When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the US at scale in March of 2020, many organizations scrambled to transition to a remote work model. For most, the initial goal was to maintain operations while keeping employees safe. Very few people at the time anticipated the duration of the need for stay-at-home orders and widespread social distancing.
Now that we are into 2021, vaccine distribution has been started, but the end is not yet in sight. The need for distancing and masks will likely continue well into the summer and possibly beyond.
The news for business is not all bad, however. While remote work certainly presents obstacles, there are benefits as well. Some employers have found that they can attract talented workers by hiring the best, not necessarily the closest. Many employees enjoy the increased flexibility of remote work and the environmental consequences of no commute. Employers who embrace the remote work model or a hybrid model can cut down the costs of office space.
For organizations dedicated to continuous improvement, switching to a virtual workforce has some unique challenges. Now that some of the dust has settled, we've had the chance to chat with leaders about maintaining improvement momentum with a distributed team. Here are some of the questions we are asked most often.
How Do I Keep My Team Engaged in Improvement?
One of the keys to employee engagement, whether in the office or out, is highlighting the impact of improvement work. That is more difficult when people can't physically see changes, but it is not impossible. We recommend three ways of doing this:
1. Calculate the quantifiable impact of improvement. This may be related to cost reduction, improved customer satisfaction, less rework, whatever metrics are important to your organization.
2. Talk about the impact of improvement regularly. Develop a regular cadence of communication around improvement and use the data to drive the discussion.
3. Broadcast success. Even incremental changes with small impacts should be celebrated. This is especially important if employees can't see those changes.
What Technology is Helpful?
Of course, we believe that improvement management software is central to the success of an improvement culture. It is where you will manage improvement work, calculate impact, display progress, and store related documents. Obviously, we say start there, but other tools can help as well.
- Video collaboration software. While video meetings aren't quite the same as being in person, the use of video increases the value of communications, enhances conversations, and creates a human connection that plain phone calls just can't.
- Instant messaging / presence applications. Tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams can help your employees stay connected. These solutions give everyone an idea about who is available at the moment and make it easy to chat.
What Risks Should I Consider?
One of the most significant risks we are starting to hear more about is a lack of alignment with the organization's strategic goals and objectives. It is easy for people and functions to form silos even in the best conditions; under these circumstances, strategy deployment should be a top-level concern. Formal planning tools like Hoshin Kanri can help as can improvement software that lets you cascade goals down from the strategic plan to individual employees. Improvement priorities should always fall in line with the most important goals.
How Do We Adapt Improvement Techniques to the New Normal?
Many improvement tools and techniques were developed in the manufacturing sector and were initially aimed at the factory floor. However, many of the concepts that make them useful can be applied in a virtual environment as well. Here are a few examples.
Gemba walks: Gemba walks typically involve a supervisor going to the place where work is done to show respect, observe, ask questions, and look for potential improvement opportunities. Obviously, managers can't visit the employee's homes, but virtual Gemba walks are a good idea. Using video, leaders can talk through the processes employees use, ask questions, and demonstrate concern and attention to how workers are adjusting.
Kaizen events: Collaborative improvement events can be effective with a remote team, but the execution is critical. Be sure to pick good targets for improvement that can be achieved in a few days. The results should be measurable and the goals clear. Choose someone to facilitate the event that is skilled at communications and knows how to document the change effectively.
Standard work: Defining the best practices of every process and activity is more important than ever with a distributed team. Standards form the baseline for improvement. If you had Standard work in place when your team was coming into the building, be sure to revisit it to see if updates are needed to accommodate remote work.
Reaching your improvement goals is possible regardless of where your employees happen to be. Going virtual won't be without hiccups, but it does present the opportunity to rethink your improvement approach and try new things. Everything that doesn't work offers a chance to learn, and everything that does is a victory. If you stick to it, you'll be proud of what you accomplish through engagement and collaboration.