Yes, yes, another soothsayer warning about the impacts of the pandemic. But this one’s different. It isn’t a new variable that you can identify and track. It’s an absence. It’s a void. It’s a vacuum.
Consultants like me are often accused of being hammers looking for nails — constantly building solutions for problems that seem either self-fabricated or immaterial. Curve ball! This time I’m wandering the virtual halls of organizational culture and finding nail pops—hidden problems for which, oddly, I think we haven’t found a hammer.
I propose we explore a very real and insidious threat that I’ve stumbled upon in my conversations with government organizations and private companies. It’s a threat to organizations and their ways of working stemming from our current lockdown and stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I may not have any answers, but I promise to probe and postulate as much as suggest and ask for pragmatic advice. Let’s take a walk, shall we?
In this article
First, A Brief History Of Remote Work
For many organizations, remote work used to mean teams collaborating from two or more office locations with a few individuals working from home here and there.
A perfect example would be how the digital project management and IT folks have embraced virtual spaces for years and have had distributed teams for a long time. And, in fact, catchphrases like “following the sun” as a reference to global teams in IT, and “passing the book” in the financial world have been a reality for decades.
So while the rest of the world was shocked at not getting to commute to a sandwich shop for lunch at “HQ” or “the office”—we weren’t.
But, the difference is that the pandemic has forced nearly every industry into virtual work situations. In this new world, we have been “maximally distributed” — that is, the team has been rendered from all its group cohesion down to one single point; each of us in our own isolation cell.
What, then, happens to the organization in the face of maximally distributed social units?
Initial Victories In Maximal Distribution
Organizations around the world actually did a remarkable job at adapting to this maximally-distributed reality.
For those of us in the “office space” world, we all went through the four stages of Zoom (anxiety, engagement, fatigue, and acceptance) and came out the other side relatively unscathed.
We digitized every step of our existing processes without any catastrophic losses.
We transplanted our revered business metrics into the dashboards of tools living in the Cloud.
We survived! Companies delivered, got paid, paychecks sent.
So the parts of our work life that were structured and transactional, those worked well.
And yet, in the unstructured, and informal spaces, the spaces of our accidental and incidental interaction, there is a haunting shadow in the scan of our body corporate. For those aspects of our work life, or indeed for those workgroups that exist fully in the liminal space of structure, the maximally distributed team has long-term negative effects. And worse, it’s insidious—we may not see the effects, even post pandemic, for some time to come.
The Missing Piece: A Serious Lack In COSS
When we are in highly adaptive, relationship- or idea-based environments, the need for physical proximity is real. Virtual work has reduced the opportunity to overhear, observe, or otherwise passively intake information.
Just imagine those who work in culturally looser, operationally less-structured organizations. They are most likely to have suffered the most because of a lack of face time and real time collaboration. Without a doubt, proximity is a critical success factor.
Formal and informal spaces of unstructured interaction abound within every organization and this causes me to wonder, “Where would the impact of not getting to meet, to share, in a ‘same place, same time’ way, matter?”
I posit that with the maximally distributed team (one that can’t get divided any further: one whole person at one site), we are missing COSS: Context, Observation, Serendipity, and Spontaneity.
Because of the complexity of organizations, the effect of missing COSS may not be known unless we stop to think it through. That is, the impact is long term and once observed, observed too late.
Remember, in the before times, we could just walk into a “war room” or a facilitated brainstorming, strategic planning, risk planning…well, any planning or analysis session? We may not have always raised our hands and spoken up but we chatted with those who sat close to us. Being able to passively listen to someone’s passionate tirade on a scrapped idea gave us our own ideas as well.
While careful plotting of a meeting—even online—can help us generate, share, evaluate and make decisions on ideas, we cannot replace those interactions and overheard conversations that shape the normative value of the information that is being shared.
Why is someone uncomfortable? Why do they continue to whisper in the corner? More than body language, remember all those draft butcher block papers, stickies, and white boards covered in words, bullets, diagrams…thoughts? Thoughts that give context to the focus of the meeting’s purpose.
With the loss of context, it’s hard to tell where we are, where people are coming from, and where we’re really headed.
At the most micro level, working with collaborative drawing tools, I have found that while I can share and discuss, I am constantly trying to figure out how to smoothly “zoom out” to see how the part of the discussion fits within a larger layout. Wouldn’t you agree that every second spent figuring something technical out and totally unrelated to the topic somehow takes away from the message you’re trying to convey?
Context. We lose it, but we plow forward, build consensus, wrap up meeting notes, and feel we have collaborated. Everyone who wanted a voice got to dial in.
One of the most important aspects of organizational culture is how learning/teaching occurs. In any company, once the core training is taken and the right degrees have been completed, the real way to rise and to become a senior is to observe and be observed by other senior professionals.
For coders, it’s aptly called “over the shoulder” learning. Where, now, will the junior people get to see how it’s really done? How easy is it for a senior person (or someone transitioning out of a role) to observe others practicing a task?
It is very possible to do, but organizations have traditionally counted on (unintentionally) adaptive and non-structured interactions to handle this aspect of creating new professionals.
Essentially, succession planning is threatened by the lack of the physical proximity that many organizations have relied on, even unwittingly, to create the next generation of super coders, senior PMs, and mature marketing professionals.
Serendipity And Spontaneity
The Water Cooler Effect. How many of you have ever experienced or benefited from it?
In the study of innovation, it is understood that at the largest (macro) level down to the workspace level, the need for cross-profession interaction, lateral thinking, randomness of hearing someone not in your cohort/tribe/pod that produces an aha is absolutely paramount.
Big cities have become hives of technical and artistic expertise simply because they are the nexus of technical and artistic expertise that bump into each other at work, coffee shops, and events.
Highly agile, innovative work groups establish new methods and new offerings because they are in unstructured environments.
All of this is lost in a Zoom world.
Have You Managed To Keep COSS In Play?
It may seem like our very ability as organizations to create insights could be lost. And like the lack of strong developing professionals, this lack will not be known for some time.
So I ask you, (I promised a request for validation):
- Does your organization likely have a drop off of Context, Observation, Serendipity, and Spontaneity?
- Does it matter?
- Will it affect the quality of decisions, the quality of maturing professionals, the quality or quantity of new ideas?
If so, our next step will be to pursue the question: What is to be done?
Leave comments, DM me. This time there’s a nail; let’s consider the hammers we need.
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