that you're interested in because will we develop a lot more of these principles in the work that's on that website. Many firms have contributed to this work and those firms are the consortium of companies that work closely with the Center for Information Systems Research and I'm really grateful for their insights.

These companies challenge us to answer hard questions and right now there's a lot of hard questions. So I'm grateful for both their questions and also their help in answering some of them, providing insights based on what they do and what others do that enable us to find some pathway forward. The way they apply our research and bring it to life in ways that often we've never imagined gives us further insights into both future research and also the current research that we're doing. So let's move on. What we've got here is we're moving to a new normal and that seems like a fairly trite thing to say at times but I'm going to draw a little bit back on Eric McNulty's work in this SMR series and for those of you who have been following the series, you remember the webinar that he did a few weeks ago where he talked about these three stages of readiness, Response, and recovery. If we translate that into what we're seeing at the moment in our research, we're going from this sort of connected and operational phase where we enable people to just be connected and get their work done.

And this took some time; it was difficult but intense and a lot of companies that I've spoken to were quite surprised actually at how able they were to get their people to get prepared for this phase. But while that was a very unenviable task, now most companies have achieved a degree of operational capability that's enabling their people to move forward. The next phase of this is really where we start to look at what is the kind of employee experience that is really going to help us move to the next phase and help our people really excel in this new world? Our people are facing all kinds of challenges to enable them to really work effectively. They've got families at home, they've got social interactions, some of their work's not digitized and they're trying to do it within a virtual context.

Some systems are not working for them, they have some of the capabilities at home and don't. So we've got some much bigger challenges to build this employee experience that really enables our people to excel. And this phase is much harder than even the difficult phase that we had before. Finally, we're going to move to a place though where we're going to start to ask the questions about what's the world of work going to look like at the other side? And this is the learning phase. So while phase one was reasonably straightforward but not easy, these phases are much more complex and cyclical and iterative.

So we look at step one, it's really all about standards and most of those standards were technical, but they're also about process and it's a pretty straight forward type of a series of data exchange and processes that we go through at that point. But in these next two phases, stage two starts to introduce a variety of useful ways of addressing employee needs. So we start to see the complexity of how people are working and we're trying to respond to those to get work done. But they come from all over the place, they're adopted unevenly, often they're done on the fly, this is a more complex series of interactions that are a little more chaotic than we would normally experience. And the third phase then we're starting to gather data, gather information and move to a slightly more organized state where empowered employees are working together to develop these sort of iterative learning cycles so that we can create this new world of work coming out the other side. So we're going to talk more about these final two, these two stages today that we're in, the creating of the employee experience and then finally, one of the most important parts, which is learning how to build a better way of working.

Here's what we're trying to do and this is not new, where employee experience has been defined in our research as how easy is it for you to do your work today and then reimagine your work of tomorrow, which is really exactly what we're doing at the moment. But this is not easy right now. When we hear of core volumes, for example, increasing by 40 times per day has been the case for some of the banks here in Australia and I'm sure many of the other financial institutions around the world. So this process of creating a great employee for our people is normally challenging, but today, it is even more challenging and patchy and very iterative. And that iteration is happening on the fly and with often very incomplete information and that's okay. But we need to keep gathering those stories, capturing data, capturing experiences so that as we come out the other side into post COVID-19, we get a better idea of what we want to look like as we enter the recovery phase, as McNulty would describe it.

What we do know from the previous data is that employee experience pays off. And when we define employee experience, we're talking about the technologies and space and symbols and social networks that make out our adaptive work environment, but also the habits, the rituals that make up how we behave. So there's two sides to this employee experience coin. I haven't got time to go into detail about that in this presentation today but suffice to say that the better we get at both of those things, creating the right work environment and building the right rituals and behaviors, then the easier we make it for our people to work and to deliver value. So our research shows that if we get both sides of that coin right, then in the top 25% of our 280 firms that we've studied over the last few years, that they perform very differently. So this matters.

They're able to deliver much better customer satisfaction, their people have more capabilities, have better ways of thinking about how they work together to be able to deliver for the customer, we're twice as innovative, that's based on the revenues from new products and services in the last few years, last three years and finally, we're much more profitable, so we're able to pull out costs and take advantage of the new revenues that we're generating from being better at customers and better at innovating and producing new revenue streams and customer value. So this is important, this is not just a nice-to-have. It was never just a nice- To-have prior to COVID-19 but with the challenges going forward, this investment in employee experience is now really critical.

So the important thing is, well how do we do this? I want to talk about space for a moment because this is the dial or the lever if you like, that we have really pulled hard in a different way from being largely co-located organizations to more virtual organizations. And our earlier research has identified that there's very little relationship between contemporary workplaces like these and performance. This has become table stakes. We have to do this to attract the kind of talent we want and we have to do this in order to create the kinds of work environments that are suitable for a digital environment. The same applies as we move to virtual spaces, I would pause it. So yes, we've got time to think about how we enable and design distributed working and that's going to be important.

But if we come out of this only focused on whether our people should be working in the office or working at home, then I think we've missed a big opportunity to redesign our employee experience. Space really matters, but only when it's an integrated part of the employee experience strategy moving forward. So what are the things then, that we should really be focusing on? I think the first lever I want to talk about today is the lever that we call systems and this is how we start to move from employee connectivity to employee experience. As we move from this focus of just connecting people, we start to think much more about the sorts of levers and dials that we have in our strategy. And while all of those capabilities are important, one of the most influential that we have is IT systems.

And this is where we have to keep iterating as we digitize work itself so that our people can start to work more digitally at the moment from home where these companies are more advanced or where companies that we've studied are more advanced in their employee experience, they found it much easier as they've settled into new remote working routines. But many of the companies I've spoken to, I've found that the capabilities that people need are really emerging from the systems that they already have. So a lot of the technologies that we've already got in place are really starting to add value and being used in new ways. One example is a major retailer that I spoke to in Asia who shared their experiences that they've been having with the agile teams. I'm sure like many of you, over the past few years, they've felt a need to really re-collocate these teams that they're working in more agile ways and I found that to get the best results, having people collocated in one space, has been much more effective for them. Now COVID-19 presented a whole lot of new challenges for these teams that some have been met by team leaders playing with some of their existing tools, finding capabilities that they never had before, for example, interactive whiteboards on virtual calls and using them in new ways.

IT leaders are finding that just getting out of the way and enabling these features to be used, software to be downloaded, experiments to happen, has produced some really surprising and very fast results. The next thing we're seeing around systems is that we're getting better, we're getting much faster at solving problems. So not only were these problems being solved faster but they were also developing new capabilities and building new minimum viable products. And one of the interesting things that we've observed over the last few weeks is that our people are becoming much more tolerant of MVPs that perhaps aren't delivering quite what they want, but they can see that they're getting new capabilities, and we've got much faster response cycles to improvements. So some real shifts in technologies where the blockers that have often made it had to develop and implement some of these employee facing technologies in the past are being swept aside and enabling people to work in new ways.

And I think most CIOs would acknowledge that the work intensity is not as sustainable right now going forward but getting these new deliverables up in a week that would normally take months is a new world that's worthy of reflection. So moving from digitizing work to working digitally has been a really important part of being able to shift employees, not just from being connected and operational, but from being able to really start to actively engage in developing this employee experience, that enables them to work much more effectively. So the first thing, that's the first lever that we pull, is this lever of systems. And it's always been a big component of delivering the employee experience. What we're seeing now is that as we shift from it being perhaps the major lever that we pull to developing this better way or more useful ways of getting things done, not only do we need to be pulling this lever of systems, but we also need to be very mindful of how we're leading.

Paul Cobban at DBS refers to this as “from hardware to heartware” and in fact, DBS employees often have t-shirts with this printed on to remind everybody that you can have all the technology and systems that you like, but if you don't understand people, customers, employees, then it's very difficult to deliver the capabilities that you're really after. So one of the biggest levers right now that we're also really taking hard on is what we call sustaining leadership. And we use the word sustaining because this is the iterative part, this is where we're learning from the systems that we're putting in place, we're learning from the data we're gathering and we're constantly iterating as leaders to be able to support and enable the employees that need to deliver their best.

And particularly in this environment, having employees that are committed and willing to go the extra mile in order to be able to continue to provide great services for customers is incredibly important. So what we're seeing is a few things that are very different and the first one is that I'd like to, there's a theme here that's coming up, which is about checking up versus checking in. And this is the hardware to heartware place, this is where we start thinking about how are you feeling? Are you okay? What is it like working from home with your pets and your kids and your parents and everything else that is around you right now? It's challenging.

And so it's not just about checking up to say are you doing the work that you're supposed to do? Are you delivering on your KPIs? Are we realizing the targets that we've set for ourselves? But rather, it's about checking in to make sure that everybody is okay. And every one of our CIOs that I've been talking to in the last few weeks has found that this has been one of the most challenging and time consuming things that they've been doing, but also the most rewarding. So then, this has become less about communication, much more about dialogue, much more about building trust, much more about the chitchat as one CIO spoke to me about yesterday. The chitchat is becoming a really valuable part of learning who our people are, what are the things that they're finding challenging, and how they're able to build on capabilities and deliver more value as they're absorbing this new world of work and learning on the fly.

Gerard Florian in ANZ refers to people playing out of position and he, like other large organizations, is moving people around to where they're needed right now. But as they move out of their typical role and move into these new roles, we're seeing that they need a lot more support, they need this greater sense of community, they need more training and we're delivering that in a virtual context where people are working outside of a collocated environment. So this takes a lot of new skills as leaders. And what we're seeing is that companies that typically have a lead in one way that's often quite transactional are really starting to have to move to a more relational side type of leadership in a very virtual environment. One CIO from a European financial services company calls each of his direct reports every day just to check in.

And he leaves meetings for the issues of work, but he uses personal calls, personal connections to get a much better understanding of these needs of his people. And what he's finding is that the value that he's getting from that is extraordinary. New people are rising up to leadership that have never been there before. They are finding that insights about their employees as they start working from home and the challenges of working in environments that they're not used to are ways not only of understanding where they are today but also ways of thinking about how we might support and reorganize the work of post COVID-19. So this new lens of experience, where both leaders and their teams are working virtually has created some incredible new insights and empathy. It's flattened a lot of organizations and we're seeing companies that typically have got still quite hierarchical environments looking at a very different style of leadership as they move into these more flattened and democratic situations with meetings that are completely virtual.

One of our CIO's talk this week about the increased use of community and social, and these are things that they have been very aware of in the past, they're tools that they have had sitting on their shelves, they've been used in pockets throughout the organization. There's increased use of community both for social events, getting people together, getting people to have some fun at the end of the week, if it's quiz nights or drinks on a Thursday or whatever it might be. But also social media groups where leadership are getting together to share some of their challenges around the world and experience some of the speed bumps and the difficulties that their colleagues are going through, and then to be able to work together using these social media groups has been something that they have promised themselves in the past, never got around to and now really engaging with and finding that they're getting incredible value. So I think this quote is something that we're really seeing as this progresses, the situation of crisis progresses and we're getting a lot of feedback that this tendency to care more about other people within the environment really shows a side of leadership that leaders are experiencing firsthand and finding that they didn't do enough of that before and that this is changing all of the dynamics for them going forward. So checking out versus checking in and incredibly valuable part of sustaining leadership in this environment and going forward.

But this is really what companies are actively looking for. These are the speed bumps that make it really difficult for our employees to deliver. We found this in all of our research in the past for employee experience that understanding these speed bumps, checking for them actively was a real difference between companies that were high performing in terms of employee experience and those companies in the bottom 25% of our study. These leaders in these companies are actively looking for these speed bumps, actively looking for the things that make it hard for our people to deliver and then working to resolve those in a very time effective way. So our earlier research really has been able to give us some insights that is valuable in these times. The speed bumps are not things that we deliberately put in place.

They're the things to do with business rules and technology restrictions, business silos that just make it hard for employees to work. Some speed bumps are really important, but most are just there because we haven't had the motivation, permissions or the resources to get rid of them. So this makes life difficult for our employees and even more difficult now as we move into these more remote environments. So now's the time to look at these speed bumps in more detail. They're becoming much more evident and those people are working more virtually and making them work, making them disappear as fast as we can is really making a big difference to people working in these more virtual types of our, and remote environments. These speed bumps destroy the value that we're trying to create at the front end with customers.

So as hard as we could be working to deliver a better employee experience, if we're not enabling our employees to work effectively with customers and we're not enabling those new customer created innovations to work effectively, then we're just destroying the value through the hard things that we're forcing our people to go through. But finally, once we find the speed bumps, then learning and iterating is going to be an important part of how we move forward into the final stage of being able to move out of this and then making decisions around what sort of environment we want to deliver for our people. And we've tended to refer to this as systemic learning. It's more of a dial in many ways than the other two and the other two levers we pull those hard leaderships and systems, but for systemic learning, it's more of a dial right now.

And what we're trying to do is we're trying to open that dialogue up together, every story and data point and conversation that we can so that we start to learn what working life is going to look like as we come out of this crisis mode into the new normal. We talk about digitizing work and humanizing working. And this dial of learning is really going to help us figure out what it takes, what matters, what new capabilities that we need to deliver quickly.

And we're also learning about the people who work and what matters to them in our organization. So making learning explicit right now is going to help us work out what we're going to focus on in this recovery phase. The first thing is to make these speed bumps visible and we're seeing a lot of organizations that are working really hard now to gather the data that they're seeing whether they're in story form, whether they're, what happened when a customer according to solve a problem, we have the data really well or we messed up, what are the data points that help us resolve that? What are the stories? What's the knowledge that we can keep gathering? One Asian financial services company uses journalists and cartoonists and YouTube stories to help tell these stories so they're at arm’s length from the employees, making it safer for them to share those stories and then encouraging them to be part of the solution.

And now the insurance company that we've been speaking to, is sort of a COVID-19 website to gather data from anywhere and everywhere, so not only is this an opportunity to be able to help solve Q&A problems, but also gathering data on the speed bumps and then crowdsourcing solutions, tips and tricks and wellness solutions, et cetera. These websites together with other sources of data from their helpline and virtual town halls, will be used to inform their work design going forward. Companies like DBS and BBVA have for a long time been focused on really teaching their leaders to teach and never has that been so important as we go through this current crisis and then move towards the path of recovery.

So for our leaders to keep learning and then to keep imparting that knowledge and that to be important part about how we measure our leaders, how we understand what it is that's going to be important going forward and how we embed those capabilities into our people, is going to be a really important part and one of the things that we need to focus on as we move out of this situation. What we're seeing is that companies like ANZ for example in this quote R&D achieving a lot of things in a very short period of time. And I love this quote from Gerard Florian.

So what the question is, is how are we going to learn from that and how are we going to keep going and hanging on to the good pieces that will help us frame the world of work as we come out the other side? And this is going to be one of the critical areas that we need to think about as we develop the employee experience. So as we're going through this more chaotic iterative period of building the employee experience, enabling people to work more effectively, what we have to keep an eye on is what are we going to learn coming out the other side of it? What data is going to be important? What insights will be important? Because that will enable us to shift from thinking about this crisis as just being a shift from collocated to more distributed ways of working, and really an opportunity to open up the employee experience and decide how it is we want our people to work in this new world. This is the dashboard that we've been referring to as I've gone through this presentation today. We've talked about two of the key levers, systems and sustaining leadership. What sort of technologies, how we develop these technologies, how we deliver them, but then also very different, more empathetic ways of leading, the lot more touch points with employees are really enabling the voice of employees to be heard and then iterating around that to ensure that we're constantly developing an employee experience that's relevant for the digital world. Well, all of these dials are important.

What I would encourage you to do is really keep an eye on systemic learning right now. The temptation to just survive through this crisis and somehow come out the other end and then decide what the world of work is going to look like is very high right now. But those companies that are gathering data, gathering insights, gathering stories, and then using those to develop a new employee experience are much more likely to come out of this with a new lens to deliver on the customer experience innovation and then be able to do that in a more cost-effective way in a very different and new world of work. So these are the companies, I want to thank these companies for their involvement in this research and I invite any of you who have got interesting stories to tell to get in touch with me, I would love to hear more about what you're doing.

This is new for all of us, it's a chaotic world right now, but it's a world that is going to increasingly gather order and learning about that and learning about how you're coming out the other end is an important part of the CISR mission and the work that I do within CISR. Thank you so much for spending this time with me, please stay safe and I'll pass back to Paul now because I know that there's been a number of questions that have been coming through the chat. [Paul] Thank you, Kristine, I'm going to pull up my webcam and I think you are as well and I want to thank everybody in our audience today for joining us and for submitting a slew of great questions that are coming across. So let's dig in, and a reminder that you can continue to submit your questions by entering them in the Questions module.

Oh, so difficult to even know where to begin, Kristine, so I'm just going to dive right in. How does remote work impact work-life balance? On the one hand, you'd think it might improve it, but I'm not so sure that's the case. [Kristine] Oh, thank you. Work life balance Paul, is just such a difficult concept because every one of our employees here has got a different approach to this, everyone has different circumstances under which they are doing their work, different pools from family and all sorts of other things that surround their working life. And that's why this leadership concept is so important right now. Companies are really starting to engage much more with their world that their employees are in because they're starting to see it and they're feeling it themselves.

So there's empathy and way of thinking about not just the world of work that the employees are in, but also how employees are engaging with work. I think we've got a lot more data we can gather on that now. I think we have a lot more insights, a lot more stories, I think we'll come out of this richer for some of the insights that we've been able to gather along the way.

[Paul] In terms of making sure that we are connecting with our employees and understanding what they're going through, let's talk about the check-ups versus check-ins for a moment. You positioned it and I think perhaps just rhetorically as versus, but isn't it really and? [Kristine] Yeah, it is, but the more important part of it that we're seeing is actually the check-in. The check-ups, we have a relationship with our employees typically where we know they're going to perform in this environment. In fact, what we're hearing from all of the people in our study right now is that performance has not dropped. So the level of activity and level of performance, the ability for people to keep meeting their goals and keep on delivering has not been impacted, and most of the companies that we've spoken about. What is being impacted though is their level of stress, their level of difficulty in engaging with their working life right now, their ability to feel as if they are adding value or they're in control, they have a work life that is really delivering for them as well as the organization.

That's the piece that is much more difficult. And that's why I say that the checking in is much more important than the checking up right now. [Paul] Thank you.

That's clarifying and helpful. It's interesting that stress can come from all sorts of different sources and so I wanted to talk a little bit further about the chitchat as the CEO, you mentioned, referred to it. Is there a risk that that incredibly well intentioned, and I think we can all agree, important aspect of engagement with employees can get old and even a little bit exhausting in and of itself, is it okay for organizations to let people drop out of sight for a time? How do you engage when too much communication is really too much? [Kristine] And this is the part of moving from just being connected and operationalized to really focusing on the employee experience right now.

What is it like to work in this world of work? And we've been studying that for a long time. One side of it is how we deliver a work environment that is effective. How do we deliver the right technologies, the right tools, the right decision rights, all of those things that mean that the working environment is adapting to the work that needs to be done on it. But the other side of this is the rituals, the collective, what we call collective work habits. Some people refer to it as culture.

And those are the rituals that I think we're learning more and more about. They're the things that say it is okay to take a break in the middle of the day. These Zoom calls are exhausting for some reason, which we still don't really understand.

There are a lot more tiring than being in a face-to-face environment. So it is okay to opt out at certain times, it is okay because you've got children working at home with you that you're going to alter your hours where you're going to be engaged and when you're not going to be engaged. That flexibility, I think those are the kinds of habits and rituals that we're now seeing leaders start to understand more about and hopefully take some of those capabilities back into the post COVID-19 work phase. [Paul] Yeah, interesting, thank you. One of the side comments that I've heard is, isn't it okay to be an introvert? We have rights too.

[Kristine] Yeah. (laughs) [Paul] There's an interesting question, how is employee experience different from employee engagement, or is it? [Kristine] An employee experience, the way that we've been studying it the last few years and the reason why we've studied it this way is that for people to be engaged, they've got to be able to do their work effectively. And we've spent a lot of time talking about motivations and engagement and identity and all of those things, all of which are important. But if I can't do my work effectively, it's going to be very difficult for me to also really get value from those other forms of engagement with the organization. And in a digital world, this looks very different to the way of work that we used to have before. This means we have to have work that as digitized, for example, to be able to use the tools and the capabilities that we've got to deliver through the digital channels.

It means that we've got to have different decision rights. We've got to have ways of communicating and effectively designing work and being empowered to design our work in a digital context, which is new skills, new technologies, new ways of leading, we've talked about. That's what creates this world of work that's fit for digital. That means that people can be really effective and add value in a digital world and not feel frustrated that the kinds of capabilities that they had that were very successful in the old way of working are not enabling the same success in a digital world.

Companies that have really focused on employee experience I think have come through this, are coming through this a lot easier than those that are trying to develop this on the fly as they go. [Paul] Yeah, I think the whole concept of employee experience being something that can be programmed or operationalized is a challenging idea for people because when you hear the word experience, you think about leadership commitment, you think about emotional intelligence, you don't really think about operations, per se. [Krsitine] Correct. [Paul] So what are some of the most difficult facets of the employee experience to replicate in a distributed environment? Or maybe is that even the right calculus? Should we actually be trying to replicate the collocated experience? [Kristine] No, I don't think so. I think, number one, every organization is going to have a different way of delivering this employee experience and different things that matter for them. But the second thing is that, what we've found is we've shifted space.

We've moved from this collocated environment to this virtual environment. That's the only dial that we've really dramatically shifted. And what we've found is that by turning that dial, if you think about all of those levers and dials on that dashboard, it has an impact on everything else. It has an impact on the ability for us to deliver those systems and has an impact on our different styles of leadership and we're going to learn from that and come out the other end with a different way of exploring and delivering the employee experience. So I think we want to step into the same river again in the same place, we will come out with a whole lot of new ways of working, but those new ways of working are going to be about a lot more than just the space in which work is done and we have to be careful that we shift the conversation away from just simply about do we have more people remote or do we have more people collocated to being, what is the experience that's really going to arrive them to deliver value for our company going forward. [Paul] Speaking of space and where people are working, where does the organization's responsibility for the employee's physical remote workspace begin? And today, I'm here in a soundproof home office that I had built when I worked for a fully distributed organization, but a few people are that lucky.

So I think there's this aspect cost and otherwise, about ensuring a quality workspace. Would love to hear your thoughts on that. [Kristine] I think that's going to be a big challenge going forward if we think about this in terms of space, because we've always curated and designed the physical space. Now we're going to have to think about if we're going to move people to a more distributed environment, how do we curate and design the virtual space, the virtual world? Well, that's never really been a consideration before.

When we've talked about people working virtually, it's been about flexible working, a small percentage of their people enabled to work more flexibly. And typically as I've talked to companies over the last few weeks, their percentage has actually been very small. So as we move from there to an environment where a lot more of our people are more distributed, then we have to think a lot more about the curation of that space, the delivery of the capabilities into that space, about all the other things that surround it. And they could be the things around framing that employee experience that in fact make us bring people back more into a collocated space, they could be the things that enable us to design better virtual environments for people to work in. - It's fascinating to think about a world in which we expect to shift perhaps from collocation to remote.

And the idea that a company may have the responsibility to carry the weight of two work environments forever, every employee, that's something pretty substantial though, what we'll have to figure out. [Paul] Yeah, and it raises the age-old question that we've been talking about for a while now which is, who's going to lead this? Is this the responsibility of every leader across the organization? Do we have one place where these capabilities are really addressed and designed and focused on? Companies that have in fact had an employee experience group that are totally dedicated to this, have found it a lot easier to move into stage one and then move across into stage two of employee experience. They've had a place to go, they've had leaders responsible for it, and they've had dialogue and rituals that enable these conversations to happen in a much more evidence-based way.

[Paul] So speaking of who's leading, you mentioned hierarchy and the democratizing effect of becoming virtual. Can you say a little bit more about that? What are you observing? [Kristine] If you just think about the meeting room for example, typically, the meeting room symbolizes a type of hierarchy. And companies are saying, the meeting is democratized now. Everyone's exactly the same, everyone's working from home, everyone's got the similar challenges, they just all appear on a screen, there's not difference where people sit, there's no added voice for the leader of the group than there is for others and they're seeing this democratization player in a very different way to the way that it has typically been happening in a more collocated environment. I think we talk about the flattening of the workforce a lot, but there are still a lot of symbols that are bound, that are deeply ingrained in large organizations that reinforce those hierarchies. [Paul] I really love that observation because it really plays against something else that I've been hearing, and I think we discussed on our previous webinar and that is the feeling that some organizations may be pulling back in a crisis to more hierarchical leadership feeling that people want.

I think it's a natural instinct to do that, to limit out of the people participating in decisions that need to be made on the fly. But also I think there are leaders who are anticipating employees want kind of stronger traditional leadership, and you're saying something that's quite different. - Yeah, although, I think we certainly saw that in the first phase. So the ability to get people connected, get the technology, the hardware where it needed to be out into workplaces from the office, really making quick decisions and enabling that to happen and getting the organization operational again, certainly we saw that in that phase. But now I think we have to be very careful that we start to move into this much more iterative place of understanding employees and how they're working and that's going to require raising and amplifying the voice of employees in new ways, gathering data in new ways, stories, knowledge sharing, communities of practice, all of these things are giving us a lot of rich data.

What we have seen is, companies have been able to activate a lot more of their data collection around how people are working. And there's been some pushback and some concerns about employees that they're being watched or monitored, that's the sort of check-up versus check-in. You're saying to check up on us a lot more because you're using some of these tools to monitor what we're doing in ways that we're not always that comfortable about. I think this is one of the tensions at the moment that we have to manage as leaders and to ensure that that is not a process of top-down data collection and then we're going to make the decisions for you, but rather it's data collection across the ways in which we're working so that together and collaboratively, we can find the way forward for our organizations. - Do you think that gig work and the gig economy are going to rise up in their importance and their ability, the gig economy's ability to contribute more meaningfully in a world of remote work or is that a separate issue? [Kristine] I think right now it's a separate issue.

I've studied the gig economy and freelancers and this balance of talent between entities and the contingent workforce for some time now. There'll be a tendency in organizations I think, to pull back to the FTE workforce simply because they've got cost restraints and a lot of challenges around how are they going to continue with their business model going forward. So I think that that's going to be an interesting interplay as we come out of this. Certainly we have developed new tools and new capabilities to work more remotely with people. That is undeniably going to be a huge value to companies. Whether that leads to being able to work better with the gig economy, remains to be seen.

You could see that there would be some potential for that to happen. [Paul] Great, let's talk a little bit more about capturing and categorizing what we're learning during this incredible time, which I think is a particular challenge for smaller organizations. I love the company that was using journalists and cartoonists to chronicle and capture the experience, but not every organization can afford in terms of bandwidth or money to do that kind of thing. So let's say you're running a small shop of some kind and you believe in the need to capture what we're learning, but you're hard-pressed to figure out how to make time to do it, any thoughts there? [Kristine] Yeah, and look, that is the case with a lot of companies that are at the moment just trying to keep their heads above water. But I think that, what I'm seeing is that, some of these things are being captured very explicitly and some are being captured just by the experiences people are having as they move forward and as they move along through this process.

The important part is going to be the conversations that we have that enable those experiences to come to the fore so that they don't just get lost and we will really relieve when we come out the other side and we're still alive, but rather we keep learning from those experiences that we're having. So, even in smaller organizations, just those check-in conversations are a lot about learning what you're experiencing, what's happening, what are the things that we feel we're likely to want to carry forward into the new organization because we've found them to be of incredible value. So just things like using those social networks to create communities, where people are learning a lot more and sharing a lot more ideas, those communities I think will be ongoing because they've added value and because people now have experienced how they can use them to add value.

[Paul] Thank you. Well, here's a question that just came in and at first blush, it might sound oxymoronic but I don't think it is at all. Do you note any kind of significant geographical or cultural differences when it comes to remote work? Like are certain cultures, maybe it's industries or geographies adapting better or more naturally inclined towards remote work? [Kristine] I'm sure there are because people's living situations are very different based on their geography.

So I'm sure that some of those things will come to the floor. Right now, the differences that I'm seeing is that companies have really been focused on creating the employee experience that's relevant for digital, so therefore they've been digitizing work, they've been putting these capabilities in place, they may have an employee experience platform that delivers these things and a group of management that are responsible for the delivery of these capabilities. They got up and running much faster and hey had a lot fewer pain points as they started to move into this new world of completely remote working. Remember, this is totally different for every single one of us. There were very few companies that are in the large traditional organizations that we study that had ever experienced this before.

So those capabilities made it easier for them to get there but they're still now experiencing the same challenges in developing these remote working experiences and then learning from them to figure out what are they going to look like when they come out the other side? So, I guess those are the differences that I'm seeing right now, but I'm sure that they're going to be geographical and cultural differences that are impacting that as well. [Paul] I want to return to the theme of the democratization that's happening in remote work. Is this phenomenon likely to impact the role of middle managers in organizations? What is the role of the middle manager in the distributed workforce? [Kristine] I think one of the interesting things that we're seeing is new leaders rising up in the situation they have not been recognized before, particularly these large companies. People who are getting a voice and taking leadership roles that have been quite surprising and that's come out of nearly every interview I've done in the last couple of weeks, that some of these people have been coming from all parts of the organizations and stepping up with new ideas, new ways of solving problems and taking leadership because they're working in this kind of more democratized virtual realm.

And I think this is really going to be one of the fascinating parts coming out of this, is what do some of our leadership structures look like as we head into this new world of work? [Paul] Should organizations perhaps be looking at companies that were already fully remote, that never had a colocated experience? One person mentions GitLab, and won't that be too much of a leap for most organizations? [Kristine] Look, I think there's certainly things to be learned. One of those companies would be a company like Topcoder for example, completely 100% virtual, but that were born that way. They haven't had to enter that realm from a very collocated world of work. So yes, there will be some insight.

But one of the things that (crackling drowns out Kristine) Topcoder have learned is that community is incredibly important, opportunities for people to exchange information about how they're working, how they're managing themselves as a freelancer in a remote environment. Those kinds of experiences for their communities have been almost as important as the ability for them to work effectively in the exchange through the platform. So yes, there'll be things that we, insights that we can get, but we're also very different kinds of organizations and the experience that we will want to develop for our employees, given that will be some mixture of collocated and remote, will look quite different.

[Paul] So as we edge towards the top of the hour, I want to talk a little bit about the future. For the benefit of our audience, Kristine, is in her native New Zealand today and being in New Zealand seems to us like perhaps you are living in the future, given where the country is and its ability to manage the pandemic and begin to move forward out of social distancing. Can you just tell us a little bit about what you're experiencing there perhaps, in anticipation of what we might one day experience? [Kristine] Look, time will tell how effective what New Zealand is doing, is relative to the rest of the world.

And I think New Zealand's had the experience of learning and that's one of the big things I think that we're seeing in work is, and this development of new ways of working as we go through this crisis, is that learning becomes really, really important. Countries like New Zealand because they were late to the game in terms of the COVID-19 spread, had the wonderful luxury of being able to learn from other countries who had gone through this. The question is, are you open to it? I do have the mechanisms where you can take that learning and put them into practice. And that's what I'm saying as being incredibly important as organizations go through this. Right now, I'm living this and seeing how New Zealand is taking data, insights, stories, experiences of other places and then putting those things into practice in the context that we're in here, in New Zealand, which is a country of small- to medium-sized enterprises. It's a small country, but it's quite distributed across two islands.

That's I think giving us, it's really a very valuable experience to go through and to see, and it's a different style of leadership, it's all the things that I've been talking about. This is a leader that checks in with their citizens all the time, that really tests the temperature of the country and tests what's happening out there and tries to learn constantly and to pivot. We're not always going to get things right, we have to be able to pivot quickly, change direction and keep iterating.

[Paul] As you've describe what you're experiencing, I'm struck that being a leader of a country is being a leader of a group of remote humans. Maybe not remote workers, but there are some parallels there. [Kristine] Yeah. [Paul] Well, Kristine, thank you so much. This was a wonderful presentation and a great conversation. And to our audience, thank you for your generosity and your time, your questions were fantastic and as always, I apologize that we got to such a small portion of them.

Maybe, Kristine, we’ll forward you the hundreds of questions we didn't get to and at least you can see what was on people's minds. A few housekeeping items. Over the next few days, please look for a survey via email, we would greatly appreciate your feedback and two quick content notes for our audience that I think you'll be interested in.

First, we are opening the full contents of the MIT Sloan Management Review website for 60 days. If you go to, you can register for free access to all of our articles, webinars, reports, posts and videos.

I hope you'll take advantage of that opportunity. And second, we invite you to join us for the next webinar in our special spring series. Please join me and University of Virginia professor Morela Hernandez for a conversation and workshop on Leading With Humanity on Wednesday, May 30th at 11:00 a.m. Eastern. That concludes our program, thank you for attending, thank you, Kristine again, for a terrific program and thank you to our sponsor, Slack. I hope you have a great remainder of your day wherever you are.

2021-01-06 21:45

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