E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Distributed Work in Exceptional Times

Gran Canaria - Maspalomas DunesWe live in truly exceptional times, literally. There is not a single doubt about it. The current COVID-19 pandemic has changed our daily lives for good to the point where we know now we will never be the same again. No matter how much we may try to hide it all in that so-called new-normal. Even our very own work routines, behaviours and mindset have changed so dramatically in the last couple of months that work itself will never be the same either, as we have all been forced to embrace and adapt to a new reality, a new way of working: distributed work.

It has been a good few weeks since I last shared over here a new blog post. And for a very good reason: pause and reflection. At the moment, and at various levels, we are all going through a state of shock phase where we are having to adjust, quite fast, to new conditions where uncertainty seems to reign all over the place, in both our personal and work lives, more than what we would have wished for, I am pretty sure. Ensuring our families and close friends are safe, that we still have the ability to provide food and shelter for our loved ones, that our children can carry on with their studies and routines while at home, that we are more or less keeping up with our relationships through physical distancing, etc. etc. are pretty much our immediate concerns. Never mind the current massive societal upheaval(s) we are all experiencing first-hand.

Then, on top of all of that, there is work. How do we carry on in this brave new world where the conditions are now completely different than before? Where we no longer have to commute to an office, we no longer hang out with our colleagues at the water cooler for that morning coffee and chatter, where we stop having all of those back to back face to face meetings, where colocated work seems to finally have become a thing of the past. How do we adapt and thrive in such a new environment as working from our very own homes in our terms?

Indeed, we live in truly extraordinary times where our entire way of living has been disrupted, perhaps forever. But, at the same time, and as we all know, with every crisis there is an opportunity. And that unique opportunity for us all at the moment is that for the first, and unprecedented, time in over 150 years, we have got the chance to redefine work as we continue to work distributedly for the next few weeks, months, or perhaps even years.

Now, what do I mean exactly with redefine work? Well, we now have an opportunity to redesign how we work through the impact of digital tools that can help us become more effective and productive, while still enjoying a much more adequate, and never so much needed and treasured, work / life integration.

I have been working distributedly myself over the course of the last 18 years through three different continents: America, Europe and Africa. If there is anything I have learned throughout those wonderful years, is how I have grown to appreciate the huge impact social, digial tools have had in my productivity AND life, while getting work done more effectively, to the point where my entire professional career has been totally shaped by it. For the better.

All of a sudden, we have all been asked to live our lives and carry on with work, as best as we possibly can, while we are all confined in our homes (and will be, most probably, for the next few weeks!). And somehow we seem to have decided, collectively, that best way to make that transition is to try to reproduce all of our work routines in the office, but digitally. So we have frantically moved everything online hoping for the best.

Well, as we are currently seeing more and more countries opening up again, and resuming their physical work routines heading back to the office, that is exactly the opportunity we are missing on at the moment. Working distributedly, which is not the same as working remotely, is all about how we redefine the way we work as we transition into networks and online communities as new operating models. We have all become nodes of a wider, hyperconnected, more complex than ever, giant cluster of networks: The Internet. Yet we keep insisting that’s how we used to work while at the office. No, we weren’t.

Working distributedly means we have new operating models in place where online communities and networks dictate how work gets done. It means we no longer have to exclusively depend on the traditional command and control, top-down hierarchy of (senior) management making decisions for us. Instead, we thrive in informal networks where we have democratised the way information and knowledge are shared across. Where our only means of surviving online is by how much we coordinate, cooperate and collaborate with one another, regardless of the tools we may use in whatever the context we may have been given.

Now, that is how we change the nature of work. That’s how we discover, embrace and adapt to new ways of working by making extensive use of a number of (social) digital tools that allow us to earn the merit of being an integral part of those networks and communities: through building trustworthy personal business relationships while working and learning together. Trying to copycat exactly what happens in an office environment is not how we rethink the role we play when we come to think about work.

When I first started working from home in 2002 I had a mobile phone (not even smart!), a laptop with Windows 95 and a regular landline that became my best friend as I was day in day out hopping from one conference call to another. Virtual e-meetings, we used to call them back then. Fast forward to 2020, and we now have got plenty of choices out there in terms of the digital technologies we can use. From traditional email and instant messaging tools, to Enterprise Social Networking platforms (like HCL Connections, Jive, Confluence, Yammer, MangoApps, Chatter, etc.), to cloud-based productivity tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc.

The choice is ours to make, yet we don’t seem to have evolved enough around work to appreciate that exuberant and luxurious digital landscape we nowadays have. We must level up the game before it’s too late and we revert back to what we all know, deep side, is fundamentally flawed, because it feels easier and more comforting than to imagine and embrace the new and uncertain: distributed work.

The important thing to remember in these times is that vast majority of organisations have already been using plenty of these digital tools already in the recent years. What we were missing till today are scalability and pace. That is, the entire workforce now working online, distributedly, through open knowledge sharing collaborative tools that, if anything, allow us to become more open and transparent in terms of how work happens with us AND around us.

And that’s a good thing, because we just don’t have to reinvent the wheel and start from scratch figuring things out thinking we need to do it all on our own. No, I’m afraid not. We just need to open up, ask around those early adopters, champions, ambassadors and digital advocates to help guide us through what’s available and how to get started, if we haven’t done so already!, before we can fly on our own. At long last,  we are about to become the distributed workforce a bunch of us envisioned back in the day when Web 2.0, then Enterprise 2.0, then Social Business, started to change the nature of work in small pockets, over 16 years ago, through social tools.

It is time now for us to, finally, catch up with the times. Time to, at long last, embrace distributed work as the new-normal of how work happens. Time to thrive in these extraordinary times with digital tools as the key enablers that help us stick together, connect and collaborate more effectively. Learn more intently along the way. Time, in shrt, to, finally, shift gears, change both our culture and mindset in order to think AND do different. The time has come, at long last, and, as such, we should not waste the opportunity we’ve been given. It may not present itself again, and, if / when it does, it may already be too late.

Let’s make the most out of it then in these unprecedented and uncertain times we have the privilege to live in. Like I said earlier on, let’s not waste this opportunity, nor let it go like we have done in the past perhaps far too many times, thinking that the new-normal is pretty much like the old-normal: going back to the office.

No, it is not. Going to the office is, actually, the abnormal. It always has been (In an upcoming blog post I will explain further what I mean with it). We have just been told otherwise and we believed it. Now, it is our chance, for that matter, to change the nature of work and ourselves as thriving, productive knowledge (Web) workers. With one purpose in mind: to, finally, enter the 21st century, where distributed work is no longer the new-normal, but US all. You and me. Everyone. Together. United.

Networked.

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