Responses to the current COVID-19 pandemic are causing large-scale changes to the workplace. These include unprecedented changes to ensure continuity. Technology general managers must be ready to manage teams with a mixture of technology and nontraditional management practices.
General managers (GMs) experience a loss of authority and controlwhen employees start working remotely.
GMs and organizations are grappling with the timelines of ad hoc measures as it is unclear when the pandemic will end.
New working styles and their knock-on effect on teamwork, innovation and drive are raising concerns among GMs.
General managers looking to become more successful leaders in this crisis and creating a culture of portfolio leadership should:
Trust that employees will act responsibly when working remotely if they are given clear outcomes.
Build a shared team behavior to leverage technology wherever possible to network and collaborate in such turbulent times where teams work in ad hoc conditions.
Challenge existing operational models and change managerial styles that are dependent on face-to-face interactions with a data-driven approach.
The new coronavirus strain has now spread globally as a dangerous disease (COVID-19). Multiple countries are simultaneously facing large-scale outbreaks, with no scalable cure in sight. Governments, corporations, medical bodies and the general public are all grappling with the ramifications. Even before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global public health emergency on 30 January 2020, companies had already begun taking steps to reduce their exposure. This included quarantining people; screening for cases; restricting travel; closing stores and factories; canceling meetings, seminars and conferences; and ordering employees to work from home.
Figure 1 provides an overview of the impacts facing GMs, as well as our recommendations.
Pandemics aren’t your usual business disruption. We consider a pandemic to be an operational risk that must be managed at the highest levels of the organization because it cuts across every department and location in which the organization operates.
In a pandemic, it’s important to remember that:
A pandemic can be a moving target for an indefinite duration; you need to adjust your expectations and preparations as things change. Multilocation enterprises will likely be more affected than those with a single location.
Quarantines and travel bans will remain in place, with multiple closures affecting normal life. Food rationing, school closures, power outages, internet disruptions, fuel shortages and so forth could occur.
GMs in this situation are facing problems on multiple fronts. They must manage multiple teams and coordinate their activities to manage the product portfolio. These teams are often geographically dispersed across different countries and hence are at a risk of being disrupted by a pandemic. Managing and motivating teams in this situation is a unique challenge. Gartner’s interactions with different organizational leaders show that there isn’t a consistent approach or answer to a global crisis of this nature.
GMs mostly struggle with the following issues:
Loss of authority or control: GMs and the teams that report to them have always used different tools and practices to monitor the progress of projects and tasks. GMs use a combination of update meetings and tracking software to assess regular progress. Any event or team member causing a delay or squandering buffer resources is quickly managed by GMs or their extended team to reduce impact. Providing the right environment, resources and equipment for the execution of the task is the responsibility of GMs and their extended teams. However, there are issues that GMs have no control over, such as an entire team being under lockdown, members working from home with kids on-site, or teammates suffering from infrastructure problems, such as slow internet speeds. Most GMs are unprepared for such loss of authority and control.
Uncertainty over how long ad hoc measures must be kept: GMs are adept at managing exigencies and creating plans to overcome business disruptions. However, the understanding in all these situations is that business will soon return to normal. A regular crisis is usually within the scope of control of the GM, the CEO or (in the worst-case scenario) the government. But in a pandemic, there is no clarity on how long the situation will prevail and who is in control. This means that ad hoc measures can continue for a long time, affecting business cycles.
Changes in working styles and mindsets: GMs struggle to determine whether their team members in quarantine are working or slacking off. (It’s difficult to believe that so many people are being productive when Netflix, the world’s largest streaming service, shows a share price gain on the back of increased consumption from January to March 2020.) Many leaders also believe that teams working in close proximity demonstrate better innovation, teamwork and last-minute drive closer to launch. Also, informal meetings and “floor walking” often uncover minor issues and avert surprises closer to deadline. In a remote working situation, many of these practices need to be reconsidered.
Impacts and Recommendations
Mutual trust is at the heart of successful remote work initiatives in the digital workplace. GMs must trust that their employees will act responsibly when working remotely. Employees must trust that their employer will act in their best interest and enable them to be successful.
Creating a culture of trust is a top-down responsibility. GMs — working with colleagues in HR and business units — have a vital role in communicating to employees that the organization:
Trusts them to do their work remotely
Accepts responsibility to enable them to do so effectively
Will fairly and transparently measure remote work productivity and performance
Values their contribution and supports their career development
How can GMs create, enable and sustain this culture of trust? They can take actions in three areas: authority, accountability and affiliation.
Empower workers to make decisions regarding when, where and how they complete their work. Set up regular meetings to check on whether there are obstacles hindering their work.
Secure technology and support services that enable both on-site and off-site workers to complete work efficiently and effectively (see and ).
Create a transparent system of performance measurement that quantifies outcomes, not just activities or the amount of time spent on tasks. For example, Salesforce initiated changes to its goal-setting approach when its leaders saw a need to improve organizational goal alignment, flexibility and transparency. To address pervasive and costly goal misalignment issues, Salesforce encouraged upward and downward goal visibility and created a culture in which goals were flexible enough for employees to adjust in response to changing priorities. Establish assignments and goals with timelines. Track progress toward milestones on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis, rather than on an hourly or daily basis.
Focus on coaching, guiding and enabling managers who oversee remote workers. Determine managers’ attitudes toward remote workers to ensure that no biases exist. Track the development of remote workers to make sure they progress at the same rate as on-site workers.
Facilitate knowledge sharing and relationship building across individuals and teams by suggesting nonobvious connections that remote employees can exploit. For example, have the remote worker onboard new employees from outside the team as a way of getting to know them.
Allow employees to invest time in building their social networks, so that they can establish and nurture trusted relationships with colleagues. This means supporting the face-to-face interactions needed to build trust, as well as providing technology, such as videoconferencing, that enables richer interaction.
Facilitate collaboration between on-site and off-site workers. Ensure that remote workers have counterparts in the conference room who will check in with them periodically to see if they have something to contribute. Alternatively, have everyone in the meeting participate remotely, and avoid the conference room altogether.
Give remote employees opportunities to increase their visibility with the organization’s leadership by assigning them to special projects or roles. Put them in situations where they can participate with people outside of their “home” team.
See Table 1 for an overview.
Technology is a major change agent in the current crisis. Instead of closing offices and places of work, most companies have shifted to work-from-home opportunities. Since 31 January, Microsoft has seen a 500% increase in Teams meetings, calling and conferences, and a 200% increase in Teams usage on mobile devices in China. Google Microsoft, Slack and Zoom are offering many of their products’ features for free. Zoom has lifted time limits on its video calls for the free versions in China, as well as for schools in Japan, Italy and the U.S., by request.
GMs need to understand four aspects of the role that technology plays in remote work:
Networking: Being quarantined doesn’t affect productivity if team members are able to network effectively with their team members. Google, Microsoft, Slack and Zoom all offer this opportunity to teams to have virtual meetings or share ideas. This is very effective in the current scenario, where travel bans have made face-to-face meetings virtually impossible. While employee-provided internet connection may be problematic for the bandwidth required, the issue only gets worse when everyone in a city is working from home. Staggered meeting schedules, low-bandwidth voice calls and other options are being tried by many to circumvent the problem. A combination of laptop, mobile and phone is also being worked out by both employees and service providers to ensure seamless connectivity.
Collaboration: Common platforms for sharing, such as Google Drive, are becoming very popular for virtual teams as they work remotely. The ability to see progress of a work and contributing in real time without waiting endlessly in a queue is a boon. Some organizations have prepared their own versions for such collaborative tools, depending on their workflow and data requirements. However, in a situation such as the current pandemic, if your organization has not invested in it already, it’s better to use existing off-the-shelf solutions.
Security and data protection: The importance of information security is critical at this time as GMs become aware that poor security can cause irreparable damage to the business. At the same time, security itself has been evolving from a focus on risk reduction to one on risk management. GMs should work closely with the CISO to ensure that, in the hurry to select solutions that help in this situation, they don’t expose themselves to unnecessary risks.
Safety: While working remotely, most employees need to be updated on what’s the latest situation both inside the organization and outside. As rumors, unsubstantiated news reports and myths perpetuate, it’s important to get a trusted source of news. Organizations are in the unique position to provide this support to their employees and their families. GMs can invest in these off-the-shelf solutions if they have teams spread across geographies. One of the best solutions in the market came from Schlumberger, which released a rapid response app for its employees.Microsoft Power Apps has now adaptedthe Schlumberger app for general use. Organizations can use it to help employees update their status, coordinate with managers, and push policy changes and emergency contact and credible data from reputable sources, such as the WHO, CDC, NHS and local authorities.
There are different criteria to weigh when judging what work can be done effectively by remote workers (either individually or in teams). Examining the existing operational models is one approach to managing remote teams. Organizations may have one or more operating models that structure how employees do some or all of their work. Three well-known models that require remote work coordination are centers of excellence, self-organizing teams and “follow-the-sun” models. (In follow-the-sun models, operations shift between global locations as the workday moves westward with the sun’s movement.) In such cases, remote work processes, policies and enabling technologies become a deliberate strategy of optimizing these operational models.
“Work” consists of the assignments and tasks that are needed to achieve a specific organizational goal. As such, there is no inherent understanding of “place” in this concept of “work.” Place or proximity becomes relevant only when it’s needed to achieve a goal. Specific tasks may or may not be “place-dependent.” Manufacturing, healthcare delivery, and brick-and-mortar retail selling are tasks that relate to a place or a location. However, 3D printing technology and virtual goods, including ideas, digital documents or digital products, make work much less place-dependent.
In some cases, place is turned inside out: What’s most important is the customer’s location, not the worker’s location. For example, are huge centralized call centers needed for efficiency when local call center representatives can be distributed and supported globally?
To enable effective remote work actions:
Establish outcome-based performance measures: Monitor progress steps and milestones. Outcome-based metrics often require a major shift in expectations, employee accountability and managerial responsibility.
Seek feedback on employee performance from peers: While obtaining peer review is a good idea regardless of whether an employee is a remote worker, it becomes especially important when the manager lacks visual clues about employee-to-employee interaction.
Prepare employees for remote work demands by setting accurate expectations and enabling supportive interactions: Effective remote work programs enable increased employee productivity and reduce employee stress, according to an array of studies. Nearly two-thirds of organizations supporting remote work have documented higher productivity. Best Buy, BT and Dow reported that remote workers are 35% to 40% more productive than people who work in corporate offices. AT&T found that remote workers worked an average of five hours more per week than their office-based counterparts. Eighty-two percent of remote workers self-report that remote work lowered their stress levels.
However, remote work is not free of human costs: Loneliness is a major factor in employee burnout. Fifty percent of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work — a 32% increase from two decades ago. Enabling teams to quickly build virtual workplace networks is key to counteracting loneliness and optimizing employee effectiveness in remote work programs.
GMs should lead by example by becoming experts in tools that make communication and collaboration effective (see ). To build and sustain healthy trust, GMs must also create opportunities for ongoing interactions with and among remote workers, their teammates, and their managers. Frequent check-ins with remote employees help them feel less isolated. This replaces the floor walks and informal chats that help remove small impediments to the projects (see ).
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