What Is Required of Leaders and Employees as Organizations Move to Operating More Digitally and Remotely?

Apr 4, 2020 3:20 AM ET

The coronavirus epidemic is changing our future of organizations for both the positive and negative.

One Big “Positive”

A huge general “positive” to the current epidemic situation is that it is accelerating the capacity for organizations and educational institutions to operate more digitally and remotely.

As a leadership professor at a business school and plugged in to different teaching listservs, it has been interesting to see different professor’s responses to their universities shutting down in-person classes and moving strictly to online classes. Some professors are essentially saying, “I saw this coming down the pipeline several years ago, have experience teaching online classes, and this is no big deal.” Then, there are other professors saying, “I was hoping to never have to teach an online class. I have no clue what I am going to do.”

So, while some people see this move to operating more digitally and remotely as being good and others see it as being bad. The reality is that it is going to give all organization greater ability to offer up one of the primary benefits of working digitally and remotely: freedom in the greater capacity to choose when and where one works.

One Big “Negative”

While improving our capacity to move to more digital and remote workplaces has the great advantage of greater freedom. It won’t come without a big cost.

A huge general “negative” to the current epidemic situation is that it is causing people to become more isolated. Leaders and employees are going to experience much less face-to-face contact. This likely means less recognition, less feedback, less communication, less attention from others, and less collaboration.

Additionally, consider: are people kinder and gentler to others when they are face-to-face than when they are hiding behind a computer? Not always, but generally. When we are hiding behind a computer, it is easier to say or comment things that we would never say to another in a face-to-face situation.

To summarize, as we move to operating more digitally and remotely, it is going to become easier and easier for leaders and employees to develop what is called an inward mindset.

An inward mindset is when we see ourselves and our needs and wants as being more important than others. As a consequence of this mindset, we tend to see others as objects—instruments to help us get us where we want to go or barriers that stand in our way—instead of as people of value.

The impact of this is catastrophic!

When I was a consultant at Gallup, I did an analysis on their Q12 measure, which is a 12-question engagement measure that identifies 12 practices that are essential for employee engagement. It includes questions that resemble: Do employees have necessary resources and equipment? Do employees know what is expected of them? Do employees have an opportunity to do what they do best?

My analysis was an attempt to identify the most important of these 12 questions for employee engagement. One of my primary findings, across 9 organizations and 60,000 employees, was that if an employee answered 1-4 (strongly disagree to agree) on a 5-point scale (5 = strongly agree) for the question “Someone at work cares about me as a person”, then only 12% of employees were “Engaged.” In other words, if an employee couldn’t “strongly agree” that someone at work cared about them as a person, it was less than a 1 in 8 chance that they would be engaged.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Organizations?

The reality is that the coronavirus is forcing organizations to accelerate the development of remote and online workplaces practices. This will lead to a lot of benefits and opportunities for employees. But, as I am indicating, it won’t come without its challenges.

But if we can recognize that a shift to working more digitally and remotely will cause more and more employees to feel isolated and likely undervalued, we can make cultural changes now to prevent these negative consequences.

The primary cultural change that needs to happen in organizations is the promotion of an outward mindset. An outward mindset is the opposite of an inward mindset. It is when we see others and their needs and wants as being just as important as ourselves and our needs and wants. When we have an outward mindset, we will be much more inclined to see and treat others as people as opposed to objects. And, the effect will be greater engagement.

Example of the Power of an Outward Mindset

A great example of the power of creating an outward mindset culture comes from Benjamin Zander, the founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He readily admits that during the first half of his career, he operated with an inward mindset. His inward mindset caused him to see himself as being more important than those he led. With this mindset, he was primarily focused on his success and advancing his career. This caused him to see his musicians, not as people, but as instruments there to play the music the way he wanted them to play it, the way he thought would bring him notoriety.

In his mind, he was trying his best. But, his best came at the expense of his musicians, and he was unable to realize it.

But, about halfway through his career, he had an epiphany, which was that a conductor doesn’t play a note. Even though they may be the face of the orchestra, they do not play a note. He says that this changed his mindset to an outward mindset.

From that moment on, he no longer saw his musicians as instruments. Rather, he saw his musicians as people and valuable partners, and this inspired him to change his approach. Instead of having them to play the music the way he wanted it played, he started to help them play the music the way they were best capable of playing it.

How do you think this shift in mindset affected the culture of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the engagement of its musicians?

Assessing Your Current Outward Mindset

I have developed a free personal mindset assessment to help leaders and employees identify the quality of their mindsets on the inward-outward mindset continuum (along with three other mindsets). I invite you to take the assessment, which will provide you with an individualized and comprehensive report, which includes recommendations for developing more of an outward mindset.

Also, I work with organizations to assess the aggregate collective mindsets of their leaders and employees. If this is of interest to you, check out: Collective Mindset Assessment.

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