Organisational Design for 2021

As remote working upends decades of business good practice, how can the organisation be redesigned to capitalise on a disparate workforce?

Designing an organisation takes time and experience. It requires a birds-eye view of the processes, connections and relationships that make its teams and partners. It also requires hyper-specific knowledge on the data points and subtle interactions between players that indirectly keep a business running. It requires patience to watch these play out over many months or even years to understand what needs updating, how often and when. It requires technology and leadership to accelerate and guide its staff. And now it also requires social engineering to recreate the office within many, many homes.

Organisational design for 2021 will look very different to that of 2020. But to what extent?

Moderated by Sooraj Shah, the speakers of this roundtable debate include:


Reflections on 2020

Joe Bombagi, Riverbed Technology’s Director of Solutions Engineering, has been interacting with customers across the year trying to answer that very question. He kicked off the roundtable by reflecting on those first few weeks of COVID-19.

“There were a lot of panic reactions, understandably, and questions on regrouping teams, communicating with customers and trying to get a handle on the landscape as quickly as possible,” he said. “That resulted in the fastest uptake of technology and business change I’ve seen in 25 years in IT.”

Riverbed Technologies and Bombagi had spent much time prior to 2020 getting an understanding of what good design looks like. They made customers engage with questions such as: where is my team and what do they want? and, What impact does that have on productivity?

After the dust had settled on many international lockdowns, however, he reported that speed was the biggest thing to change—the speed at which business leaders made decisions on strategy astounded him. He’s excited by what that means for the future of business.

For Eileen Jennings-Brown, Head of Technology at the Wellcome Trust, her focus as a leader reflected Bombagi’s industry accounts. In 2020 she has been reflecting on the pace of change and how remote working has redistributed her team and their skills.

“I’ve been focusing on what is it my organisation does,” she said. “Do we provide services or products? Where are our services of excellence? What matrix management processes do we engage with?”

Her aim is to make innovation part of everyone’s roles, which means aligning with her services and encouraging her team to adapt to the context of work in 2021.

Taking it several steps further, into the psychologies of human interactions, Edosa Odaro, Chief Business Officer of Theory+Practice, believes that the design of the future has to take into account hierarchies—or a lack thereof.

“Businesses are made up of intangible things and we’ve subconsciously structured them around these, such as signals and hierarchies,” he said. “We automatically understand our place and that sense of order is something we come to expect from work.

“But remote working has changed all that; it’s a radically different dynamic and a lot of organisations struggled with that.”

He went on to explain that they didn’t come to terms with the new normal. The structure they relied upon to make decisions was no longer there, or at least greatly altered, and they couldn’t organise themselves around the remote structure. Why? Because the remote business is a flat structure.


The new business model?

Flat structures mostly operate in a first amongst equals framework and although most organisations have still kept their management and senior leadership teams, video calls, Zoom calls and the like have placed everyone on a more equal footing, with surprising results, says Christelle Heikkila, Arsenal F.C.’s IT Director.

“We’re now a leaner organisation,” she reflected, “but on a positive note that’s made us more agile, and, going back to what Edosa said on flat structures, I’ve seen more team members take accountability for their work than before.

“We’re leaving 2020 on a stronger position than when we entered.”

For Alex Bazin, a digital transformation expert, this year has simply accelerated trends already in motion; he was unsurprised by what he had seen this year.

“The pandemic forced two years’ worth of transformation in two weeks and the business of the future—as Eileen said—will be designed around expertise-led thinking.”

Think digitally-orchestrated teams, masters of their own processes and workflows, all in a data-driven business that is in touch with its needs, wellbeing and what their purpose is.

Bazin concluded: “The new way of working is multifaceted and will improve by necessity, not for the sake of it, as before.”

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