Organizations are capable of operating remotely, the COVID-19 pandemic confirmed, and many companies are now defining whether having employees regularly show up at the office is necessary and how much flexibility they can afford.
Will organizations of the future be fully virtual and will the employees be dispersed around their homes? Grzegorz Rajca, an organizational psychologist and work environment strategy consultant, explains what we can expect and what we should prepare for.
Key findings from the article:
- An organization is a system consisting of many elements that interact and influence each other.
- The biggest potential risk of implementing remote work is weakening of organizational ties and structures – as a result of dispersion, the company may resemble a loosely connected group of individuals. Innovation and organizational culture can suffer.
- The implementation of remote work is a change that affects the organization on many levels and is associated with the need to change the existing ways of functioning.
Organization – mechanism or complex system?
Before we try answering the question about the future, it is worth stepping back and asking: what is organization anyway?
In the 19th century and early 20th century, the dominant metaphor for organization was that of a machine. Organizations were seen as mechanisms made up of smaller components. Over time, however, the interplay of these elements began to be recognized, resulting in an alternative approach to organization – the systems approach.
The change in approach is not just a change in nomenclature. Systems and complex systems are governed by different laws than mechanical devices. The basic difference between a system and a machine is that a machine can be accurately understood, described and predicted. Meanwhile, in the case of a system, a full understanding of the laws governing it is impossible. The elements of a system interact with each other in complex ways and constantly influence each other. In this way, the system is much more than the sum of its components. Its interactions enable it to evolve, self-organize, or maintain equilibrium.
Organizational culture and the emergence phenomenon
Systems have many interesting properties. Their complexity means that we cannot fully predict their behavior, for example in response to a change in the environment. In systems, the phenomenon of emergence occurs, whereby complex behaviors and forms can spontaneously emerge from interactions between simple elements. An example of emergence that we can observe in nature is the behavior of a swarm of bees or a school of fish.
Emergence can also be observed in organizations, and an example of an emergent phenomenon is organizational culture. It is not something that can be planned in advance and built according to precise instructions. It emerges gradually and spontaneously, as a result of interactions and processes occurring within the organization.
Once we look at an organization as a system in which many things happen on their own, we can understand the key challenge of remote working. The biggest potential risk of implementing remote working on a large scale is that as a result of the dispersion, the organization will stop functioning as a system and will start to resemble a loosely connected group of individuals. As a result, those areas of organizational functioning that are rooted in complexity and emergence will suffer:
- innovation will be affected
- organizational culture will start to disappear
- divisions and silos will deepen
A survey of more than 61,000 Microsoft employees in late 2020 and early 2021 found that working remotely has clearly deepened silos and weakened collaboration across teams. In turn, a survey conducted by Colliers in June this year made it clear that organizations consider one of the biggest challenges of remote working to be maintaining a sense of belonging among employees.
Don’t be afraid of hybrid
Does this mean that by choosing to work remotely we are condemning our organizational system to inevitable decay? Not necessarily. Between working from the office and full remote work we have a wide range of hybrid solutions available, combining in different proportions stationary and remote mode of work. A few days a month spent together in the office may be enough to keep the organizational system in balance. Fully remote working also seems to be possible, provided that certain conditions are met. After all, fully remote organizations existed before the pandemic period, and their experiences may be the key to finding answers to questions about successfully building virtual organizations.
What do we know about the organization of the future?
- Certainly some form of remote working will be an important part of its operation. This is a trend from which there is no turning back.
- For organizations that, prior to the pandemic, only operated in a stationary mode, adapting to this new reality will require organizing their work environment differently and designing employee interactions both in the office space and online.
- Finding the golden mean between dispersion and connection and gradually discovering the right ways to function in this new reality will be a key challenge for companies over the coming months and years.