The invisible co-worker

  • 27 July 2020

How coronavirus is transforming the way we work

A thought piece from Mark Cooke, former Chair of ORX


Coronavirus (Covid-19) was not factored into our plans for 2020, but every cloud and all that, so I've made good use of this time to talk to colleagues and to think about how the world will evolve.

The pandemic has dramatically changed the short-term outlook, with rapid adaptations made to the way we live our lives and the communities in which we live them. History suggests there will be a powerful tendency to revert back to normal, but in some areas, we may well see the changes endure to create a new normal.

In listening and speaking to colleagues across the operational risk industry, facilitated by ORX, there appears to be a consensus view that remote working will be an enduring feature post the pandemic. The pandemic has arguably accelerated an existing trend, but it also provides a unique acute event from which to consider the impact of remote working for the organisation and the individual.

The remote working success story

In the immediate aftermath, it became clear that the remote working capabilities of financial service organisations was probably one of the success stories for enabling ongoing operations while faced with the worldwide disruption caused by the pandemic. The disruption of the traditional physical office environment would feature in many a crisis management playbook, but the simultaneous disruption of all the office environments along with their respective disaster recovery sites was almost certainly less planned for – if planned for at all!

While the specific scenario and plan may have been lacking to some degree, the ability to adapt and improvise operations was arguably more developed then we might have seen in the past. This may well be viewed as a positive consequence for the industry and its risk management efforts over the recent years; particularly so the business (first line) readiness and willingness to take the lead in managing the crisis and the associated risks within their businesses.    

The impact of remote working becoming the 'new normal'

The extensive and rapid transition to remote working, along with the adoption of a plethora of collaborative tools, has clearly delivered immediate benefit, allowing organisations to operate while at the same time protecting their employees from catching or transmitting the virus.

Scrabble letters spelling out working from home

That is all positive, but there is the question as to what changes for the organisation and the employee in a world in which remote working becomes part of the new normal?

There will invariably be a useful perspective to be afforded by academics. The scientific study of businesses featured early on the visibility of the worker and the importance of worker engagement. The Panopticon of the late 1800s was a system of control based on being able to monitor the subject without them knowing at any given moment if they were or were not being watched. Thus, the subject behaves as if they are constantly being watched.

While management theories have advanced over the years, the premise of proximity and visibility have endured, made ever-popular by management gurus, extolling the virtues of walking the floor and being visible to their co-workers. The study of organisational behaviour is in some part predicated around the traditional office environment, where interactions between co-workers, both formal and informal can incur in person. So, what happens when the traditional office environment becomes the exception rather than the norm? How does that change organisational behaviour and how do we adapt the working practice to thrive in a virtual rather than physical environment?

The pandemic provides an acute event and with it the unintended benefit of a dramatic and concentrated transition period for academics to observe and obtain rich empirical data. This may well lead to fresh thinking and revised models as to how organisations and individuals can thrive in this new normal. My conversations with colleagues from different organisations, including the professional service firms, has highlighted a number of areas that repeatedly feature and or can be built on when it comes to remote working. It was their aggregate input that led to the metaphorical title of the ‘invisible co-worker’.  Here are four of the challenges faced by operational risk teams, financial firms and all businesses as they move to remote working. 

1. The importance of employee wellbeing

In the immediate aftermath, the effects of employee isolation were probably not the first thing that was evident or a concern. The threat posed to the employee by the virus took primacy for most firms, and therefore the need to lock down and prevent them from contracting the virus. However, over time the impact of the isolation of the employee from their fellow employee is featuring more in discussions. That impact may well be more acutely felt by those in their early career (notably the younger generation workers).

Lonely man on a bench

The younger generation is probably at the least risk from the virus itself, but they are also likely to have the least favourable remote environment. It is one thing to be isolated in a spacious home, with a dedicated office and a garden, surrounded by family, it’s quite another to be in a flatshare with a group of strangers working in your only room. 

If remote working becomes the default as companies look to reduce costs and minimise expensive office space, employers will need to consider what accommodations can be made to address the isolation and potential adverse effects on mental health. There is a compounding issue to managing employee well-being, with the lack of physical proximity to the employee make them less visible to their co-workers and managers to detect a change in demeanour or attitude that would otherwise allow them to intervene and provide support. This may require a rethink of employee support mechanisms and the means by which when we identify vulnerable employees.

'Managing' the home environment

It is also interesting to consider how in the virtual office we delineate the home environment from the work environment. On one hand, the simplicity and speed of the ‘commute’ to the home office can be seen as a benefit; however, for some, the lack of separation of the two environments may lead to a blurring of the work-life boundary. This seems to feature anecdotally in my conversations with friends and colleagues, with many observing that their working day has increased considerably during the pandemic, starting earlier and finishing later. Over the longer term and without adjustment, this could lead to employees feeling ‘permanently on’ with the potential for long term health issues like burnout.

2. Developing skills & talent

Another issue that is somewhat longer-term in nature, but could pose a real challenge, is the impact of remote working on talent pipelines and a subsequent skills shortage. Learning and development specialists will often talk about the holistic nature of development, with traditional structured training (classroom and online) accounting for around 20% of an employee’s development and the remainder being derived from the working environment.

For many of us that resonates with our experience, having benefited from co-workers and managers who have advised, mentored, coached and supported our development. This was maybe a quick chat after a meeting, or over a coffee during a quiet moment. The office environment itself often provides a ringside seat to observe the good, the bad and the ugly management practices with all its attendant learning. The question is how do we replicate this holistic learning environment in the virtual office?

It is relatively straightforward to structure technical and skills-based training online, but soft factors such as competency development will require more thought and a different approach in a virtual office environment. This is again particularly important for employees in the early and advancement phases of their careers, thereby impacting the younger generation of workers to a far greater extent. There are new solutions and practices that may help, with virtual learning and the supporting collaborative techniques having advanced considerably over the recent years. These will need to be embraced along with innovating how we mentor and coach in a virtual environment.

3. Effective management & safe operations

The traditional office environment even post-pandemic is far removed from a business in a room, with non-physical collaboration through phone, instant messaging, email etc being the norm and essential for large corporations operating multi-discipline teams. However, co-workers and managers operating within physical proximity to each other does provide the opportunity to detect issues that may otherwise go unseen in a virtual environment. 

Webcams and screens

That can be in relation to productivity, identifying the employee who appears to be struggling with an activity or is disengaged, or the employee that is overwhelmed and needs support to manage their workload. Those same issues can often have a related impact on the employee well-being and mental health as mentioned earlier.

The virtual environment also changes the nature of established controls, such as manager supervision and inspection, impacting the organisational capability to detect unsafe practices and or behaviour anomalies that could identify nefarious activities. The consequence of this will be evident to the risk management of the day-to-day operations. Companies may well need to rethink their oversight and supervision control practices. The solutions may involve the use of new technologies and techniques to provide insight into unseen behaviours and networks in order to dynamically identify anomalies that could point to problems down the road. We may well see a more rapid pace of innovation in regulatory and risk management practices in the short to medium term.

4. Culture & value alignment

The final element is perhaps the slowest burn, but one that will need considerable thought and provide some of the biggest challenges to organisations and society. How do you build a corporate culture in a virtual office environment? How do the traditional hierarchies and corporate networks evolve in the virtual office and what does that mean for collaboration and decision-making models going forward?

There have always been informal hierarchies and power structures operating in the shadow of the explicit structures. It is quite possible these will become more pronounced and harder to manage in a world in which physical social interaction is diminished. We are social creatures and we take in the behavioural cues from those around us, adopting and mimicking those behaviours to ensure our social inclusion. It is through these interactions that behavioural norms are established and these collective norms form to define the organisational culture. What are the transmission mechanisms in a virtual office environment? Do the video interactions replicate the fluid social dynamic seen in offices and enable the collective development of those behavioural patterns? 

This must surely be one of the most exciting elements of the next phase of the technological revolution and yet it is probably one of the least understood and to some degree the least considered element of the transformative changes underway. 

What should be clear is that organisational culture does matter. Conduct risk invariably manifests itself when an organisation does not pay attention to the underlying behaviours of its employees. If you can’t walk the floor each day, interacting informally, how do leaders sense and decode the prevailing attitudes and behaviours? Would we want to rely on a periodic employee survey to manage such a critical asset as the culture of the organisation? If the failures of the past are in any way a guide, this is one asset that needs to be carefully managed and curated.

Technology & active management have a role to play

The transformation of the office environment and the shift to remote working is for most observers a given, with the pandemic acting as a catalyst to accelerate this trend rather than the cause.

Home office

This change will bring new opportunities and challenges. This period of transformation is neither bad, nor good, for it has the capability to deliver outcomes that are both good and bad. It will need to be actively managed for a successful transformation, for a passive approach is likely to result in adverse outcomes.

Productivity and risk management techniques will need to involve, as will how employers engage and foster inclusion with their employees. The latter will be particularly important to new joiners who will lack the historical networks and relationships. We are at heart social creatures and we learn from others and so we will have to adapt our practices to ensure that our remote co-workers remain visible and not isolated.

Interestingly, the use of technology to enable employees to work remotely is likely to be followed by the use of technology to make them visible. The collaboration tools themselves provide a rich source of collaboration data. There are tech innovators emerging that are taking this data, using the latest AI techniques and combining it with social network and behavioural science to find new ways to decode those hidden behaviours.

It is possible to look at the collaborative data and compare the ‘team cell’ interactions from one team to the next to proactively identify outlier teams. It is also possible to look at how these teams interact with each other to see hidden friction or productivity opportunities. Finally, these technologies can be applied to an ecosystem of teams that make up complex end-to-end businesses, and in doing so highlight the points of vulnerability in those multiple team interactions. 

These technological tools do not replace the analysis and decisions required from leaders, but they do have the potential to provide intelligent augmentation to that decision making. As we embrace technology to allow a virtual office environment, so we will need to embrace technology to help us successfully manage that environment.

Closing thoughts

Finally, and perhaps going full circle, the future poses many questions and we will invariably end up surprised to some extent in how the office environment is ultimately transformed with the digital revolution that is underway. However, we should be careful not to lose sight of the human element, for this will be critical if the transformation is to be successful and beneficial. There are many benefits to be obtained from the move away from the traditional office structure. The ability to attract talent without the geographical constraints of being able to get to an office, the reduction of commuting and the positive impact on the environment, many impacts are not immediately obvious, but they create new opportunities.

These changes are complex and may well prove to be profound in terms of impact. These changes will benefit from academics and industry practitioners alike coming together and sharing perspective and insight, helping shape practice and the adoption of new technologies as required. This seems an opportune time for a close partnership across the industry and with academia, for it is a time of transition and one that is occurring at a phenomenally rapid pace, both because of the pandemic, but also without it. The aim of this piece was to spark a discussion and hopefully over the coming months, supported by organisations like ORX, develop the ideas and practices for the benefit of all the stakeholders in this digital revolution. 

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