From virtual essential to virtual first
How should we characterise the massive operational change that companies underwent during the pandemic? It's important to answer this question because we are only at the start of the transition. The more significant challenges of realigning company models, people and – critically – culture are still with us. Facing a lack of clear answers on the way forward, we must first understand what exactly has happened.
Brian Timperley, CEO and Co-Founder at Turrito Networks, proposes we consider this a shift into a “virtual first” world, saying that businesses are now proactively looking at how to operate end-to-end with virtual technologies as a first point of call. "Historically businesses took a more conservative approach and often considered virtual when essential. They adopted cloud and other virtual capabilities only when it became broadly acceptable or essential to do so."
Cloud-based e-mail services are one example of 'virtual essential'. Every company needs e-mail, and over more than a decade, most businesses realised it made sense to use a secure cloud platform, where users can reliably access their e-mail from anywhere and remove many of the maintenance pains and costs associated with traditional e-mail servers. Plus, everyone else was doing it, so it became essential, and eventually they all made the leap. This example was the case for a handful of early-adoption virtual technologies, but the majority of virtual solutions remained a step too far for businesses to adopt.
From essential to everything
The pandemic's sudden shift exposed a flaw in digital transformation rhetoric, which often failed to distinguish between essential and voluntary moves into digital services. This turns out to be the critical barrier: companies will adopt digital out of necessity, but have to overcome a different type of stigma to do so proactively, before needs force their hand.
"The prospect of going fully digital raised many spectres; questions that weren't easy to answer. There was a lot of stigma around digital, especially if it impacted the very core of a business. But during the pandemic, businesses were forced to experience digital in a far more encompassing way. This created a significant change in mindset."
In other words, organisations have come to see what 'virtual first' means: the immediate ability to operate a business from anywhere... on a virtual platform, and secondary to that, the ability to continue operating in the traditional business sense. Astute readers may notice this is a type of heresy: the digital transformation dogma of people-and-processes-first was flawed. When the going got tough, technology-first was the catalyst for digital transformation.
The problem of cultural disruption
Such a realisation brings home another point: the biggest challenge brought by acute digital transformation is protecting a company's culture. We often assumed that culture and technology would, over time, find space to cohabit. But the pandemic stripped away any notion of time. Digital had to be introduced and expanded overnight, and culture was inadvertently sidelined while businesses scrambled for survival. Now, as the dust settles and the virtual first reality becomes clear, culture needs urgent attention.
"We certainly don’t have all the answers here," Timperley admits, "but employees will often feel disconnected from the business's prior culture, and that’s because they are! You can't shift people to a sudden work-from-home environment and expect culture to continue thriving as it did before. In our business prior to the lockdowns, we would all have hundreds, even thousands, of micro touch-points with each other every day, just walking through the office. Now it's all distant and remote, and communication is reduced to specific and isolated engagements, instead of being fluid and consistent."
Many of the fears around digital transformation were misplaced. Business models and processes gel reasonably quickly with a virtual-first environment, especially when compared to digital’s impact on culture. Forget disruption as a competitive force – cultural disruption, if left unattended, may be more dangerous than any outside competitor, and perhaps this was the subconscious fear of many business leaders. The companies that will thrive in this world 2.0 are those that can continue to nurture their culture within a virtual first world.
Culture is everyone's concern
Every business has this problem, even the digital native companies, many of whom struggle to maintain culture through remote working. And while answers aren't immediately forthcoming, it does open the conversation about what culture is and who is responsible for it. Timperley dismisses the idea that culture should sit on the shoulders of a few individuals in the business:
"Problems like this are solved by the contribution of all individuals in the organisation. There tends to be a spotlight on leadership teams when the business questions: 'How do we solve the new culture problem brought on by remote working?' The reality is culture does not come from an individual, and no individual is able to solve this either. It's the responsibility of the collective."
By this, Timperley means that we shouldn't reflexively appoint a “chief culture officer” or “culture czar”. This assumes that culture is driven by an individual or small group within the business, and risks making culture transformation a silo – and that's a recipe for failure. Instead, a company needs multiple culture champions and should encourage contributions from all individuals within the organisation... this overall contribution is how a culture grows and thrives. Everyone needs to lean in and help solve these problems.
Lean in and help. The battle to transform culture echoes the digital transformation concepts of flat structures and breaking down silos. Yet we had it the wrong way around. Technology is easy, even implementing it. Under the right circumstances, technology slides in without much fuss, and we quickly shift from virtual essential to virtual first. The differentiating advantages come from how well we can get culture to follow and reintroduce the human touch to a virtual first organisation.