"Rachel White, CEO of Arcadis Gen, shares the lessons she’s learned about connection, collaboration and communication in a remote organization."
Articles abound predicting the future of work, considering the impact the pandemic has had on how we view the traditional office, and the resultant acceleration in technologies and mindsets. A recent report from McKinsey forecasted an increase of “four to five times more remote work than before the pandemic.” And a week doesn’t go by without a CEO announcing their company’s new all-remote, hybrid or back-to-office plans. Amidst all this noise, I’ve been thinking about the impacts these changes will have for those of us responsible for leading teams and organizations, once the dust settles.
As countries successfully roll-out vaccination programs, and we look forward with optimism, it’s clear that in whatever guise, remote working is here to stay. Over the past 18 months, I’ve experienced the challenges of being an effective leader in a remote world. I’ve learned what works, and what doesn’t, and how the old rules of how we collaborate, connect, and communicate no longer apply.
1. Connection: Distributed, global, inclusive
When we went remote, I was apprehensive – how was I going to lead a business with a blindfold on – without seeing or getting to know our employees? In fact, I found that remote working is a great equalizer. At Gen it has actually helped us on our path to becoming a truly global business. I’ve learned to embrace technology, to use it as a way of creating deeper and more frequent connections, with people I couldn’t have connected with before. I can just as easily have a quick chat with a colleague in New York, as I can with someone in London. Employees not based in the same office as leadership are no longer at a disadvantage.
As a result, our people feel more connected to the business. And I have never felt more connected to our people. I talk to employees regularly, people from all walks of life, in different roles, countries and teams. As a result, I understand what’s going on across the organization, where there are issues, and where things need my attention. I call every new starter personally in their first week and will also speak to employees experiencing personal challenges or difficulties to offer my support.
2. Collaboration: Cultural sensitivity is key
But with global inclusivity comes the need for greater cultural sensitivity. It’s much harder to pick up on cultural nuances in a remote environment. For example, we have employees in regions where saying no, or offering a different viewpoint, isn’t the norm. Without careful attention, this can leave employees feeling they don’t have a voice. Take the time to understand the different cultures that make up your teams. Leaders have a responsibility to not just ensure diverse voices are invited to the (virtual) table, but that they are actively encouraged to participate.
Getting collaboration right without the benefits of in-person meetings has been a steep learning curve. At Gen we value experimentation and innovation. And we know that creativity needs collaboration to thrive. So, one of the biggest questions for me has been how to get creative when surrounded by the same four walls every day. The explosion of virtual collaboration tools is fantastic, but technology alone isn’t enough. Leaders must choose the right tools, and then actively work to use this technological advantage to run inclusive, stimulating, and global collaborations. In short, leaders need to get creative about how they get creative.
3. Communication: Listen and diversify
It’s easy to broadcast messages, but much more difficult for things to be understood and interpreted. We were in the process of integrating three organizations when the pandemic started. The timing couldn’t have been worse. So, communicating with our people has required careful consideration and a range of approaches. It’s much harder to communicate effectively without face-to-face connections. So, we now bring our wider leadership community, around 30 people from around the globe, together regularly to engage around what we’re building, how we’re growing and how we’re running our business. Expanding this community ensures formal corporate communications, that could easily have been missed, reinforced through line manager discussions and careful listening.
As well as traditional communication channels, we’re also using Slack to engage our employee community – listening carefully to what they have to say. Post-pandemic, it’s vital that we continue investing in these new approaches to communication, to use them to think inclusively when it comes to wider issues affecting the organization - ensuring everyone, no matter where they are, feels heard.
The new connected global organization
Working remotely post-pandemic may look very different, but there is plenty we can learn from recent experiences about what leaders must role-model, facilitate and nurture to be successful. The past 18 months have forced people to make choices about what’s important and added a new lens to the ‘work-life-balance’ conversation. The companies that attract the strongest talent, will be the ones which nurture connection, collaboration, and a genuine commitment to global inclusion.