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COVID-19 Gives Us the License to Fully Embrace a Digital Culture

Highlights from a recent digital gathering with global senior technology executives, hosted by Egon Zehnder.

  • June 2020

Global senior technology executives discussed a number of key issues during recent digital gatherings with Egon Zehnder, including:

  • Changing the way we work, by cutting across silos, streamlining decision processes and being more inclusive across company hierarchies. The question now is how to scale and sustain this transformation.

  • Changing leaders’ mindsets as companies redefine their identity to fully support a digital culture. Key questions include how to truly lead and fully engage with employees.

  • Growing as leaders, how to travel on a personal journey of transformation while still supporting others.

Global senior technology executives are discussing how technology can help us capture any benefits brought by the COVID-19 crisis and lead sustainable transformation, they reveal to Egon Zehnder in recent digital gatherings. How can we ensure that people and businesses do not revert to old habits? This is an important question for every leader, not just those leading the technology agenda.

Technology gives a new voice to driving sustainable transformation

The world is undergoing rapid digitalization, which is being accelerated by the global pandemic. The speed at which unforeseen business continuity measures have been taken is providing an extraordinary opportunity for all leaders but especially senior technology executives as they are the guardians who will facilitate this transformation. “Democratization, collaboration, and communication. These are the game changers in my mind,” says one leader.

Before COVID-19, technology leaders already had the mandate to pursue digitalization. The difference is that now they are backed by greater awareness and support on the business side. Crucially, they have gained people’s trust as the experience of the recent months clearly illustrates that digitalization works. There is more overt support to technology transformation as it is no longer a cost lever, but it is seen as a real opportunity for growth. “This is creating confidence,” says one leader. Ultimately, the crisis has allowed technologists to discover the power of their voice, not just as functional leaders but also as drivers of a profound cultural transformation cutting across the entire organization.

In addition, technology leaders’ swift and efficient response to the demands brought by the crisis is setting new, high standards for how everyone works together, both within and across organizations, often spanning multiple geographies. The crisis is revealing a different way of working that includes greater agility, more inclusion and less corporate hierarchy. As a result, top management has now quickly learned to become agile. They have had to be more deeply engaged and involved. Technology leaders are now working closely with their peers, focusing on how to scale and sustain these transformational successes, they tell Egon Zehnder.

When technology is about how we lead, feeling becomes a sixth sense

While the crisis provides companies with an opportunity to wholeheartedly pursue a digital culture, technology leaders are also addressing key questions, such as how to lead and truly engage with employees. How do they support others while undergoing personal transformation on their individual leadership journeys?

There are drawbacks, however, to virtual working, with the biggest challenge being loneliness, according to 19% of one company’s employees, followed by communication, according to 17%. Some leaders question the ability to successfully work in an agile way. “It is really hard to remain agile with employees scattered all over the region. We see a work slowdown. We have gone from being agile to having a scattered team.”

As we are invited into each other’s homes, we are seeing the more human face of our colleagues and showing our vulnerabilities. This vulnerability leads to more transparency and openness that leads to trust. Leaders have learned to listen more deeply and adapt to this new engagement, often strengthening their relationships with employees and reinforcing their standing as leaders. This will hopefully support a culture that is more conducive to digital transformation, which often requires creative agility and a more iterative process to embrace new ideas.

Essentially, COVID-19 has demonstrated that it is not just about the technology but how we use it. “We can be connected virtually but do we truly engage, impact and influence across virtual channels?” Redefining culture is important to ensure that organizations do not revert to old habits, they conclude.

Moreover, COVID-19 has given senior technologists the license to grow as leaders, although it is hard learning how to motivate a team when the future remains uncertain. “Look for purpose rather than solutions” advises one leader.

A massive social experiment

As the first wave of COVID-19 recedes, some companies’ employees are returning to the office in stages, while others are opting to permanently work from home. Technology leaders wonder whether the working world will ever be the same again or whether we will permanently see a mix of remote working with a traditional office style environment. This is forcing leaders to question the impact on corporate culture and how teams will work together.

According to one company’s questionnaire, 76% of employees want to work from home at least two days a week, with younger staff in particular asking for more home working days. The challenge for leaders is how to manage this demand, while keeping employee engagement levels high and fostering a corporate culture from afar. “The biggest question is how we are going to keep affiliation with the company versus simply having a collection of freelancers,” expresses one senior executive.

Remote working is proving to be a great leveler, which is helping create new relationships, according to one leader. On video conferences, everyone has a seat at the table, and everyone has an equal voice. Remote working has in effect created one large office and a way to engage and connect more fluidly.

One question is whether this equality will continue once more workers return to the office. Furthermore, how will people who do not return to the office be perceived? Will the level playing field persist post COVID-19, ask tech leaders? “The way we had to respond to the crisis became a massive social experiment. We don’t need offices, we lead through virtual gatherings, but is this sustainable?” worries one leader.

There are clear benefits to the current trend for remote working, including higher productivity and greater flexibility, points out one technology leader, who wants to “use the momentum of the current situation, but be careful we don’t slip”. For others, productivity is harder to monitor but this will require trust. While some leaders worry, others feel that when remote working is built around trust, it simply becomes part of a company’s culture.

One smaller company, which was already operating using flexible working hours pre-COVID-19, sees the current crisis as an opportunity to shift to this type of dynamic more permanently.

Assessing performance will no doubt be an important topic, which will require leaders to embrace empathy while still expecting high performance.

Become a learning organization

Meanwhile, companies are becoming more self-reliant as employees learn to teach one another in real time. “We need to be a learning organization, with micro-learning as an important part of the curriculum, a cultural theme, which plays an influence on coaching, learning, and teaching,” says one executive. Another executive says that they are already adopting a “learning culture”, with many examples of “micro learning” (e.g., people helping each other to leverage digital tools), impacting all employees equally and helping everyone grow, starting with the CEO.

All this bodes well because it has accelerated many of the themes that were previously spoken about but not always acted upon. Many organizations described themselves as being technology-led. Perhaps now they truly will be.

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