The power of purpose

Dec 07, 2020
Mary-Kate McGarry explains how your organisation’s purpose can support and enhance virtual collaboration, even as the prospect of a more normalised working environment emerges.

With virtual working part of what is now called the ‘new normal’, organisations must engage and collaborate with a dispersed workforce. This challenge goes far beyond the provision of home office equipment and into the realm of organisational culture – how you choose to lead, manage and engage your people.

Fostering your organisation’s espoused culture can support a transition to a way of remote working that is engaging, collaborative, and supports productivity and innovation. So, where do you start?

1. Have a purpose, and live it

A shared and lived organisational purpose has long been lauded as the key to sustained high performance. Leaders must, therefore, motivate and inspire beyond individual roles and help people understand their collective impact on the bigger picture.

In recent months, I have read about many organisations that credit their collective purpose as the guiding hand in the absence of face-to-face management and leadership. First, they highlighted how a shared purpose in a dispersed operation provided a common goal to work towards in the face of uncertainty and anxiety. Second, they explained how their values created a framework to guide rapid and challenging decision-making. And finally, they outlined how their purpose acted as a blueprint to guide a new style of leadership and way of working.

All organisations are at various stages of maturity in terms of having a purpose and truly living it. In a recent EY survey, 80% of leaders said their company’s purpose was embedded in their culture, but only 10% of employees agreed. This disconnect breeds scepticism, which can harden into cynicism and disengagement. You may have to adjust how you foster your purpose in the new normal, so let us consider some reference points that enable, or undermine virtual collaboration.

  • Your leadership team is entirely behind your purpose and culture, and this is demonstrated by their words, actions and engagement style.
  • Communication is effective and on message, while incentives are aligned and supportive of the articulated purpose. These are often the most frequent sources of “purpose disconnect” and can be a valuable source of intelligence.
  • There is a strong connection and narrative between an employees’ day-to-day work and contribution to your overarching purpose. Do not underestimate the value of sharing stories of success and celebration.
  • Your values and behaviours are articulated, visible, and embedded in your performance management framework.

2. Lead by example

Leadership will remain a critical success factor in sustaining and enhancing virtual ways of working. It will matter at every level of your organisation, given the network restriction that employees and teams will encounter as we are less likely to be exposed to management and leadership when working remotely. Let us consider some behaviours and practices that can support collaboration and openness in a remote context.

  • Be a steady hand at the wheel. Set a measured and personal tone. Be grounded in priorities and an understanding of the facts. Through it all, it is about pragmatic hope.
  • Bring it back to what matters most. Now is the time to live your organisational and personal purpose. Stay focused on what matters to you and your team in what you say, do, and how you make decisions.
  • Give and take perspectives. Be open and engaging – we are all living through this crisis together. There is an opportunity to forge connections upon these shared perspectives and take them forward in how you work and operate as part of a team.
  • Be flexible and responsive. We are transforming how we work, collaborate and engage. We all need to learn as we go, evolve how we interact and communicate, and adjust how we deliver. The critical thing is to listen to your team about what they need and want. Be open to trying new meeting formats, frequencies, or social engagements, for example.
While the current circumstances will continue to cause uncertainty and stress, these small but positive behaviours will help your people to adapt. They will also help build the trust and openness needed for a remote workforce to feel engaged and to collaborate effectively.

3. Make employee wellbeing a priority

As organisations focus on strengthening workforce resilience, they cannot overlook their part in influencing health and wellbeing behaviours and the related outcomes for their staff. In recent months, we have been in awe of how remote working has been adopted with reports of greater levels of empowerment, innovation and productivity. However, there is a rising appreciation that employees are juggling like never before with competing responsibilities, pressures and emotions. Not everyone will be infected with COVID-19, but everyone will be affected by it. So, how can your ways of working support the wellbeing of your employees in such unusual times?

  • Reinforce listening and feedback channels with your staff. Employers must continue to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion, especially when we are dispersed. Listen, understand, assess and respond to the needs of your staff. This includes both tactical and strategic actions to support virtual collaboration, which ranges from the timing of meetings, employee flexibility, and autonomy to ensuring that prejudice and unconscious bias in a virtual world are addressed and minimised. Do not assume you know what will work; we are in new territory.
  • Broaden the employee contract. Ensure employees know where to find relevant information, guidance and support, and recognise the potential impacts on their physical, emotional and financial wellbeing. Encourage employees to continue to focus on self-development and learning (perhaps with a focus on virtual working and leadership) to maintain connectivity with colleagues in the absence of face-to-face interaction while prioritising family and personal commitments and facilitating appropriate ‘switch-off’ time. Ensure that your leadership and management are ambassadors for this supportive approach.
  • Consider whether your people strategy is fit-for-purpose. Our ways of working have rapidly transformed, and so too have our preferences and expectations of our work experience. How will your people strategy address these new behaviours and preferences? It will need to provide support, motivation, networking, and mentorship in a way that is very different from what we have been accustomed to.
Organisations, together with their people, are navigating uncharted waters. By placing employees at the centre of your decisions, you will amplify your culture and purpose, and ultimately build resilience in a way that allows you and your employees to embrace the new normal.

Mary-Kate McGarry leads EY’s People Advisory Services consulting practice in Ireland.