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Barry Bloch
Barry Bloch

Global Partner for Board and Executive Leadership


24 August 2023

Can connectivity be achieved alongside the flexibility and value of virtual working?

As we move on from the societally constrained phase of COVID, many organisations are questioning the social, cultural and leadership cost of hybrid and remote working. Learn how to get the most of virtuality.


At a glance:

  • During August 2021, 41 per cent of working Australians regularly worked from home, up from 30% in 2015 and 32% in 2019.1
  • A recent employee sentiment index reveals that 36 per cent of employees are likely to work from the office more frequently in 2023, than they did last year.2
  • In November 2022 Melbourne’s office occupancy rates jumped 12 per cent to the highest level since the pandemic began, accompanied by similar trends in other states3. Could this be another sign that the tide is turning on virtuality?

Has virtuality changed?

Technology has allowed organisations to work virtually for decades, so this way of working is far from new. But during the past two years, some fundamental shifts have led to the acceleration of virtuality, and driven a significant rise in the scope and scale of this operating model with significant benefits in terms of flexibility of work and lifestyle.

“During the societally constrained phase of COVID, the global health crisis forced us out of offices and into our homes – a health imperative that gave rise to virtuality on a much broader scale than ever before,” says Barry. “With virtual working increasingly normalised, this social imperative fuelled exponential growth in the labour force’s want for flexible working.”

“Another significant shift to date has been the recognition that virtuality connects organisations with a much wider range of skills on a global basis. This acceptance has also helped organisations to experience the gains in productivity, scalability, performance and employee satisfaction, that virtuality can bring,” he continues. “Overall, virtuality has not negatively impacted organisations. Instead, flexibility and access to skills far outweighs individual leaders’ concern over loss of control.”

Understanding the full implications of virtual working

Virtuality can be a very positive component of organisational performance. But as we move further away from the pandemic related social constraints, many organisations have begun to question the social, cultural and leadership cost of virtuality and face some critical strategic questions around the unintended consequences of virtuality in terms of connectivity, culture and behaviour, and what can reasonably be expected in terms of remote working for flexibility.

In seeking to address these challenges while making the most of virtual working, organisations must look for solutions that will advance organisational fabric, ensure a shared sense of meaning and identity, leverage diversity and collaboration, and maintain the all-important connection to markets and strategy. Some organisations have sought to mandate a level of in-office working but have faced significant resistance, and risk confusing control with connection.

“What we know about the culture of organisations, is that to thrive they require people to be connected. We also know that interpersonal dynamics are critical to creating connection, and that connection is critical to the fabric of an organisation,” says Barry. “When you move to two dimensional virtuality, whether that’s through phone or video conferencing or emails, you can lose a significant amount of those connections and that chemistry, and organisational culture risks becoming a lot more clinical and task oriented. The challenge for and role of current leaders is therefore to find new ways to achieve connectivity, without impeding flexibility.”

“When people have stronger chemistry and a deeper sense of belonging and connection, it improves innovation and collaboration, fosters a shared sense of identity, meaning and purpose, and makes it easier for people to embrace diversity of thought and perspective,” he continues. “How and where people work, and the impact that virtuality has on culture, connection and collaboration, therefore becomes a very important part of designing organisations around virtuality.”

The future of virtuality for your workforce

There are various factors to consider in designing your future workforce.

Making virtuality work: Getting the best of your virtual workforce

There is no complete replacement for face to face, but Barry has experienced virtuality being used in some creative and highly effective ways to intentionally bring people together in global and remote locations, and to create deeper connections.

“Leaders that mandate attendance achieve compliance not commitment, while the best leaders solve for both, rather than dismiss one,” says Barry. “In today’s world, management control will negatively impact performance, retention and innovation, and leaders need to innovate solutions, not mandate controls.”

“For example, during COVID we saw clients actively investing in virtual learning and social groups where employees could develop new relationships and skills,” he continues. “Development and social opportunities like these improve performance, but they are also an important part of creating deeper interpersonal interactions and connecting people. Shared learning and enjoyment are very powerful!”

To create virtual experiences that foster genuine and meaningful interactions, it’s important to have some formalised approach, to make these environments accessible, and to ensure they are representative of and utilised by all levels of the organisation.

Know what is reasonably expected in terms of flexible and remote working

With the social constraints of the pandemic largely in the rear view, many organisations are considering their requirements in terms of virtuality, and whether it is reasonable and practical to expect or require people to return to their office environment.

“Requirements vary around the world, but there is a legislative trend in Australia and internationally that will make it easier for employees to request flexible work, and increase employers’ obligations to genuinely try to accommodate employee requests for flexible working arrangements,” says Barry. “Employers must now review their current practices and ensure requests for flexible working arrangements are only refused on reasonable business grounds. Again, bearing in mind the fact that leadership innovation is much better than management control.”

Time to re-think virtuality?

While it’s important to do what you can to make virtuality work, it’s also important to recognise when virtuality is driving the wrong behaviours, or if the unintended consequences of virtuality are significant.

“Where there is evidence that remote or virtual working isn't working, it doesn't necessarily mean that it won’t work for your organisation. It might just mean that you're not doing it right for you,” says Barry. “But if your culture is fracturing; people no longer feel connected to each other or to the organisation; you’re experiencing increased retention issues; collaboration is suffering; there is social disconnect; or you’re seeing increasingly siloed behaviour, these may all be signs that the balance is not working anymore and that a ‘both-and’ approach to problem solving is needed.”

“When the time comes to tackle this issue, some unbiased and open conversations are needed to set the parameters and opportunities for virtual working,” he continues. “As a degree of virtuality is typically valuable, especially in terms of flexibility, the desired outcome will likely be to have practical solutions that support this flexibility while also achieving identity and connectivity.”

Is your workforce strategy due a re-think? Time to bring your team back to HQ? Connect with Barry Bloch or reach out to your local Gerard Daniels team to discuss people and workforce strategies to grow your organisation.





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