Flatter, less top-down and more innovative. How working virtually might increase your organizational health in important ways and the actions to take to preserve it.

The pandemic sent most workers into the world of working from home in mid-March of 2020. Within weeks, countless articles had already been written about the shift to working life “on camera” and about managing “Zoom fatigue”. We quickly learned that countless neuropsychological issues, including the inability to look at someone’s eyes and listen, to create physical synchrony and the mirror image presented of ourselves all contribute to this phenomenon. Seen through a different lens, however, it’s also possible that working through the medium of video conferencing might have an unexpected and positive outcome on some aspects of organizational culture.

An Unexpected Insight From Our Fall Executive Roundtable

In October, Helen Rosethorn, my Organization & Culture practice co-lead, and I convened an Executive Roundtable to review an early draft of The Slingshot Effect, our point of view on how leaders might use the concurrent crises of social justice and pandemic to accelerate necessary change in their organizations.

We brought together senior leaders from across industries, including entertainment, financial services, pharmaceuticals, retail, technology, transportation and manufacturing, and from roles spanning R&D, commercialization, product, operations, information technology and human resources. Our conversation was full of heartfelt sharing of insights where we found many commonalities across industries, geographies and organizational functions.

One executive observed something that we had not considered before. That in this moment where knowledge workers are uniformly working from home, they were observing a radical reduction in hierarchical behaviors and ways of working.

Flatter Structures Create Space For More Voices and New Ideas

In a physical office, we have many ways of signaling hierarchy, for instance, whether one is afforded an office. And, if one does have an office, its location and furniture typically provide further clues about organizational hierarchy. In our current situation, however, things are starkly different. Because even if someone is clearly working from a nicely furnished home office in a swanky suburb, the size of their box in a Zoom or Teams screen is the same as everyone else. There’s also no such thing as privileged seating in video conferencing. It’s a constant game of virtual musical chairs. When you arrive determines screen placement and each person’s view of participant sequence is individualized based on arrival time. Moreover, the host does not have the opportunity to display privilege by inviting you into an elite space like a private conference room or executive dining room. Your CEO’s Zoom meeting is the exact same Zoom experience as that of your summer intern.

Furthermore, video conferencing tends to highlight, and possibly deter, certain behaviors of the organizationally privileged. For instance, it’s hard to take control of a conversation on Zoom without it being glaringly obvious. In person, people may be more likely to let behaviors such as talking over someone or cutting them off pass without comment. Speaking over or cutting someone off is highly magnified on Zoom and more people seem to feel obliged to stop and apologize. This can create more room for contribution from anyone who might have felt it too hard or dangerous to contribute, e.g., because of their rank, neurotype, gender or race.

Additionally, an oft-quoted study suggests that hierarchical structures are useful for decision making but quell idea generation. And indeed, a number of our roundtable attendees reported that they observed great creativity emerge from their organizations during the crises of 2020, not least because working virtually tends to thwart the efforts of those who might prefer to micromanage their direct reports.

Finally, for many senior clients, we interact with there is a fresh enthusiasm to use these technologies to be more available to their teams. The challenge of being “seen” as a senior executive, apart from once a year at a sales conference, for example, has quickly been surpassed by all being present to address questions on Zoom in a far more regular and, in the best cases, more authentic fashion.

Taking Action to Preserve the Gains

Of course, in the immediate face of the pandemic back at the start of the year, many organizations unleashed a sense of empowerment and pushed decision-making rights downward to manage how they adapted and survived. That too created a belief for many that hierarchy was being dismantled. But was it?

The natural question for firms that are now finding themselves less hierarchical thanks to the pandemic, is how might they preserve whatever advantages of that they may be discovering right now? At Prophet, we use our Human-Centered Transformation Model as a tool for diagnosing and resolving organizational issues holistically. In this instance, what is being observed is a change primarily in the Soul – the ways of working within the company. In other words, remote work is changing the behaviors and mindsets of employees. And hopefully, at least this one aspect of our current situation is impacting employee engagement in a positive way.

In the transition out of 100 percent remote work, leaders should examine what might need to change to maintain any positive gains. Obviously, many will focus on being more digital-first in their workplace. But what else might you wish to consider? Here are four key questions to ask yourself, using our framework:

  1. Body: Are there elements of your operating model or the organizational design itself which bear reconsideration? Might an organizational flattening effort be overdue?
  2. Mind: Thinking about the skills and competencies of your staff – what might need to change to ensure success in a flatter organization? Do your managers need different skills, for instance, to enable them to push decision rights downwards and coach more effectively?
  3. Soul: What methods might you use to create belief in your organization that your ways of working are consciously changing as it relates to hierarchy and inclusion? What new rituals or symbols would best reinforce those signals?
  4. DNA: Finally, is it possible that there’s something in your organizational DNA, perhaps your organizational Values, that has unintentionally reinforced unnecessary elements of hierarchy? Is there something about your employee value proposition that might be improved by explicitly removing it

Final Thoughts

Asking these simple questions will point towards immediate opportunities to lock in the cultural gains you have made over the course of 2020. And, if you’re looking for even more opportunities to increase organizational health based on your experiences this year, we’ve identified 12 specific shifts to make with immediate and specific actions in The Slingshot Effect report.

If you’d like to discuss your organizational structure and transformation planning, then our expert team can help. Contact us today