Harnessing the power of collaboration and informal relationships in a time of remote work

The coronavirus crisis is a huge challenge – and raises an enormous question—for organizations. For one, will cross-functional virtual collaboration between employees and departments be sufficient for the enterprise to survive all of the necessary changes?

Alongside the organizational hierarchy, it is important to recognize the growing relevance of informal relationships, the “Network of Trust.” In an age of remote working, both the importance of internal influencers and relevant, real-time feedback within organizations has increased significantly.

Most companies and organizations have struggled with numerous problems due to the social restrictions mandated by the spread of the virus. But as life goes on, we will all need to continue to adapt to the emerging situation and keep up with changes.

As corporate leaders all over the world attempt to curb the effects of coronavirus upon their business activities. They have to pay attention to the basics —preparing their enterprises for managing significant risk, avoiding panic, and, apart from measuring their bottom line, their biggest challenge is successfully introducing remote working. Surely, efficient change management and intense collaboration have never been more crucial than at this time.

HOW ARE ORGANIZATIONS REACTING?

Various corporates, depending on where they are located, are facing the same problem and are reacting with noticeably different approaches, and seeing varied results.

“Right now is the moment for action—the time to take truly responsible decisions as a company leader… Sometimes we have to stand out from the crowd!” 

– Judit Endrei-Kiss, HR Director, Telenor Hungary

In her inspiring post recently published on Facebook, Ms. Endrei-Kiss writes that not only was Telenor, one of Hungary’s major telecoms, the first large organization to deploy remote work at an organizational level in response to the crisis, it is also at the forefront of other measures, too. Protective equipment and even quarantine are provided for employees working in Telenor’s mobile phone shops, while the company is also organizing car pools and taxi reimbursement for employees holding critical positions.

Instead of unpaid leave and sick pay, their employees have the option to work from home. Furthermore, staff have received home delivery of meals from the company canteen. Telenor has also set up in-house help groups to support their staff, and, specifically, is employing a cutting-edge approach by providing psychological counseling to its employees to help them deal with situations related to the pandemic.

Telenor’s efforts are a prime example of the responsible and forward-looking actions worth taking in such a severe crisis. However, countless enterprises have also shown how not to respond to this crisis, revealing many companies’ lack of preparedness for entering the world of telecommuting, digital transformation, remote- and virtual working.

One case-in-point in Hungary is a multinational FMCG company (which shall remain nameless) that was not able to provide corporate in-house applications to homeworkers on a permanent basis for all of their staff who work in a logistics center based here, even after the illness had become a pandemic. As the company facility’s virtual working capabilities had not yet been developed, its staff are incapable of switching fully to remote work.

HOW INFORMAL RELATIONSHIPS AND INFLUENCERS IMPROVE COLLABORATION

In the age of remote work, the role of informal relationships becomes even more important, especially when a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic is causing organizational change. Because so many of us are working from home, we are drifting away from our workplaces, both physically and in terms of communication. The human, face-to-face relationships with our colleagues that are most important to us, those from whom we receive inspiration in our daily work, can easily fade from memory.

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That means informal networks are likely to play an essential role in the culture, attitude, collaboration and communication of the organization. They also determine that the basic principles and philosophy of the company are implemented on a daily basis, and therefore require special care and maintenance. Trust also enjoys an enhanced role in a crisis like the one we are currently facing, oftentimes trust in individuals.

“Under stress, people react more favorably to trusted messengers or individuals they know and respect. People tend to judge the messenger before they judge the message itself. So choosing messengers who have demonstrated credibility, and have been effective in past situations, becomes imperative.”

– Peter Slagt, David Michels and Melissa Burke in their recent article published on Bain & Company

Employee behavior and attitudes in such situations are also shaped by so-called Influencers in an organization, people who exude and bear deep self-confidence. Such individuals will play a key role in ushering in a fundamental change like remote working. Their values, attitude, and proactivity influence the behaviors and principles of those around them to adapt themselves to such a novel situation.

Such change agents can accelerate project implementation by up to 15% within an organization. They can also increase employee engagement by 20-30%. Last but not least, 10-15% of communication costs can be reduced due to their involvement in promoting change. That is why it is extremely important for organizations to be aware of who their in-house Influencers are, and be able to capitalize upon those individuals’ ability to mobilize informal networks of contacts.

“As soon as the crisis caused by the coronavirus started, we immediately convened our Influencers. We told them, “We really count on your work here! We need your help in brainstorming and organizing communities.” With their help, fundraising was organized (colleagues sew masks, collect computers, hold fitness and yoga classes). We gathered coaches and psychologists so we can provide mental support to those who ask. These things were organized by the Influencers, and they revealed the issues of the community. They immediately started to organize at our request. There are many such activities in our organization and colleagues are very grateful for that. We believe that only in this way can isolation be survived.”

Judit Endrei-Kiss, HR Director, Telenor Hungary said to us last Friday during our expert discussion we organized on this topic.

Moreover, the key to effective collaboration is not only being reachable 24/7, but also proactively sharing information with one another toward a shared objective. In the virtual world, it is not enough to inform and hold an organization together through a formal network; it is also crucial that employees interact and collaborate with each other on a daily basis. Interactions like this also occur through the informal networks, most notably through their hubs, the Influencers. Organizational network analysis (ONA) tools such as OrgMapper can help you identify who those people are within your organization.

As Miroslaw Dudek – Change Management Director (Silfra / PROSCI Inc.) says:

“We start to observe how the new virtual workplace reality is influencing the organisational networks. First obviously there is a different dynamics and quality of contacts between employees and between collaborating companies. But the virtual collaboration which is now available only via IT solutions offers more visibility and recognition to those employees who are experts in this area or adapt it faster. They start to become new virtual workplace Influencers in organisations offering guidance to their colleagues thus helping them “survive” in the new reality. I’m confident that this will influence organisational networks by promoting new Influencers and by reducing the influence of those opinion leaders who used to more powerful in the “old” world”.

GREATER PHYSICAL DISTANCE MANDATES MORE FEEDBACK

Long-term isolation can easily lead to alienation. Continuous, relevant and real-time feedback to/from employees is key to holding it at bay. In these challenging times, what employees may be missing the most out of the day-to-day interactions in their workplaces is this brand of communication: helpful insights about what they are doing well or how they can improve, praise over a cup of coffee with their manager, or a friendly chat at lunch.

Fulfilling employees’ hunger for feedback from their superiors, direct colleagues and from other departments is crucial. These are the human interactions that disappear completely from everyday life as a result of remote working. Organizations should recognize and understand the important role of feedback and, wherever possible, provide tools and systems that substitute such interaction.

WE HAVE TO PREPARE FOR OUR NEW WAY OF LIVING

In addition to remote work, the age of telehealth, virtual education, virtual programs and tours, and online sport workouts are on the way. We need to be ready to completely change how we live, not just in the workplace, but also within our daily routine. As Leandro Herrero, managing partner of Viral Change Global LLP, writes in his recent inspiring blog post on Linkedin:

“What if we treated the coronavirus pandemic as a chance in a lifetime to surprise ourselves, surprise our colleagues, surprise our clients, surprise the market with our new ‘us’.  Not survived, and tired, and happy to still be running, but unpredicted and unexpectedly better, fantastic, enhanced by a serious multiple.” (full content available HERE.)

That’s why right now ONA is not only an opportunity, but a basic necessity for confronting the change ahead of us, and its tools must be incorporated into the processes and strategies of our communities and organizations.

If you want to know more about how ONA can help you adapt to these uncertain times, especially regarding your enterprise’s transition to working remotely (if it has not been part of your corporate culture), please feel free to contact us.

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