• More and more businesses are asking their employees to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Here are some insights on how leaders make the most of remote working.

Remote working is increasing as a means of practising social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by business in response to calls from the World Health Organization, it is having a daily impact in helping manage the novel coronavirus.

Remote working is an example of a business transformation that works on multiple levels. It serves the needs of individual employees, it provides businesses with new resilient and adaptive ways to engage with their ecosystem and deliver economic value, and it serves the larger community by addressing public health needs. With these mutually supportive returns, the rapid pivot to remote working demonstrates stakeholder capitalism in practice.

Back in January at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, hundreds of CEOs embraced this concept as foundational for improving the state of the world. Yet while the concept was widely supported, an appetite for how leaders could apply stakeholder capitalism and pragmatically implement transition strategies within their organization remained. That's one of the topics facing the World Economic Forum's new COVID Action Platform, which aims to address these issues and others facing the business community and to mobilize cooperation and support for the global COVID-19 response.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Here are some insights from the transition of business around the world to remote working.

Commit to organizational transitions.

At the organizational level, the pivot to remote working requires clarity and decisiveness from the senior-most levels of an institution. Given the complex and rapidly changing situation with COVID-19, overly deliberating the trade-offs and near-term costs could literally cost lives. Once a decision has been made, commit fully. Invest in the long-term with best-in-class technology that is reliable, scalable and flexible. Get the foundations in place first.

Beyond making clear and decisive technology decisions, it’s also incumbent on leaders to embrace how they will manage their transition. A baseline requirement is for senior leaders to consistently communicate the shift and what that means to the organization with clear, concise and consistent messaging.

As work-life boundaries blur, open and frequent communication is key for setting expectations on how groups will collaborate and come together. It’s also important not to overcommit or over-promise. Keeping things simple is key. “Recognize that work flexibility will be gradual,” Kourtlee Gravil, director of talent acquisition at Humana, explained last year. “It takes big changes to both your infrastructure and your culture.”

At its core, a pivot to remote working requires leaders to embrace organizational change management to reimagine the future of their organization and how employees can work and collaborate. It requires an institutional mind-shift to a platform mentality, which involves identifying what assets are critical and what are contextual. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, preparing for a variety of scenarios, and then being able to move as quickly as possible in an agile and adaptive manner, is required.

Going digital means more than just using technology.

It's easy to be caught up by buzzwords like "digital first" or "digital by default." But working in the digital spaces is about more than just applying digital tools and technology. It is about thinking about new behaviours and making sure everyone has the ability to use any tech tools seamlessly. For example, this could include people being conscious of how their voice projects and thinking of non-verbal cues on video conference calls.

Leaders must ask questions including: Who makes the decisions about digital technology: the CEO, the CIO or the IT team? What is the reaction or perception of joining an important meeting virtually as opposed in person? Is “face time” a key cultural norm in the organization? If people are not around in person, is there prejudice or negative bias?

Going digital may also require a level of reskilling. For example, tech company Box is sharing free training resources on cloud computing tools with its employees as they transition to working remotely.

Strengthen a culture of inclusion.

An enabling business culture that surrounds your organization’s transition to remote working is also critical for meaningful change. Ultimately, what holds a distributed and virtual workplace together is the trust, patience and support employees have for one another.

As Dell Computing has shown, providing access to online tools and collaboration platforms is only half of the equation. Trust, accountability and results are thoroughly baked into its culture whether individuals work in the office or not. If the trust isn’t there, fix that first.

Image: World Economic Forum

For senior leaders, this often requires a renewed commitment to actively listening. Power dynamics don’t go away in the virtual realm. Just because people have access to a video-enabled webconferencing platform, it doesn’t mean everyone’s voices are being equally heard.

Creating a collaborative, open and inclusive virtual work environment requires everyone, leaders in particular, to first listen to their colleagues. As Jodi Davidson, Director of D&I initiatives at Sodexo has explained, “It’s about creating an inclusive culture where each individual’s needs are being met along the way, so long as the work gets done.”

Another attribute of remote working are the number of distractions. It’s a given that professional and personal worlds will collide in the virtual realm. Staying focused, eliminating distraction and actively engaging in the moment is critical for creating a purposeful and enabling remote working culture.

Be authentic and engage

At the individual level is arguably where the most important changes can occur. Reducing the isolation of working remotely takes commitment from individuals at all levels of the organization.

For example, what Appen, a U.S.-based machine learning company, did to combat this was to invest both in a variety of collaboration tools as well as an internal community forum where employees could do everything from troubleshooting common issues to getting to know one another.

Even more concretely, employees learned to embrace their video cameras. The power of webconferencing is the use of video. Understanding how to visually project yourself as a positive, engaging and trusted leader is a critical skill to develop.

Along with embracing your visual persona, another key area to focus on at the individual level is to be remain authentic. From a generational perspective, remote working demands a new level of individual leaders to be authentic, to openly address uncertainties and to be open with their vulnerabilities. To ensure trustworthy and purpose-driven business can be sustained on an ongoing basis, requires nothing less.

Learn together to shape the future of work.

Embracing remote work and virtual collaboration is one of the most impactful thing employers can do today to address the increasing complexity of the current public health and economic crisis.

As companies navigate their approach to remote working, it’s important to consider how we learn along the way. At the Forum, for example, we're exploring strategies to provide virtual collaborative experiences, such as the upcoming Virtual Industry Strategy Meeting (ISM) on 25-26 March, which will focus on the related theme of stakeholder capitalism in a disruptive time. We will take those learnings to continue to improve our remote collaboration processes.

Together we can find ways to make the most out of virtual work experiences, navigating immediate disruptions like the coronavirus outbreak while also remaining focused on the longer term, systemic transitions taking place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.