Should We Embrace a Remote Workforce? – The Organizational Question of the Decade

This is an interesting time to lead an organization. Because of the pandemic most workers who can are working from home. While this is the safe and right thing to do it poses some interesting challenges for leaders of organizations. One of those challenges is to determine whether this organizational structure should be something more permeant. If you’re considering this as a more permanent option, you need to consider it from a strategic perspective, not from a “fear based” posture many of us are experiencing right now. You need to make this organizational structure part of who you are which means you may have to change your organization’s vision and to some degree ethos if this is how you choose to move forward. Here is an example from higher education where we’ve seen that universities already established as distance education institutions transitioned during the pandemic much easier than those who never thought this would be something they would ever have to do.

My alma mater, Capella University provided me with a very good and effective doctoral education in general psychology. I have no complaints. I can compete with and engage other doctoral learners from similar programs that only have on campus classes. Capella’s mission statement is:

“The mission of Capella University is to extend access to high-quality bachelor’s, master’s, specialist, doctoral, and certificate programs for adults who seek to maximize their personal and professional potential. This mission is fulfilled through innovative programs that are responsive to the needs of adult learners and involve active, engaging, challenging, and relevant learning experiences offered in a variety of delivery modes.”

When their students, professors, and much of their staff had to work remotely in a dispersed organization, they did well. Very little of anything changed regarding how they deliver education, measure learning outcomes, and help students feel they are a part of their organization. From the very conception of who they are, a dispersed organizational structure was at the heart of their existence.

Other universities did not make this transition very well. They struggled to keep students engaged and are finding that their professors, administrators, and staff were not well prepared to make this shift. It’s not because these people aren’t intelligent, it’s because it’s not the “ethos” of the organization and therefore those attending and working there do not see remote education as part of who they are.

The reason I bring this up isn’t to critique one way of doing things over another, but rather to highlight an important aspect of organizational design that may get missed as leaders begin to consider whether their organization should become more dispersed. My advice is for many organizations to not do it. Don’t think you can just turn on a switch and “Poof”, you are now a dispersed organization. This approach won’t work for two reasons.

First, implementing any drastic change is met with resistance even when it’s well communicated. When people suddenly realize they’re now going to be a dispersed workforce in a dispersed organization it’s going to affect what they do. Even if the idea is appealing to the employees, it will impact how they do things which leads to some form of resistance. Much of this is because what an employee does, how they do it, and the results they get are intricately connected psychologically to the vision and mission of an organization. That’s what provides them with the “why” regarding what they do. Think of these statements as the DNA of an organization. Someone asks, “Why do all of you work remotely instead of in an office?” The answer is something like “We find that in order to serve our customers 24/7 at times convenient for the customer we need a nimble workforce that can adjust their hours as needed. In order to do that, working remotely gives our employees a lifestyle that allows them to provide our customers the service we say defines us and still have lives of their own.” That’s an answer intimately connected to the vision of an organization. And that is the second reason just “flipping a switch” to be a dispersed remote organization won’t work.

Take a look at Amazon and compare it to another big retailer, Walmart. Amazon’s ethos is to conveniently provide their customers numerous services remotely and yet in a timely and competitively priced way. The shopping experience is intimately connected to their web presence and the fact you can get most anything you want sent to you within days, sometimes in that day, without much of an issue provides the Amazon experience. Amazon thrives as an online experience because at its core this is who they are. Their organization has been developed around this strategy. Walmart, however, is not. People want low prices and the ability to walk into their store and get what they need now. Walmart has a website. In fact, if you go there, you might find it can compete with Amazon in several ways. However, Walmart is NOT an online shopping experience and therefore they will never do online shopping as effectively as Amazon and likewise, even with Whole Foods as part of their organization, Amazon will never do brick and mortar shopping like Walmart. It’s not that they can’t, rather, it’s that to do so means a complete shift in their vision and mission. That would then lead to a change in strategy and for that to work the organization must shift and change to implement that strategy. Basically, each company would be a different organization than they are now. For some, that’s a good idea, but for others, that might be tragic.

So, if you’re thinking that now is the time to transform your organization into a dispersed organization, think hard. Start with your vision and mission statements and ask yourself “Can these be actualized from within that organizational structure?” If the answer is yes, start rethinking your strategy. If you can develop an effective strategy that requires a dispersed organization, you’re on the right track. If at any point your answer to these questions is “no” think of how you will be able to bring everyone back in the office. Your organization’s “life” will depend on it.