A global coronavirus crisis has taught us that we are living in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. This virus has exposed vulnerabilities beyond our control, threatening our long-term health and economic stability. Critical to defeating this pandemic is ensuring global business continuity and a healthy global workforce. As a result, hundreds of millions of workers were asked in March 2020 to work from home, leading to immeasurable virtual workforce challenges.
While remote work is not a new concept for many, several issues have plagued the virtual worker throughout the years. For example, have you ever wondered why virtual workforce efforts at your organization are not successful or fail to stick? Or why your direct reports struggle to adapt to a remote work environment? Or perhaps you’ve wondered why people managers and leaders are challenged with engaging employees in a virtual work environment?
In this article, we’ll answer those questions and explore:
- why long-term virtual workforce efforts fail
- how to prepare, equip, support, and enable leaders in the virtual workforce of the future
- where workforce leaders and staff position themselves on the virtual workforce change curve
This information is designed to guide leaders, people managers and employees toward fully embracing a virtual workforce as ‘the way they work’.
But First, Why Do Virtual Workforces Fail?
- No Burning Platform
- No Sustainable Vision
- No Leadership Training (in a virtual workforce)
- No Virtual Role Modeling
- No Culture Integration
No Burning Platform
Up until now, there was not a compelling business reason for organizations to move to a virtual workforce environment. Yes, there were always cost efficiencies to be realized but those gains were often eclipsed by workforce inefficiencies. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work was considered a perk, a convenience and / or a differentiator for many organizations globally. However, as of mid-March, the game has changed. A virtual workforce is not only critical, but essential to business continuity, increased productivity, and workforce health.
No Sustainable Vision
Lewis Carroll famously said: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”. Unfortunately, many organizations knowingly (or unknowingly) subscribe to this philosophy when introducing virtual work environments. One of the greatest misnomers about a virtual workforce is that the same business rules, processes and norms apply for this model as they would for the more traditional model. Without a vision and a new, reimagined operating model and culture, virtual workforces will struggle to achieve long-term success.
No Leadership Training (for virtual workforce)
Preparing leaders and employees for success in virtual environments is one of the most overlooked gaps in virtual workforce deployments. Leaders and managers with a remote team are significantly underserved and lack the skills to effectively manage their subordinates in a virtual world. The lack of time invested in training has led to failed virtual workforce cultures and short-lived virtual workforce success. Leaders and managers who are challenged to lead in a virtual workforce quickly determine: ‘while it is one thing to know how to lead, it is another to learn how to lead in a virtual environment’.
No Virtual Role Modeling
Given the lack of training, it is not surprising that one of the leading reasons virtual workforces are often unsustainable is the lack of leaders who model the necessary skills, competencies and behaviors required in a virtual workforce. Without sufficient skills to model critical behaviors in a virtual work environment, their efforts are often perceived as ‘do as I say, not as I do’. What is needed are leaders who are willing to champion a virtual workforce and model critical behaviors. Without them, employee buy-in and long-term sustainability is at risk.
No Culture Integration
What differentiates one organization from another is their unique culture, including but not limited to, how they interact and support each other. Organizations invest heavily in establishing a culture that is unique to their specific core values. However, when leaders decide to move to a virtual workforce, they often fail to integrate the culture that once thrived within a traditional office / workforce setting. As a result, employees are left feeling isolated or disconnected and the culture they once supported is now obsolete. A culture integration plan is paramount to long-term success as organizations transition to a virtual workforce.
Flattening the Curve
When more than 200 million remote-enabled professionals were recently thrust into a new future of work, they were given a mandate to work from home full-time in the interest of public health and safety. This was the largest disruption to a global workforce in recent memory. For a substantial number of workers, however, remote work was nothing new. For the majority of others, however, working from home on a full-time basis was a complete paradigm shift in business operations and a radical departure from business as usual.
The seemingly insurmountable challenge that organizations faced was how to create a virtual workforce strategy (practically) overnight. This strategy should include a change management and communication plan that ensures leaders, people managers and employees fully embrace a virtual workforce as ‘the way they work’. The strategy should also include communication and training on how to use the collaboration tools required to be successful and productive in the new environment.
For illustration purposes, let’s look at a traditional human change curve. This is the journey that most employees experience as they encounter change. The change curve itself is agnostic as it applies to all human behavior, irrespective of the change experience. You’ll notice in the graphic below that humans will experience a dip in morale and/or productivity as they transition from the denial stage to the exploration stage of the curve. This is common with all change and is often referred to as the ‘valley of despair’ within major change transformation initiatives. How do you bridge this ‘valley of despair’?
Bridging the Valley of Despair
The millions of office workers who transitioned from a traditional workforce to a virtual workforce earlier this month experienced, and continue to experience, a dip in the change curve. Carefully managing a change to a virtual workforce is paramount to business stability and continuity. Further, how we help leaders, people managers and employees’ transition along the change curve is critical to their ability to embrace a virtual workforce as the ‘new normal’, at least temporarily if not in the foreseeable future.
How to Lead an Organization Through a Virtual Workforce Transition
Here are ten actions for leading organizations through a virtual workforce transition:
- Establish virtual role models to serve as transition champions
- Determine KPIs and define ‘what success looks like’ with a transition to a virtual workforce
- Develop a communication plan with targeted messaging
- Develop a change plan to manage leader / employee transition to a virtual way they work
- Conduct a stakeholder assessment to capture hearts, minds and fears of leaders / employees
- Execute a change impact analysis to determine old vs. new way to work
- Conduct a training needs analysis to identify skill gaps between traditional work and virtual work
- Conduct a readiness assessment to gauge leader/employee preparation
- Develop a training plan to ensure adequate skill building throughout the transition
- Continually survey virtual leaders, people managers and employees to measure success
Tips for Virtual Role Models
Like many of you, The CARA Group has always had the capability and full functionality to work remotely. Since we needed to transition, however, to a full-time virtual workforce as directed by the state of Illinois stay at home work order, our biggest win in the transition was through the establishment of virtual workforce change champions or ‘Virtual Role Models’. Without our Virtual Role Models, collectively, The CARA Group would not be up and to the right on the change curve. Below are some best practices and key behaviors required of a Virtual Role Model who will have ultimate influence over whether your organization fully embraces a Virtual Workforce as ‘the way they work’.
- Be vulnerable and share where you are on your own virtual workforce change curve
- Empathize with peers and subordinates
- Acknowledge new norms in a virtual workforce
- Share success (and failure) stories
- Remember the golden rule and apply it in a virtual workforce setting
- Celebrate, reinforce and reward desired virtual workforce behaviors
- Continue to skill-build to evolve virtual workforce capabilities
- Establish a virtual watercooler for employees to interact personally
- Recognize that the speed to transition and productivity in a virtual workforce will vary by individual
Please connect with us if you could use help with leading your organization through a virtual workforce transition or simply want to talk about your current situation as you ponder next steps. We’re here to help!
Where are You on the Virtual Workforce Change Curve?
Comment below to:
- Share where you (or your leaders) are at on the virtual workforce change curve
- Share your experiences in leading organizations toward embracing a virtual workforce as ‘the way they work’
I’ll admit it. I’ve never led a company through a global pandemic. Neither has my informal advisory board of business mentors, girlfriends, my hairdresser, or that guy who delivered the toilet paper I ordered on Amazon. And neither have you. We are all at a loss. Every day brings a new statistic, a new response, a new revelation. We watch. We wait. Or we scurry as if just doing something will insulate us from a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous situation. A month ago I smugly thought I knew what VUCA stood for. Funny how a little perspective can change everything.
The word “unprecedented” is suddenly in the spotlight, appearing on the news, in social media, and in corporate communications so often it has started wearing sunglasses and refusing to sign autographs. If you are a leader (and I would argue that all of us are, if even of our own twitchy, anxious selves), you may be wondering how you can lead without a GPS. Fair enough. Me too.
Maybe we need to return to that word, “perspective.” We can focus on what we don’t know, or we can rely on what we most certainly do. You know what you’re good at. That has precedent. Rely on it. You know what others are good at. Rely on that, too.
I know my strengths. I’m optimistic, for one. I believe in the human capacity to change, learn, and grow – even in the most challenging of circumstances. I believe that applies to all of us. Even Justin Bieber. I am also a hell of a problem solver, know more than a little somethin’ about virtual workforce development, and bring my whole heart to everything I do. I care about people, their well-being, and their professional success. Yes, of course, I could make a long list of the things I’m not good at – just ask my 15-year-old. But that’s not the point. The point is: although I have no idea what’s going to happen in the future, I know how I’ve been successful in the past. I can use what I know to help. And you can too.
Maybe you can rock a pivot table that helps evaluate financial impact. Maybe you understand how to rework the details of a project plan so your team stays productive. Maybe you know how to leverage social media to help communicate during this crisis. Maybe you have the empathy to recognize when someone is in pain and needs a virtual shoulder to cry on. You may be the person who responds first. Or who wheels an elderly person up to a window to see her son through the glass. Or who keeps the peace.
Each of you, all of you, we need your strengths to lead us.
I hope something salvageable comes out of this misery, some transformational insight or growth. My heart aches for those most vulnerable: the sick, the elderly, the homeless, the jobless. I hope we will learn to protect them better. I hope as we shelter in our homes we recognize that to be able to do so is a luxury and that it deepens our capacity for gratitude. I hope that, in honor of those courageous people who are swabbing, testing, treating, cleaning, delivering, restocking and otherwise keeping the lights on, we develop a new level of appreciation for the strengths of others. And, I hope that all of us struggling to navigate in the dark will take a moment to remember that our strengths are our strength and that we each decide to use them in unprecedented ways, to lead one another toward the light.
In today’s COVID-19 environment, learning professionals are being asked to quickly transform Instructor Led Training (ILT) to Virtual-Instructor Led Training (V-ILT). The good news is that most Instructional Designers have the transformation skills needed, and companies have the technologies needed, to support V-ILT. The challenge is the volume of work and the speed at which it must be accomplished.
The CARA Group has identified Five Best Practices to help accelerate the transformation process.
1 – Align with Business Strategy
Start with defining a set of criteria to ensure that the work is aligned with the business strategy to separate the “wants” from the “needs”. Once the true needs are determined, create a prioritized Action Plan. Communicate the results back to the Program Sponsors to manage their expectations. If a program was not prioritized, perhaps the respective Program Sponsor can conduct a simple web-meeting or webinar as an alternative.
2 – Manage Scope
Using the prioritized Action Plan, review the program with the Program Sponsor and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Explain the difference between ILT, V-ILT and a Webinar (a webinar requires no activities). Determine whether this will be a simple transformation with no content or learning objective changes or a complex conversion with some content and/or learning objective changes, which will take more time and effort. Agree on a protocol for managing scope, as there is a strong tendency for SMEs to want to change or update content during the conversion process.
3 – Optimize the Learner Experience: Rich Interactive Training Anytime, Anywhere
Before jumping into the actual transformation work, it is important to educate the Program Sponsor and the SMEs on the power of V-ILT technologies and how they can be used to create effective learning experiences.
V-ILT, designed correctly, offers many of the same learner experiences as traditional ILT. Instructors can present mini-lectures, facilitate activities and discussions. Participants can work individually and in small groups, raise their hand to ask questions and use resource material.
Video projection of both the Instructor and Participants help keep the Participants engaged and accountable, creating “virtual eye contact,” allowing everyone to read facial expressions and body language. Video also brings a personal element to the program, as the members share and view each other’s virtual work environment.
Content and activity designs can leverage screen-sharing, whiteboards, polling, chat, small group breakouts, games and quizzes. Many V-ILT systems also allow the Instructor to gauge individual and overall group attentiveness at any point with a visual attention indicator.
Instructional Designers work with the SME’s create a design to ensure that the learners remain engaged during class and help them retain the knowledge and skills afterward.
4 – Deploying V-ILT: Practical Matters
Deploying V-ILT requires different types of logistical planning than traditional ILT. Instructor and Participant job-aids are very helpful in guiding them in the use of these unique tools.
Instructors need to be comfortable and proficient delivering the V-ILT version of the program. Train-the-Trainer programs should include the business reason for converting from ILT to V-ILT, an overview of the new program, a system test, how to use the system features, how to trouble-shoot and an opportunity to practice. On the day of the program, the Instructor should login to the system 15-30 minutes prior to ensure that everything is ready to go. Someone from the learning team should be assigned to support the Instructor during the V-ILT with classroom management, at least for the first few sessions. Participant login issues, late arrivals and technical issues can really distract and rattle a new V-ILT Instructor.
Participants should be required to do a system test a few days prior to the program. Engage the IT department to support this activity so that they will be ready to quickly answer participant questions. In addition, Participants should find a quiet, dedicated space and login 15 minutes prior to the start of the V-ILT to ensure they are ready for class.
When scheduling multi-hour programs, plan 30-60 minute breaks for both the Instructors and Participants to allow them to attend to both business and personal matters. Note that Instructors often have follow-up participant questions after the end of the formal session and then need to get ready for the next program.
5 – Include a Change Management Strategy and Plan
Managing leaders’, Instructors’ and learners’ expectations is essential for successful transformation to V-ILT. Resistance may show up in limited registrations, no-shows and other non-productive behaviors. A well-executed Change Management strategy can proactively avoid these types of issues. A key element is a robust communication plan for everyone involved, describing the business case for change, the new V-ILT programs, who is impacted, expectations, timelines and contact information. In addition, the strategy should include a plan to measure and report adoption on a routine basis.
Please connect with us if you could use help with transforming ILT to V-ILT or simply want to talk about your current situation as you ponder next steps. We’re here to help!
To help you implement or expand your remote working programs, The CARA Group has created this quick microlearning to help your virtual teams become exceptionally productive! These best practices come from our years of experience helping global companies transform their workforce. We hope you like it and share it with others who find it useful.