Managing communication and teamwork across staff is a career-long challenge at best, yet companies all over the world have had those difficulties further articulated due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet as companies announce their intentions to retain remote working on a permanent basis, how would business leaders adapt their ways to gather genuine, efficient feedback and maintain communication with their staff, in light of the video call era?
How would a Digital Nomad pursue a reputable career while also living out his or her lifestyle dreams?
I spoke to Dave MacLeod, CEO of ThoughtExchange to gather his thoughts.
Dave MacLeod used to be a facilitator, helping to run face-to-face events as part of his business development consultancy. There was a frequent requirement to collect and analyze feedback, often implementing new solutions for continuous improvement.
His biggest gripe during his consultancy days was the overuse of the supposedly omnipotent think tanks. Despite the fact that the individuals had always been identified as experts or demonstrated some form of qualifying criteria, he could usually sense the self-serving bias it created when only a few people were discussing plans that could affect so many people while failing to integrate the thoughts of those it touched. While the outcome may eventually be effective, there could also be the lingering resentment from staff members that their voices were not being heard.
And similarly, if you ran a public forum, perhaps ‘the voice of the people’ would only be represented by the vocal few. So where to optimize that signal-to-noise ratio?
In his upcoming book Scaling Conversations: How Leaders Access the Full Potential of People, MacLeod addresses various techniques in leadership of communication, including gathering and treating opinions in large quantity efficiently.
In 2009 MacLeod co-founded ThoughtExchange, having identified a solution to the valuable problem he spotted.
ThoughtExchange identifies itself as an “enterprise discussion management platform”, a software in which modern workforce and leadership can quickly collect unbiased, critical insights. Its unique selling point is its ability to scale to huge organizations, as well as its patented anti-bias technology to ensure adequate representation up and down the corporate ladder.
Starting to think this is sounds like corporate jargon? There is proof in the pudding. In 2020 ThoughtExchange raised $34 million in a Series B round, reaching $50 million in funding to date. Its more reputable clients include GE Healthcare, McDonalds, Oracle and the Royal Bank of Canada.
In the last 5 years it has become one of the fastest growing companies in Canada, approaching 1300% growth in company valuation during that period. Today it has approximately 180 staff and is continuously on the lookout to join their team.
Quality vs. Quantity of opinions. Where to strike the balance?
Most multinational organizations task their HR departments with running an annual survey on things like staff satisfaction and also have some form of Diversity and Inclusion panel to help the coherence of their corporate visions.
While there is no hard and fast rule as to the anonymity of respondents, in MacLeod’s experience these were frequently not anonymized, or at least there would be several specific questions which allowed narrowing the respondent down to just a few individuals, bringing up legitimate fears of reprisal.
Still, truly anonymizing surveys allows for a much greater range of opinion, valid or not, and through ThoughtExchange’s platform all opinion would be algorithmically presented to other staff to be scored. MacLeod states that while all opinions are seen and rated many times, the scores stabilize after around 20 ratings.
MacLeod explains that repeatedly studies have shown that increasing diversity and inclusion is the single most impactful (internal) metric for a business to accelerate its revenue. Furthermore, with unconscious bias training in the minds of many HR departments, traditional training and its speed would definitely not be enough to invoke the changes necessary to bring companies to the modern standards necessary and that it is necessary to use technology to augment the training, hence the intervention of ThoughtExchange.
Distributed vs Remote workforce:
When Canada entered its lockdown, he recalls the first morning after greeting in a staff call: “Great to see everyone as normal”. Nothing had changed as far as ThoughtExchange’s business was concerned.
The company was founded on remote working principles. Actually, I was quickly corrected when I mentioned this to him. They have a distributed workforce. I set about its inquiry — surely they are one and the same?
In his explanation, remote workforce implies physically removed from the central custer of staff. We would commonly visualise this as a hub and spoke model. His definition of distributed workforce is that there is no center, or at greatest substance, the customer is the center, and that the staff may be physically separated from the customer. Even still there is no predetermined focus point.
After all, why should any single office be the center when there are customers being served from all over the planet?
We debated whether this would be due to semantics of the language, and whether this really was an issue. But what eventually convinced me of his distinction was the tendency for companies to perceive a two-tier staffing system where remote staff were on a lower, disjointed rung of the corporate ladder (aka. “out of sight, out of mind”) and that distributed workforces did not have that disconnection, whether by design or other influence.
I dug a little further. If you were to have a distributed work force, would you also have a distributed leadership too? MacLeod explained that there is still a pragmatic reason to have a small group of leaders to oversee the company, if only to facilitate discussion among the wider staff. His idealized vision was that there would not be a need for any nominated leaders although the risk of that would likely not be acceptable an investor-backed company.
Would a post-pandemic leader be different?
I asked whether leadership characteristics would be different after Covid-19 with the widespread adoption of remote working. Without a blink of an eye his answer was “one hundred percent”.
In his opinion the post-pandemic leader would likely value a much broader range of things, and that the pandemic had given them the platform to do so. While traditional office-based leadership may value the overused buzzwords of engagement; loyalty; integrity; communication etc., these would likely drop out of the corporate vocabulary when hiring for future leaders. In particular one phrase he uses is the “currency of trust” and how post-pandemic leaders would place greater value there given the (physical) lack of ability to constantly monitor an employee’s output.
The future of the Digital Nomad.
I put it out there that the term “Digital Nomad” may not survive for much longer, due to the forced circumstances of Covid-19 and the vast swathes of traditional workforce that have become remote and may choose to never head back to commuter life again. This is certainly true for many of the largest companies out there who have publicly announced their intention to permit working from home.
MacLeod agrees, adding that the Digital Nomad nomenclature is often a stereotype for a personality trait. And he is right — a quick image search for the term on Getty depicts young adults with laptops in a variety of non-office environments: beaches; VW campervans; cafés etc. and try to squeeze in a bit of work on the side.
He prognosticates, that there will be a growing population of high performing executives, young or old, who simply do not want to commute, and have a great home office and choose to live and wherever they want. The reasons for choice would be varied, being as romantic as “you only live once”, to as pragmatic as living closer to a good school to allow their children there.
Either way, be prepared for a new era of corporate communication.
Dave MacLeod’s book Scaling Conversations: How Leaders Access the Full Potential of People, is available to pre-order and will be released 4th May 2021.