Learning to work within the new normal
We have all adjusted to the world that COVID has wrought. Some of these adjustments have been existential – I think here of the national lockdowns and the impacts on education and hospitality. Other adjustments though have been more nuanced and carry just enough of the “old world” in them that we are lulled into overlooking how they have changed our behaviour. I think here of having to wear a face mask and how this has increased awkwardness in our social interactions. In the professional domain, I would suggest that the wholesale delivery of projects from home is another example of where nuanced adjustments in behaviour, have begun to manifest.
The ‘projects’ focus in early March 2020 was characterized by a ‘can do’ attitude. There was a scramble to do things like source extra laptops, reinforce home cyber security and think through productivity monitoring. And although this was a little bumpy, nothing felt beyond the wit of common sense and determination. Without time to think or complain, we transitioned into a fully remote way of working. It was late Autumn though when one of our clients started to talk to us about nuanced behaviours within their larger project teams and follow-up conversations with our broader client base confirmed that these observations were indeed more widespread; this triggered us looking into the matter further.
No surprise but the elephant in the room turned out to be that we were no longer working in close physical proximity to each other. No quick over the desk communication, no repairing to a break-out room to efficiently talk something through, minimal body language cues available to aide our communications. Almost every exchange was at risk of becoming a meeting and meetings were now more mentally draining than normal.
The immediate impact of this was that diaries overloaded and working hours extended; this increased working tempo
was tolerated for a period of time but, as we moved into winter and the lockdowns escalated, all of our worlds became further driven inside the home and it became more and more difficult to separate professional from personal lives. It was not long before we began to see an increase in fatigue, burn-out and other mental wellness issues. Many organizations immediately stepped up and started to help staff manage this new status quo, rapidly embedding a more adaptable working culture, enshrining our right to be intentional on how we protect our mental wellness as we carry out our work. It is here where, perhaps, the law of unintended consequences made an appearance. Although no doubt a positive development in workplace psychology, we think this sudden increased ‘intentionality’ may have triggered a decentralization in how project people are behaving on the ground. You might ask at this point, is this a good thing? How does this square with the type of good governance principles that we discussed in our previous edition of Konexo Insights? Well, you would probably argue that decentralized behaviour puts good governance at risk!
Certainly in areas like remediation and repapering projects, particularly those under regulatory scrutiny, junior analysts working increasingly within guiderails as opposed to procedures, is more risky. And on the senior end of things, its uncomfortable to contemplate project actors of influence potentially working outside of the formal chain of command. And yet the surprising thing is, decentralization was first diagnosed by one of our clients when looking at unexpected increases in project productivity. So what was going on here?
We think a few things are aiding and abetting this development:
> whilst working non-standard hours has been normalized, governance activities/controls still tend to only be active in standard working hours
> roundtrip times on communications have increased as everything now is channelled through email and Teams/Zoom
> commitment required to complete communication roundtrips is greater as inevitably a diarised meeting
The punchline here is that project staff are now pushed to think twice about initiating communications and quite often they are acting when oversight is not available. This has contributed to a nuanced behavioural adjustment, which assumes a raised bar at which oversight or approval is sought to deal with queries, exceptions or trigger formal decision making processes. In other words, people are tending to use significantly more of their own judgement as opposed to relying on procedure and process. This, of course, decreases processing times, and increases the chances for genuine process innovation but does so at elevated levels of risk which may be outside of risk appetite.
Our clients are managing this risk by watching the MI carefully and looking for unexpected changes in productivity, or elevated QA failure rates, either at the overall case level or at typically sticky subtasks and then digging into the activity
with their staff. If staff are violating process red lines, they get warned and retrained, if they have brought useful nuance to the process, then the rest of the team gets trained on the new moves. At the senior level, clients are doubling down on governance hygiene and following the wisdom of that famous Russian proverb, “trust but verify”…. with steering groups operating with inviolate regularity and quality.
To close, behavioural reactions to common environment stimuli are remarkably universal – there is little point being defensive or in denial about whether decentralization is operating in your environment. Instead, our recommendation would be to study how this behaviour is impacting your organization specifically, harvest innovation within risk appetite and keep a steady eye on the rest.