Work will never look the same. Let’s take a moment to think about how we can best
shape it and engage with this unprecedented time to make the workplace stronger
than it was before. By engaging actively with trust and transparency in our
everyday activities as well as strategic positive actions, we can strengthen the newly
distributed workforce to drive a better workplace. This paper will provide
guidance on how to use different tools and strategies to analyze the current
distributed workforces and to build action plans by brainstorming ideas that
can guide purposeful momentum.
Setting the Scene
It is easy and expected to fall into the reactionary and impulsive actions that the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon us practically overnight. The first half of 2020 was filled with radical changes and interruptions that created a space for aggressive and fast change. Now, we are in a different situation. It is clear that the pandemic did not last for a few weeks; it is clear that the pandemic has disrupted the pace and normal routines of the workplace; it is clear that many seemingly unchangeable things will be permanently altered as we continue to navigate the pandemic and beyond.
For decades, the workplace was a brick-and-mortar building that housed one’s world from morning to evening. What happened in-between those walls was somewhat in your control – you could wear a suit every day, or jeans. You could prioritize yourself and your work so that you were on time to your meetings in the conference room down the hall, or you could choose to stop by a colleague’s office and be 5 minutes late. You could catch up with a friendly-face on another team that you do not work with often while you waited for your coffee to brew in the complimentary office kitchen. You could express your excitement, your stress, your eagerness and it would be seen. It would be engaged with by the people sitting next to you. Now, all of these instances are happening within the walls of your home.
Self-complexity theory is the notion that humans have multiple aspects that are context-dependent (i.e. social gatherings, relationship building, hobbies and goals) and that the variety is widely perceived as healthy behavior (Jiang, 2020).
When the pandemic changed workplace and everyday expectations in March, all of the places that used to help us distinguish our complexities were now suddenly living within the same four walls. We expect distinction in the versions of ourselves that we carry. It is hard to have all of our context-dependent aspects living in one space. Without the distinction, humans become vulnerable to negative feelings. This is something we have not had to do before. We are ‘flying while blind’ as we continue to navigate these unparalleled times.
There are many things about working from home that complicated the situation that were not immediately considered or understood when reacting to the pandemic’s influence. Going virtual is not just the simplicity of logging into your scheduled Zoom call. Virtual means that cognitively, each of us is processing much more information in a different way than we are used to. In face-to-face conversation humans are very good at processing non-verbal cues. We read body language through posture, head nods and more. Engaging with a colleague or an audience is known to be 55% body language and only 7% verbal (remaining percentage goes to the non-verbal category of tone of voice) (Yaffe, 2011). This is drastically changed when placed behind a screen. Without non-verbal cues, and with the addition of lagging video and audio technology that creates silences, there is a lot of cognitive dissonance to overcome. This experience is now known as ‘Zoom Fatigue’ because it takes a lot more cognitive energy to engage with a virtual meeting than it does to participate in a physical one (Jiang, 2020).
The direct effects of having a work life moved entirely onto Zoom, or other virtual conferencing platform, are only part of the equation. Add on COVID Brain as well. COVID Brain is the clouded and frazzled state that many are experiencing at differing degrees dependent on the day, situation or person. This state is caused by the lack of useful cognitive resources that we have. When you experience a situation that you have never experienced before, your brain pulls a similar experience from long-term memory that you can create judgements and assumptions off of to guide you as you navigate the unknown circumstance. COVID is unique, and something we have never experienced before, which creates impaired internal reasoning and external sensitivity due to lack of long-term memories to usher us through a reasonable decision-making process (Stillman, 2020).
As we are forced to challenge societal norms and workplace expectations, it is valuable to focus on unintended resources, tools or ways of working that we were not directly utilizing before the pandemic. People are being involuntarily pressed through a time of change and growth. Let’s harness the momentum of this change and come out of the pandemic with a stronger workforce. Let’s explore how the workplace can leverage its resources, including its people, to learn and build a resilient, creative and determined future. Let’s think about how we can best shape it and engage with this revolutionary time to make the workplace stronger than it was before.
Distributed vs Remote
Choosing to use the word distributed serves a purpose.
Distributed implies that the people of an organization are evenly dispersed and
that not one place has more resources, privileges or control than anywhere
else. Each individual is valued for what they bring to the organization from
their distributed and diverse perspective. Remote implies that some people are
removed from where the ‘magic happens’. If you are removed, your voice is not
heard, you do not have as many resources, and you feel disconnected from those
who have the advantage of being non-remote (Mullenweg, 2019). It is encouraged
that organizations thoughtfully determine which words they use to describe their
workforce going forward. Words hold power; don’t waste that influence on the
The Trust & Transparency Cycle
How to Engage with The Cycle
The Trust and Transparency Cycle is a way to visualize and thoughtfully determine what outcome an action will have on the individual contributor and the entire organization. Each piece influences the next. It is important to understand the impact and influence a decision can have in different circumstances. You may begin anywhere on the cycle, as it is its nature to be in a continuum with no start and end points.
You may begin anywhere on the cycle, as it is its nature to be in a continuum with no start and end points.
Organization Trustworthiness Signals
The organization sends out signals to its people of the level of trust one can have in the larger organization through many means. The quality of the information shared helps determine how trustworthy that communication is – Does it contain a clear and easy to understand purpose? Is there an impact or clear action items in the message? If the information is presented in a way that is not sensitive or valuable to the intended audience, the trustworthiness of the organization will diminish in the eyes of the employees. There will be less value in information shared going forward and people will not engage or rely on the information being shared (Klimchak, 2020).
- If you are the organization/leader: Be truthful and transparent in communications. Don’t overcommunicate. Be authentic and aligned to the organization’s true values.
- If you are the individual: Approach organization announcements or information sharing with an open mind. If you are not in the headspace to read the lengthy email from the CEO, don’t do it until you are ready to bring a fair and authentic-self to it.
The gap between an individual employee’s attitude or level of trust and the trust signals that are being communicated in the information from the organization can range from being aligned, to displaying a large divide. The goal and hope is that they are aligned or slightly differing. If slightly differing, the attitude of the individual could become aligned once the organization shares information and the individual sees that information as trustworthy and chooses to align their attitude with that of the organization. If the gap is large, the individual will be disengaged and will not see the organization as a place that they can rely on.
- If you are the organization/leader: If you receive feedback that does not align with your intentions, reach out and act on it. Inquire more information and work to meet your people where they are. If you receive no feedback, ask a few people in your outer circle (not direct team) how the information was perceived. You may not be done communicating a certain topic after you press send.
- If you are the individual: Assume positive intent from the organization’s communications. If you experience a large gap, reach out to a trustworthy colleague and seek to understand. Do not immediately act to take on a dismissive attitude or to gain a partner in your distrust.
Attitude Towards Organization
The attitude towards the organization can be seen through the lens of the individual, through a direct supervisor or by an entire department (Klimchak, 2020). This attitude towards the organization is determined by the size of the gap from the organization’s communications and the
trustworthiness perceived from those signals. If there is a small gap, the attitude across all levels towards the organization will be a positive one. If the gap is a large one, the attitude across all levels towards the organization will be a negative one. Individuals, supervisors and entire departments and/or teams can have aligned attitudes, but if one of those entities is on the edge about what attitude to adopt, the others can be very influential in determining what attitude is taken and applied.
- If you are the organization/leader: If you overhear or oversee attitudes that are not aligned with what you were intending, do not impulsively react. Take the time to see things from another’s perspective. It is important that attitudes are aligned with your intentions, or moving the organization forward will be challenging. Take the time to engage with the people to realign their attitudes (or your own) in a meaningful manner.
- If you are the individual: Choose your attitude, but do not let it overcome you. If you begin to take on the attitude of your supervisor or department, recognize that and ask purposeful questions and gain reasoning from multiple perspectives before adopting the attitude.
Employee and Departmental Actions
The attitudes that individuals and groups adopt, lead to their actions. These actions can be expressed in everyday interactions in meetings and the choices that employees make throughout the day to engage with and complete their work. These actions are tied to levels of organizational commitment felt within each individual and how this commitment is expressed (Klimchak, 2020).
- If you are the organization/leader: Choose to display actions that you would like to be replicated. Express a level of organizational commitment that is authentic and energizing to others.
- If you are the individual: Be aware of and think about why you chose to act a certain way. If the origin is traceable, you can look back and change some steps to create opportunities for yourself to engage in more positive actions. Positive actions that you engage with are perceived by others and can influence their actions to be more positive as well. These actions should be positively correlated to the goals and values of the organization.
The Cycle Starts Again
Once actions are displayed, the organization and leaders will react to these actions from employees, teams and departments and begin to send signals through forms of communication that include praise, recognition or messages of lack of alignment and new expected behavior. And thus, the cycle begins again.
Appreciate: “Ap-pre’ci-ate, v., 1. Valuing; the act of recognizing the best in people or the world around us; affirming past or present strengths, successes, and potentials; to perceive those things that give life (health, vitality, excellence) to living systems 2. To increase in value, e.g. the economy has appreciated in value. Synonyms: Valuing, Prizing, Esteeming, and Honoring.”
Inquire: “In-quire’ (kwir), v., 1. The act of exploration and discovery. 2. To ask questions; to be open to seeing new potentials and possibilities. Synonyms: Discovery, Search, and Systematic Exploration, Study.”
Appreciative inquiry stands apart from traditional change management theory. The change management approach is to look for the problem, identify the problem, and find a solution. The problem with this approach is that you are amplifying the problem by paying attention to it. The appreciative inquiry process involves recognizing and emphasizing what works well in an organization. Through this process a series of statements will emerge that describe where the organization wants to be.
To engage with appreciative inquiry properly, a set of assumptions must be understood:
- In every society, organization, or group, something works.
- What we focus on becomes our reality.
- Reality is created in the moment, and there are multiple realities.
- The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way.
- People have more confidence and comfort to 5 journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).
- If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past.
- It is important to value differences.
- The language we use creates our reality.
Appreciative inquiry can be helpful for a group of people or an organization. Usually a lot of people, upwards of hundreds or thousands dependent on organizational size, are involved in the first step of choosing a topic to focus on (Cooperrider, 2001). Choosing a topic and creating a topic definition are very important, because they guide the rest of the process. Once that there is a clear topic, questions can be created that will prompt responses that contain the information you need to know and explore the topic.
Sample Questions: Take your time and think about a high point in your career here at XYZ Organization where you felt most alive, engaged or successful. Can you tell me the story? How did it unfold? What made this story stand out? What about you made it a high point?
Describe a time when you feel the team/group performed really well. What were the circumstances during that time?
Describe a time when you were proud to be a member of the team/group. Why were you proud?
What do you value most about being a member of this team/group? Why?
Once the questions are created, the facilitator presents them to the whole group. Then the inquiry (or interview) begins. There are a few ways to complete this step. A team of employees could interview the whole organization, or the questions could be conducted through a survey or focus group. If able, a very effective way to conduct this step is to break down the larger group into smaller storytelling groups because the small groups (or pairs) will have more space to effectively explore the inquiry process (Hammond, 1998).
When the inquiry process is complete, there is a lot of information that needs to be shared. Encourage the smaller groups to share key themes or takeaways from their conversation, analyze the data from the survey results and share the findings with the group, or compile focus group feedback and share that with the larger group. Once all information is shared, the facilitator should create a list of the main themes expressed through the inquiry process. This list ends up being a set of circumstances that make it possible for the great things at the organization to occur. Now you know what works well and what to focus on as the group creates provocative propositions.
In this phase of appreciative inquiry, the group takes the best examples from the inquiry process and stories that created the list of best circumstances to create Provocative Propositions (Hammond, 1998).
To create provocative propositions, the group should brainstorm statements that follow these criteria:
- Is it provocative? Does it stretch, challenge, or innovate?
- Is it grounded in examples?
- Is it what we want? Will people defend it or get passionate about it?
- Is it stated in affirmative, bold terms and in the present tense?
Now, with the provocative propositions, transformation can begin. It is clear what works well and where the group wants to go. The future is evident because it is rooted in what has happened in the past. The group trusts that the future envisioned will happen because it was derived from the past. These are not radical new ideas for change that are foreign, but rather a reminder that the group is already succeeding and can use those tools to continue to create greatness and push beyond current thresholds. With this new alignment and energy, the group will create synergy which is when they are able to achieve more together than the sum of the individuals (Hammond, 1998).
Acceleration Partners (AP) is a partner marketing organization that for over 10 years has helped industry leading brands grow and refine their marketing partnerships (The Premier Global Affiliate and Partner Marketing Agency, 2020). But what makes them really unique is that they do not have a headquarters. AP was intentionally built on the distributed workforce model. Their CEO, Robert Glazer, wanted to create an organization that would succeed by emphasizing their vision, values and goals. He rethought the way things have always been done and focused on what he really valued, and then realized that no headquarters was needed to achieve his goals. The physical building is not what makes a great place to work, so why have one?
Success in this model starts from the top. At AP, the leadership team works hard to communicate a clear vision on where the organization wants to go. That way every employee is aligned and knows how to act because the goals of the organization are transparent. The values are consistent and are relevant to AP, which makes operationalizing them more innate compared to other organizations that end up having values that solely act as wall art. The goals are set by the leadership team to guide employees on how to attain the vision. The vision is the driving force of everyday actions and propels the organization forward (The Hennessy Report, 2019).
Distributed workforces do not mean no human interaction. AP hires on a ‘hub’ model, primarily because a lot of recruiting and job sites are geographically based, so the hub-hybrid model makes it easier for them to find the best talent. The organization has a handful of hubs across the country, and they all have a range of employees varying in job seniority and departments to create a diverse work population. All employees work out of their own individual spaces, there is no office, but they can get together for events or gatherings if they would like. There is a sense of pride and camaraderie when meeting another AP employee walking down the street.
AP leadership, once a year, takes a week to visit each hub location and bring everyone together in one rented-out conference space. At the end of the week, the leadership team has spoken with every employee and has had more meaningful and intimate conversations with individuals than if the entire organization came together for the same purpose of discussion and intentional listening. AP also has a summit once a year. The summit is the one week where the entire organization is together in the same physical space. It is an intense dive into leadership, culture and social interaction that creates alignment and strong bonds between employees.
The hub model has created a hybrid experience between working in an office and being fully remote that has pushed AP to be better at everything from on-boarding to performance reviews (The Hennessy Report, 2019).
When you think about how AP has chosen to run their business, how do you think they would engage with the Trust and Transparency Cycle? Do you think they use appreciative inquiry practices to guide their vision?
JM Family Enterprises
Work-Life Balance (WLB) is the understanding of the current existing relationship between work and personal life. Factors such as health, stress levels, quality of life, organizational performance and sustainable development contribute to someone’sWLB. Many organizations talk about WLB and its importance, but do not actually know what to do that would encourage employees to work on improving their own WLB. JM Family Enterprises is a family of diversified automotive businesses that has incorporated the significance of WLB into its daily operations. JM Family Enterprises is consistently ranked on Fortune’s Best Places to Work along with other organizations that share the same value in a strong WLB. But research has shown that having WLB policies does not always mean the organization is a good place to work.
JM Family Enterprises was found to have the best WLB policies even when compared against all other organizations from the Fortune’s Best Places to Work list (Sánchez-Hernández, 2019). The research concluded this by creating a WLB rating scale that included categories such as remote working, sabbaticals, flexible hours, leave, home help, elderly assistance, child care and WLB training. Ranking high within all of these categories creates a positive work environment for JM Family Enterprises employees. They are an example of how when WLB is practiced well it leads to less health problems in individuals, creates opportunities for more positive family satisfaction and leads to higher self-efficacy in work related tasks. These then lead to higher workplace satisfaction and engagement levels, which contributes to the entire organization’s performance (Sánchez-Hernández, 2019).
WLB levels can absolutely be improved while working in a distributed format. Organizations can promote WLB through in-person perks, and they can also create programs that encourage a healthy WLB without physically engagingwithanotherperson.Organizationscanprovide work-from home office stipends to help their employees create a productive and distinct place to engage with the workplace. Organizations can create benefit programs that discount gym memberships. Organizations can partner with different dry cleaners, or shoe repair shops to provide services to their employees. WLB programs used to be primarily tangible perks, but with the change that COVID-19 has brought on, WLB programs have the chance to become more directly impactful to the employee by clearly communicating that the balance is important to the organization. The benefits of a healthy WLB culture and workforce are clearly noticeable when looking at the productivity of the organization. WLB is important, don’t let it wash away in the chaos of COVID-19. It is arguably more important now than ever before.
Organizations, including JM Family Enterprises, that have healthy WLB across employees are practicing the Trust and Transparency Cycle and reassessing it to constantly be aware if lack of alignment arises. Appreciative Inquiry would be a great way to help incorporate WLB programs because the inquiry process could lead to small breakthroughs where the group realizes getting exercise, being well rested and having confidence that the organization has your best interests at heart leads to their best work.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is something that the entire world is experiencing, the impact is unique to each individual organization. This paper gives insight into the challenging realities that the pandemic has created for many, proposes some strategies to consider when thinking about how to amplify your distributed workforce’s impact on the organization, and gives a few examples of organizations that had structures in place that positioned them to continue building on their strengths when the pandemic greatly impacted the working world. When assessing one organization or team, do not assume the things that worked for one will work for another. Each organization, team and system are unique. Treat them as such.
People have been working from home for years so there is research to dive into and best-practices being discussed. Use that to your advantage, but be purposeful and focused when creating programs to harness the power of your unique distributed workforce. If done correctly, this could be a new wave of stronger organizations that could begin to make impacts larger than they ever originally dreamed.
While it is hard to think on the bright side with a pandemic altering life across the world, an economic recession and layoffs consistently occurring across industries, the organizations and people who can persevere through this time will come out on the other side with more knowledge, perspective and determination than ever before. Remember, it would be foolish to waste a global pandemic.
Sarah is currently a second-year M.Ed. student in the Leadership and Organizational Performance (LOP) program at Peabody College. She enjoyed her work after her undergraduate education, but was eager to learn more about organizational development and leadership practices that would enhance her career. The LOP program was the perfect blend of business knowledge with a people-centric orientation that Sarah was looking for. This paper was originally inspired by her experience as an intern at Tractor Supply Company (TSC) this past summer. She currently is working as a recruiting coordinator at TSC. She hopes to use her strengths and continued interest in building strong teams to drive career success by helping people and organizations achieve their greatest potential.