For the corporate world, the hybrid approach to work poses challenges

ByRaghu Raman
Jun 15, 2021 03:37 PM IST

In addition to customer behaviour, economic upheavals and extreme uncertainty, the new mode of hybrid working has changed the environment completely

World War II was a fertile period for innovation and development of technology and leadership frameworks. Understandably so, because humans are most imaginative when facing existential crises, as indeed, we are right now. However, developing or acquiring new technology is one thing, but creating the doctrines or operating principles to leverage them is another altogether.

Representational image. PREMIUM
Representational image.

For instance, while most of the aerial warfare was based on propeller engine fighter planes, jet engine fighters started their operational debut towards the latter period of the war. Existing fighter pilots of the propeller era were hurriedly retrained to fly the modern platforms. But the transition ran into challenges. Pilots who were used to top speeds of less than 500 miles per hour were catapulted into sub and supersonic speeds, literally overnight. Many of the aces couldn’t even withstand the exceeding G Force, let alone leverage their Old World prowess in the new environment. While that challenge could be solved relatively easily by changing some pilots, the more subtle, yet important, problem was the inadequacy of existing combat decision-making frameworks, operational processes and strategic doctrines to support the paradigm shift.

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Pilots of the legendary Spitfires, Messerschmitts, Zeros and Mustangs — the fighter backbone of the British, German, Japanese and American air forces respectively — were trained to think in seconds. Their radius of operation was barely 500 miles when fully armed, and almost all engagements required the pilot to identify the target visually, before being able to engage it. Jet fighter pilots, however, had to think in milliseconds, with operational speeds and ranges several times more than the propeller craft. And as the air forces discovered, a framework designed to support thinking in seconds cannot be improved to one that caters to thinking in milliseconds. Instead, a new framework of pilot selection, training, operational processes and strategic doctrines had to be developed from scratch.

The corporate world is facing a similar paradigm shift. In addition to customer behaviour, economic upheavals and extreme uncertainty, the new mode of hybrid working has changed the environment completely. Most of the real world corporate interactions have shifted to the virtual mode, and this new hybrid mode is here to stay. Yet, beyond some hygiene improvements, mostly around training on online interactions and equipment to enable that, little attention has been paid to the transition of leadership frameworks and organisational cultures.

Trust, psychologically safe communication, competence, mutual respect, conflict resolution mechanisms and camaraderie are essential building blocks of an efficient organisation. Transference of these elements from the physical to the virtual world creates dissonance. As pointed out by Harvard professor, Tsedal Neeley, while cognitive trust, or trust based on empirical evidence, may be transferable to the virtual world, emotive trust or trust based on a series of personal experiences cannot be transferred easily. For instance, a basic covenant of respectful communication is that the speaker and listener look into each other’s eyes. During virtual meetings, most speakers look at the screen, not at the camera. Thus listeners would see the top of the speaker’s head or the side. While at a cognitive level, the listener knows that the speaker is looking at his face on the screen, at a subliminal level, it erodes emotive trust.

The pre-pandemic environment had a rich tool-set for leaders to exercise their leadership. For example, in addition to paying attention to the speaker during meetings, a chief executive officer (CEO) would be scanning the body language of others as well. She would notice the chief financial officer wincing at numbers being projected by the sales head, or prod a hesitant young colleague to speak up. There was an opportunity to assuage bruised egos with a kind word, or a pat on the shoulder. Conflicts could be resolved with rituals that are impossible to replicate in a virtual environment. Most bottlenecks in organisational fluidity are unclogged during unofficial meetings in corridors, cafeterias, coffee and cigarette breaks.

Not only are unscripted interactions defunct, the nature of scripted virtual meetings is insipid compared to the richness of real-world interactions. A multiple-channel communication process, encompassing body language and side conversations, has been constricted into a single channel where only one person can speak at a time. Even in the 5G world, a lot is conveyed between colleagues with the raise of an eyebrow or subconscious nods of agreement, which no emoji can. All these tools have been denuded in the new hybrid environment. Almost 18 months into the pandemic, corporates may have lifted and shifted their Old World processes into the New World, but that’s like forcing the throughput of an 18 -lane highway through a narrow alley of virtual interactions.

Efficiencies will be a fraction what they were before. Unless leaders realise the futility of using adapted versions of physical world processes in the virtual world, they will hamstring the transition of their organisations. Instead, they must recognise the imperative of recrafting Standard Operating Procedures, strategic plans, operating principles, and above all, organisational culture, in every aspect of their business from scratch. Otherwise, despite investing in upgradation of equipment and training, they will keep losing battles.

Raghu Raman is an organisational transition expert and founding CEO, Natgrid

The views expressed are personal

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