In my previous blog post, I discussed three implications of the coronavirus on how we lead and organize firms.
Let me follow up here with another issue that I have recently discussed with some colleagues and former clients.
As a result of the crisis, many people have become used to working from home. Many companies have announced that they will allow “remote working” even after the crisis.
So compared to before, a larger percentage of people will be working remotely, at least some of the time.
There are of course many advantages from working from home (or from having “flexible working” arrangements). Employees may save time by avoiding the commute to work, companies may save costs by reducing office space, and work suddenly becomes more accessible for people with disabilities.
But there are also some downsides. One is that you will have less informal – and potentially serendipitous – contact with colleagues. As one reader commented on the Financial Times blog:
What has struck me about working remotely the whole time is how little you end up interacting with those directly outside your current work. Those sideways connections and communication by osmosis (overhearing your boss on the phone) ends up making a big difference.
Remote working (earlier called “teleworking”) is not something new and there are hundreds of articles in the academic literature on this form of work.
The research basically confirms what this reader says.
The general conclusion is as follows, to quote one article:
The more often employees work remotely, the more they are likely to miss out on informal communication (…) – communication that takes place by the water cooler, over lunch, or in the hallways. In consequence, the more time spent teleworking, the more teleworkers are likely to have mental schemes and meanings that differ significantly from the ones that non-teleworkers construct jointly through face-to-face and informal interactions (Taskin & Bridoux, 2010, p. 2510).
I think we can relate this to a concept in psychology called “transactive memory”. This is a term that is used to describe the shared mental model that is created by people who work closely together. For example, by interacting with colleagues over time, one learns “who knows what” and who one should ask for help from in different situations.
Transactive memory is probably developed more rapidly if one can observe other people directly and interact with them face-to-face.
So, back to the question, what is the implication for organization design?
Well, if you are to design an effective organization, one key requirement is that you have “situational visibility”. You need to know the components of the system and their interactions in order to design (or re-design it).
We know, of course, who we are talking to on Zoom (as illustrated above). Those linkages are clear to us. But if we miss out on the informal communication, we may gradually lose an understanding of the linkages that exist between other teams or individuals.
The result is that more of the system is opaque to us; it becomes more difficult to see the patterns of working relationships both inside and outside our own unit.
So we have to make a deliberate effort to compensate for this. It can be as simple as drawing a diagram of interconnections based on conversations with people in a few different teams.
A more sophisticated approach is to use a software tool, such as the one I have developed with two colleagues – Reconfig.
It was originally intended for traditional office work. But it should be equally relevant, or even more relevant, when some or all of the employees are working remotely.
By visualizing the “big picture” – our own activities in relation to the activities of other teams – it should help build situation visibility. Put simply, you will see “who is zooming who”.
As always, the process of re-designing your organization for the future starts by building a solid understanding of how people work today.