The Perfect Storm: COVID and the Future of Work

Slide from my 2011 Enterprise 2.0 Presenation — Amended for 2021

The COVID pandemic has been a blessing and a curse for digital transformation efforts. It forced the adoption of tools, which everyone is celebrating. It also forced people out of their ruts and created new elasticity in brains, which increases learning and adaptation. However, using new tools and working in new ways are two entirely different things. The use of this new technology has mostly mimicked existing habits, silos, and power structures. Like many efforts to change, the inertia of the old power structures has overwhelmed any attempt to make substantive changes. Because the change happened so quickly there was little time or space to support a change in how people worked as well as where they worked.

Lift and Shift is Creating New Types of Stress

The ‘lift and shift’ from office to virtual work, instead of streamlining information for employees, has added new information burdens and stress because:

  • Unlimited meeting ‘room’ capacity and cheaper infrastructure encourages more meetings and events, not fewer.
  • Management still relies on ‘seeing’ people to assess employee effectiveness.
  • Individuals are on screen, close up, for hours a day. Anyone who does professional speaking knows that it is exhausting to be ‘on’ for an hour, never mind for 6–8 hours a day.
  • Individuals, deprived of social activities, over-rely on work colleagues to fill their need to see and interact with others.
  • Online groups have sprung up like dust bunnies with no thought, plan, or governance creating a bewildering array of new places people have to look in order to find things. Because enterprise search does not reliably search the enterprise, it is impossible to find information and has created more, not fewer, information silos.
  • There is no ecosystem governance for all the online group and community spaces, making it impossible to see or find what exists and creating immense duplication and a lot of waste.
  • The network effect inherent in all digital communications tools — phone, email, online groups, and social networks — keeps people from abandoning any of them. Without a strategy and plan to adopt, use, or stop using each channel, individuals are left to their own preferences. Instead of using the most effective channel, individuals now have to use every channel because a piece of their network is on each. Far from creating cohernece and accessibility, digital collaboration and communications tools are creating an additional burden and added stress.
  • Because of ad hoc deployment, management, and use most people have no idea what the difference is between closed team groups like Slack and Microsoft Teams and open communities that exist in tools like Jive, Igloo, or Yammer. In the absence of clarity and clear value, they stick with the what feels safe — their traditional closed team structure.

Many people will be glad to return to the office.

It’s a hot mess.

What is Missing?

People have not learned to replace meetings with asynchronous online discussions. People have not learned the benefits of an ecosystem of open communities that they can see, access, and self-select how they participate. Instead people are invited to hidden groups with different standards and levels of activity — and the social pressure to stay even if they are not adding any value. People have also not learned to work incrementally, sharing small updates as they go to ensure their is ambient alignment and early identification of needed course corrections. Instead, employees continue to churn out volumes of content, over and over.

People do not magically learn to work differently and managers do not have digital work, collaboration, and engagement skills. There is no one to effectively guide, show, and model effective digital collaboration. Every manager needs the basic skills of community management and have likely never even heard of it. IT teams have not been tasked with or staffed for this consultantive role and the rest of the organization is unaware of its need — they are just trying to get through their days with as little extra chaos as possible because they are already exhausted from living through a pandemic.

What does this new collaborative enviornment look like? Last year, when the pandemic took hold, I offered my view of how we work at The Community Roundtable — that is radically different than an average work enviornment. We have very few meetings, only use email for external communicaitons, and constantly share progress by working out loud. We waste very little time, don’t often work after hours, and are enormously productive. But we are a team with excellent community management skills.

The Mess is Making Technology and IT Look Bad

The average employee is drowning in information, meetings, and channels. It’s surprising any work has gotten done in the last year except when you factor in the longer hours people are working to accommodate the increased burdens of remote work.

Vendors and those of us who champion technology — whether analysts, IT staff, or consultants — are becoming less trustworthy in the eyes of the average employee. We are selling the potential of technology while leaving organizations to turn on technology, ignoring the massive cultural change required to be successful. The gap between the potential and the reality on the ground is gaping, creating distrust of technology and of the entire industry. This is part of the reason I left the the technology analyst world. It was a lot of fun imaging what could be — it’s what I do best — but it was not grounded in reality. The reality is that new technology is only powerful when people use it well, which requires people to change and that takes time, energy, and investment. Changing people is a lot harder than changing platforms but there is no avoiding it if we want to see how transformative technology can be.

Recommendations for IT teams

For IT teams that truly see the potential for technology to transform organizations for the now not new century, they must invest in changing themselves first. While not solely responsible, IT teams are the ones who understand, more intuitively, how to use new technology. So often I hear about IT teams using new tools and processes (agile, ticketing systems, wikis) but it never gets much traction beyond that. It is a failure of IT — and of CEOs.

Effective adoption, use, and value of technology will require:

  • Tiger teams of UX engineers, designers, learning and development experts, business analysts, and consultants that understand how to build community environments, which promote engagement and trust without centralized control and task management. These experts work with teams and business units to apply technology in thoughtful, value-added ways that align with business strategy and purpose. It is vital that this include community management experts who work with and coach managers on new, decentralized ways to manage. Community management not only increases access to information and improves alignment but develops self-efficacy in employees and treats them like equals and partners, empowering them to manage their own work, deadlines, and priorities in collaboration with others.
  • Thinking about IT as more than an operational unit. Yes, there is a part of IT that has to focus on vendor management, deployment, reliability, and security but if that is all IT does it is not the right group to lead digital transformation. IT must become experts at understanding the business and people, especially in how technology creates business value.
  • IT doing less, not more. Most organizations have a gobsmacking collection of technology available. Most employees don’t even understand what it available, why they would use it , or how to use it effectively— they are busy doing their own work. Adopt fewer tools and invest more in enablement.

When IT can evaluate a team’s work, assess where it can be streamlined, identify opportunities for efficiency, and teach the team how to use a minimal amount of technology to get their jobs done, they will be seen as strategic enablers. Until then, they are the group that makes sure there’s a dial tone.

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Rachel Happe

Rachel Happe

Connector of ideas & people. Fascinated by social dynamics & false truths. Founder of Engaged Organizations and co-Founder of The Community Roundtable.