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The Evolving Role of COOs in Remote and Hybrid Work

December 23, 2021 Leadership
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

COVID-19 brought in a slew of organizational changes that, at the onset, many thought would only be temporary. Nearly two years into the pandemic, however, and it looks like many of those changes are here to stay. One of the most obvious changes is where and how we work.

According to Pew Research, of the workers whose jobs could have been carried out from home before the pandemic, only 20 percent were already remote. And when asked about an eventual return to the office, 54 percent of remote employees said they would like to continue working remotely, even if given the option of on-site collaboration.

Amid the Great Resignation and a tight labor market, there's no doubt that what the workforce wants, the workforce is likely to get. This move to a remote workforce — or even a hybrid version — will have far-reaching impact on companies' operations. At the heart of it all is the chief operating officer (COO).

For decades, the COO's role has remained more or less the same. Put simply: ensuring operational processes run smoothly and efficiently, establishing strategy for optimal productivity and performance, and working with the CEO and other members of the C-suite on setting the corporate vision and culture. Not an easy task by any stretch. And with the changes taking place over the past two years, the role and responsibilities of the COO have mushroomed.

So what exactly are those new responsibilities? And what skillsets does the modern COO need to succeed in this new environment? Let's take a closer look.

What Does a Chief Operating Officer Do?

Let's begin with a caveat: As with any other senior executive roles, the COO's role varies by company. Size, industry and ownership type are only but a few of the variables that can affect the COO job description. Yet, as Douglas Hanna, COO at New York City-based software company Grafana Labs, explained, while the job objectives differ, whereas, for instance, some COOs may be more focused on revenue generation while others on improving internal operations, ultimately, the purpose of the role remains the same. 

“In general, the COO should be a key leadership partner to the CEO and help drive the company’s objectives and execution of its priorities,” said Hanna.

“A good COO is a complement to the CEO—not only in skills and will but also [in] personality, decision-making style, modus operandi,” echoed fellow software COO, Kweli Washington at Philadelphia-based Piano, who added that a COO’s skills should complement those of the CEO and other members of the leadership team for a well-rounded breadth of expertise at the senior executive table.

Related Article: 5 Leadership Mistakes in Remote and Hybrid Work

The COO's Role Amid a Remote Workplace

The concept of business operations may, for some, sound computational but it involves a great deal of human relations know-how. After all, if a COO's role is to ensure the corporation vision and mission are met most efficiently, avoiding team frustrations, burnouts and overall dissatisfaction with the culture is key. Therefore, COOs must have an open communication channel with the entire organization. But what happens when that organization is dispersed around the country, or around the globe?

While the essence of the COO's role — to act as the CEO's right hand — doesn't change with a remote workforce, the scope of the day-to-day responsibilities certainly does. After all, managing the operations of a distributed workforce introduces a different set of challenges and complexities than when everyone is in the same location. Among those: operating in lockstep with their CHROs.

“Now more than ever, COOs align closely with HR operations to concentrate on salary band adjustments, employee health plans, COVID-related issues and other people-management policies, all made more complex by the rise of hybrid and remote workforces,” explained Jason Yang, COO at AI-powered cloud communication platform Dialpad in California. 

And with the shifts of the past 20+ months, COOs have had to increasingly consider how they can motivate, protect and engage employees across multiple locations — an exponential challenge when "pop-by" visits are no longer an option for managers to take the pulse of their team members.

In this new era, the most successful COOs will be those who have the ability to be proactive in optimizing organizational performance while ensuring the well-being of the entire organization, from CEO to entry-level workers. Ultimately, the work of the modern COO is knowing how to remain agile, empathetic and flexible in a continuously disrupted environment.

Related Article: Do You Need a Head of Employee Experience?

Characteristics of a Modern COO

To be more specific, there are certain characteristics that a modern COO should possess. Here are some key traits that will be deemed essential going forward:

Adaptability

Adaptability is arguably one of the most important traits a modern COO should possess. Businesses are constantly changing, as new technologies, consumer behaviors and workforce requirements evolve. COOs should, therefore, have the skills needed to pivot rapidly to navigate unchartered territory and adapt to changing tides, whether that means paying attention to the operational side of things or finding new ways to generate revenue and drive innovation. 

Hospitality

Hospitality, for a COO, implies the ability to work as a team, with other members of the leadership team as well with employees as a whole to better understand what's needed. For instance, Piano's Washington said the company has taken polls of the staff and developed a set of workplace experiences that are essential to their wellbeing and productivity. This demonstrates empathy and helps with buy-in when new policies or processes are implemented. 

Good Communication

COOs are responsible for ensuring a consistent and seamless flow of communication across their organization. “By driving effective communication through as many channels as possible; video, messaging, voice and in-person, the modern COO can preserve and build an agile company culture for an evolving professional landscape,” said Yang. 

Remote work has broadened the responsibilities of the COO across sectors, but the role's purpose remains generally unchanged — and that's what successful COOs will be sure to keep in mind. Supporting the CEO — and the company as a whole — in a manner that drives success and growth in all aspects of business is the ultimate responsibility of the chief operating officer. And to thrive in the current environment, COOs will be best served to exemplify traits of adaptability, hospitality and effective communication.

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