Virtual Teams

In praise of bureaucracy, what did we miss in the rush to work from home?

It is amazing how well most people have adapted to the unusual experience of working from home during a global pandemic. Organizations made the change incredibly quickly, cutting through the normal inertia and bureaucracy that would have been involved in making such a change in normal times.

I have written in the past about celebrating that flexibility and taking a clear-eyed look at what aspects of our previous processes and ways of working we need to discard after this experience, and which we want to keep.

However, and unusually for me, I want to reflect a little on the value of bureaucracy, rules and process.

Ask yourself, what did we miss by not having the normal due diligence of moving people to work from home? What would we have done better if the nit pickers had been involved?

As I talk to large groups of people new to working remotely, there are a number of challenges that few organizations fixed in the short-term rush to get people set up at home. In fairness there was no time then, but as we now move to a period of extended remote working, perhaps permanent in some cases these are gaps we need to fill.

The first is health and safety. It was clearly the safer option to get as many people as possible home as quickly as possible, but as employers we retain our responsibility to ensure a safe place of work, even if that is in someone’s home.

Many individuals are currently working from unsuitable places. Common challenges include poor quality chairs and working from laptops where it is hard to vary the focal length between the screen and your face. Both can lead to long-term problems.

My organization has worked remotely ever since I founded it 26 years ago and we have a well-established process for bringing people into our way of working. It includes the use of common cloud-based software (Log in on day 1 and you are immediately fully connected to our Salesforce, Slack, SharePoint, Outlook etc. Microsoft 365 ensures we are all on the same, constantly updated version of all office tools) but we give people flexibility on their preferred devices. It also covers our home offices with guidelines on space and critical equipment such as chairs and fire extinguishers.

One practical but unusual guideline we have is that PCs are consumables. It is annoying and time consuming to deal with hardware problems when you work from home and slow or crashing computers can seriously impact productivity. At the point of which your hardware is impacting your productivity we would rather you get a new one than struggle on. I appreciate this is a big issue with you have tens of thousands of laptops and personal computers – but so is the potential productivity drain

It is unlikely any authorities will be inspecting things like this In the near future but, in the UK at least, health and safety responsibility has criminal sanctions so you do need to get on top of this before too long.

Second is maintaining a sense of community. Anyone researching remote working before the pandemic would have learned that this is a challenge in people who permanently work from home. We have all experienced the need for connection and concerns with isolation.

As we move towards an extended, or in some cases permanent period of remote working, we need to invest some of the money we will save on facilities and office buildings into creating a softer infrastructure of connection and community for our people. This includes both online and off-line opportunities to connect, build trust and communicate.

Third is the area of capability development. The move to remote working has identified several skill gaps in individuals; particularly their ability to collaborate through online meeting tools and to maintain trust and community with their colleagues were working remotely.

At the managerial level many organizations have identified significant gaps in their ability to manage people remotely. This is partly in skills such as building trust and exercising control virtually. In some specific roles we need to reengineer how we operate, such as running effective online client meetings.

We also ned to adapt our processes, such as how we do performance evaluation and appraisal when we can get face-to-face.

You can see our recommendation here for a working from home learning path and training module contents.

Go back and imagine that you were setting up a project in early 2020 to move your people to remote working. What would have been the objections or concerns about moving them to work from home? If those concerns were valid then, then they probably need addressing now to sustain an extended period of working?

It turns out some aspects of bureaucracy and rules were there for a good reason. The challenge will be to pick up the ones that were useful and not re-establish the ones that added no value.

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