When the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early days, a friend who works for a state department said something alarming that immediately triggered a realization for me. They told me, “governments have been caught with their pants down and were basically on two weeks paid vacation when this started because they had no idea what to do when everyone was immediately forced to stay at home.”
While there are plenty of reports to read about how all branches and levels of American government found themselves stumbling and completely unprepared for the pandemic from a medical response standpoint, what I haven’t seen much of is a conversation about the infrastructure our government relies on—technology systems, internal processes, ways of working, etc—and how that, too, was horribly unprepared for this cataclysmic shift in how our society and workforce operates.
Completely unprepared in virtually every way
Without any planning or preparation, over 4 billion people have been thrust into the depths of their lives in ways we’ve never been before—and without any strong leadership other than restrictions and guidance to “stay at home,” we’ve largely been told to continue doing what we do, living how we live, and being who we are.
But people aren’t prepared for that. Businesses aren’t prepared for that. Governments, organizations, and economies aren’t prepared for that.
Despite all the talk of automation and remote workforces, the majority of our institutions have not embraced these changing dynamics, and now are being caught flatfooted as the rug gets pulled out from under them.
When everyone is told to stay at home but keep working your job if you can, and most of those people have zero training or experience working in this way, it’s easy to see the cracks in the systems that result in scrambling for new ways of working while simultaneously trying to keep things moving.
As such, what we’re experiencing right now is the moment when remote-capable workforces become a must, and employees break free from their tethers as people around the world realize that when you have modern, adaptive, and resilient systems in place, you can weather most any storm.
To be clear, this is not intended to be one of those “REMOTE IS THE ONLY WAY!” essays where I tout the reasons office work stinks. Too many of those have already made the rounds, and I believe there are many ways to cultivate successful organizations. Instead, this is written as a call to action suggesting that building organizational capacity for working remotely is a critical step in the evolution of organizational design, management, and leadership, and that this moment in history is the catalyst for doing so.
Remote work enables resiliency, buoyancy, and flexibility
At present, the companies with fully distributed workforces are out there leading the way by taking care of their people with offerings of love and kindness. They’re teaching organizational and team leaders what they’ve learned by working in this manner, and they’re supporting those who are new to this fully remote nature—all while their businesses continue to operate smoothly.
The operations of their organizations have barely changed, because they are not chained to antiquated policies and methodologies about how an organization “should” function, but instead, have completely reimagined what is possible given the rise of connected technology and globalization.
While lives have dramatically changed as everything we thought we knew flipped upside down, remote workers have the benefit of some sense of normality in the form of a job with which to split their attention, along with the flexibility, systems, and processes for continuing to work the same way they’ve been working—without having to learn any new behaviors, habits, or tools—which reduces their need to rapidly adapt operations amid this crisis.
From both an organizational perspective as well as an individual’s, having a lifestyle where work is integrated effectively into the schedules and responsibilities of one’s life provides tremendous resiliency for everyone involved, from employees to organizations to communities. The ability to pivot your lifestyle and attention just a little, without having a sudden and dramatic upheaval of the life- and work-style you’ve known and settled into, creates a buoyancy that helps you ride the waves.
Remote work isn’t a binary, and there is no right or wrong
Just like most complex and complicated parts of life, remote work is more of a spectrum than a binary.
There are many ways to design an effective remote team—but that’s exactly the point: you have to design it.
Working this way requires intention. Specifically, it requires awareness and reflection, active learning and participation, and an abundance of communication.
It requires changing behaviors while letting things go, and letting your curiosity lead you to question things as they are. You must be intentional about the way you interact with your teammates, communicate your ideas, keep track of your work, share your progress, and build relationships.
When designing for a remote environment, it’s important to take into consideration the feelings, lifestyles, and needs of diverse people. It’s tough to envision and empathize with everyone and their individual circumstances, so it’s helpful to provide people with flexibility in exchange for them delivering what is asked of them.
By opening up dialogues about the way things get done, how people are feeling, and how we can each support one another, an environment of trust is established, which is a key component of high-performing teams.
Remote work is about more than just work
This isn’t the time to be 100% in on work talk, though. It’s important for everyone to be able to take care of themselves—mentally, physically, emotionally, and so on—and it’s important for leaders to recognize the human experiences we’re all having during this crisis. Perhaps what’s most important is for leaders to show people that it’s ok to not be at your best throughout this experience. It’s ok to be struggling, exhausted, and angry, and operating at a percentage of the capacity you typically fulfill. We’re all trying to figure it out one day and one moment at a time, so being kind to others goes a really long way.
Your feelings are valid and you deserve to feel them, so make sure you take time to let yourself feel what you’re feeling. That’s part of the healing process and can lead to new levels of comfort with the situation at hand.
When you work in a flexible and adaptive environment, you are afforded the time and space to process your feelings and surrender to the ebbs and flows of your energy, which only leads to more positive outcomes for all. You’re free to work when you are at your best, and rest whenever you need.
It’s time to embrace the human element of work
This is not a time to be fully focused on work and productivity alone–it’s a time for caring for one another, questioning the world around us, and making changes we believe will lead us towards better circumstances.
One of the joys of working remotely is the ability to be more present in life, without always having to run to an office, commute long distances, or waste time in meetings. Working remotely provides the opportunity to more fully experience the life you are living while also doing work that is important to you. It’s no longer about work-life balance but about work-life integration, which leads to work-life harmony. How does work fit into the life you want to live? How can you get your work done and be there for your family, take on those projects, or simply let yourself be you?
The time for change is now
The organizations who embrace the mindset of ownership and responsibility, cultivate trusting environments of safety and support, and let people fit work into their lives the way they want, will be the ones to weather future storms, keep themselves afloat, and thrive in unforeseen ways.
From organizational operating systems to the integration of work and life needs, this pandemic we’re living through is going to be the catalyst of many changes for workforces around the world. You don’t have to be a knowledge worker to reap the benefits of remote work—if you’re in a role where you can get work done from anywhere with no true requirement of your physical presence, you are in a position to experience these changes.
When we’re through with this global crisis and on the other side—one, three, nine years from now—hopefully we can look back on this moment as the greatest workforce revolution of modern history; one where systems, structures, and policies forever changed for the better, and people broke free from the constrictions and confinements of legacy work environments.
It’s a shame so many lives are being lost. May their memories live on forever, and may we make sure we do not revert back to our antiquated, extractive, and overwhelming ways of living, working, and caring for our societies.