Master a Distributed Workforce for Digital Transformation

May 21, 2020

Contributor: Kasey Panetta

Executives should use increased agility and distributed teams to future-proof the organization.

Whether through new product lines, a fully remote workforce or a whole new online business, COVID-19 will continue to change the way organizations operate. But in the chaos exists an opportunity to transform the future business. 

“Executive leaders will have to become more agile to deal with the demands of a highly distributed and potentially inconsistent workforce,” says Leigh McMullen, Distinguished VP Analyst, Gartner. “Three core missions can solve today’s problems, and also build a future that is much more resilient and adaptable.”

Although many companies tabled digital transformation to deal with COVID-19, the reality is that most organizations have already experienced the worst parts of digital transformation (i.e., layoffs, reduced revenue, drops in stock prices) as a result of coronavirus. They have, in effect, “prepaid” the price of digital transformation, which often requires a lot of upfront change for a delayed ROI. 

Additionally, organizations are now managing highly distributed and potentially inconsistent (HDPI) workforces, making an even stronger case to use this time to set a foundation to support digital transformation. 

Smart organizations will further their transformation by focusing on three areas. 

Mission 1: Make work as lean and agile as possible (Everywhere, not just IT or on the manufacturing floor)

With an HDPI workforce, companies do not have the luxury of relying on a central-command structure. Everything must be more agile and more adaptable to a new reality. For example, during COVID-19, employee availability may ebb and flow in relation to their health and that of their family members.

Whereas prior to COVID-19 there was a widespread expectation at most companies that employees would be available 40 hours per week — and generally the same 40 hours — coronavirus has complicated the matter by bringing home and work life together, and adding more stress to every employee. Employees might be distracted during the day by distance learning for children, managing health for older relatives or trying to find essential items at off-peak times. 

Consolidated workload management tools (Kanban boards) will aggregate tasks and enable better resource allocation. When everyone is comfortable with the Kanban boards, it’s time to allow for greater ability to select tasks, but consider incentivizing less-desirable tasks. 

Read more: How to Lead Better Remote Meetings

Further,shift  to a focus on domain experts as opposed to the manager when an expert is needed. Set up a mailbox for the “XYZ Role” that can be maintained and managed by whoever has the availability and expertise versus having requests go through a centralized manager. 

Mission 2: Remove chokepoints and roadblocks 

COVID-19 created an HDPI workforce, which will in turn organically do much of the heavy lifting for the lean reengineering of an organization. Processes will naturally shift toward a focus on the most essential tasks that will deliver a good product. This will happen as a result of COVID-19 impacts, but executives should nudge the process along to be optimal for the business. 

First, break down all processes to their smallest components, which will allow a versatilist to take over a piece of the process more easily, rather than having to be trained on the entire workflow. This also plays into the Kanban board, as smaller tasks are easier to distribute. Documenting workflows will be difficult as people drop in and out of availability, but devise a simple way to track processes. 

For example, the first person to walk through a new process is responsible for documenting it. Encourage experts to continuously revisit these processes to find areas that can be optimized. Finally, never forget to ask the question, “How does this help the customer?” That will help streamline and shift workstreams. 

Mission 3: Manage time differently 

While missions 1 and 2 prioritize autonomy and agility, don’t forget to focus on collaboration and coordination. Maintain a daily standup to organize the team, and protect those times. 

On the flip side, provide flexible work hours outside of those few meetings. For some people, the choice will be showing up at 9 a.m. or not showing up at all. Offer the ability to show up when it makes sense. For jobs that require coverage, put in place shifts that make sense for individual employees versus a rigid adherence to a corporate schedule. 

While today’s disaster is a global pandemic, climate change and increasingly unpredictable weather events will continue to change how the global economy and businesses perform. Organizations will need to adapt at some time, and given that most have already started this type of transformation to respond to COVID-19, executives can ensure it’s setting the organization on a pathway to success.

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