As the sense of crisis dissipates, remote work will remain the rule rather than the exception for many. Organizations must now apply their COVID-19 learnings so remote employees feel as comfortable and productive working virtually as they would be if they were physically present in the office.
It’s been roughly 12 weeks since the great work-from-home (WFH) experiment began in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Over half of U.S. workers carved out space in their living rooms, dining rooms, spare bedrooms and kitchens to make room for themselves, their housemates and their family members to get to work (or school). For IT departments, months- or years-long plans to enable remote work were suddenly implemented overnight.
By most accounts, workers quickly adopted new videoconferencing and collaboration platforms, and not only tolerated the connectivity glitches but also celebrated the very human moments that ensued, whether it was interruptions from pets and children or the unkempt appearance of their coworkers.
But even as states and countries phase in their reopening plans, it’s becoming clear that many of us will be sharing that dining room table or couch as our workspace for possibly the rest of 2020, if not longer. What was new, different and a change of pace is settling into “the norm.” Conditions that might have been acceptable in crisis mode will inevitably begin to chafe once people realize they’re in it for the long haul.
As the sense of crisis dissipates — and as some businesses begin opening their doors for skeleton-crew versions of their previous ranks to spend time in the office — it’s time to envision how this new normal could work better. Which quick fixes need to be rethought? Which new ways of working should be fortified with additional tools and infrastructure? How can we be sure remote employees feel as supported as if they were physically present in the office?
Forward-looking businesses are tackling these issues by revisiting decisions made and actions taken in the heat of crisis thinking. They’re assessing what went right or wrong in the last three months of WFH to make the remote worker experience even better.
Learning from the WFH experiment
Here are just a few of the key takeaways we’ve observed from client experiences:
Examine your shortcuts. When the WFH mandate began, some businesses were able to move more quickly than others. Some had the needed infrastructure in place: cloud-based hosting capabilities, virtual private networking, modernized applications, endpoint security, encrypted application streaming, virtual desktops, unified device management capabilities, etc. (see figure below). Others were caught unawares, and the entire business came to a halt while IT worked around the clock to figure out what to do. In many cases, organizations switched on their collaboration platforms overnight, and shortcuts were taken for expediency that resulted in security gaps, governance issues or productivity slowdowns.
Now’s the time to review the new technology landscapes created in haste and apply tried-and-true thinking about governance, security and compliance, all within the context of the user experience. For example, workers might start to travel more as cities phase in their reopening plans. This might mean more workers using a wider variety of devices than just their home-based systems, which could introduce security risks. Businesses that haven’t yet invested in basic remote-work infrastructure components should take a fresh look at what’s missing, from a WFH point of view. Now that we know how quickly IT can move when it needs to, and how resilient it can be, it’s time to build on that and lay down the roots for future agility. It’s also become clear that the technology itself has matured to a point where it can be deployed more quickly and more successfully than in years past.
It’s never too late to apply change management. Employees and IT moved quickly when it came to rolling out collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack and AWS Chime. Given the urgency, most businesses offered minimal training on how to optimize the use of these systems. While employees quickly picked up on the basic features of chat and videoconferencing, many haven’t yet adopted the more productive behaviors that these tools — fully utilized — can support. Rather than centering their workflows around the platform or using it to prioritize their work, for example, employees may still fall back on familiar tools like email to communicate with coworkers.
It’s become clear, however, that employees are ready to learn. Many say the best thing to come out of the crisis is they now have tools for work that they’ve needed for years. Now that it’s clear how adaptable employees can be, it’s time to encourage them to go further. Businesses can launch education programs that focus not on the technology itself but how to use it to improve workflows and processes, i.e., “10 steps to success in 10 days.” To make sure these programs are relevant to worker needs, consider conducting an employee survey about their collaboration needs and how well the systems fit their daily workflows. Engage with particularly productive or tech-savvy employees to find out how they’ve changed their behaviors and use this as the basis for educating others.
This is also a good time for change management teams to find out more about the collaboration systems their company has deployed, particularly in terms of integrating them with other tools and systems to improve workflows and productivity. In addition to the vast amount of vendor information, ask employees themselves what they need, such as more integration with calendaring and voice-recording of meetings for regulatory compliance.
Widen the circle to front-line workers. With the focus on remote-worker collaboration, it’s easy to overlook on-site workers who don’t sit at a desk or have a collaboration platform license. These are the people doing the physical labor of stocking shelves, ringing up customers and taking in deliveries. For these workers, reaching out with an intelligent chatbot can keep them in the loop and collect needed data on how they’re faring during the pandemic. This data can be used for insights into senior management concerns about business performance, such as supply chain issues.
For example, a bot could be developed to ask front-line workers questions on a weekly basis about how they’re feeling, physically and emotionally, whether anyone in their immediate family has tested positive for the virus and whether anything is hampering them from working effectively. HR could use this information to follow up with any concerns, and the data could also help executives better understand performance indicators at their physical sites and make needed adjustments. Higher levels of employee stress, for example, might lower productivity expectations or necessitate a change in staffing levels. This type of outreach can both improve the employee experience and help drive the business forward.
Consider new WFH etiquette and policies. The “new workplace” created by the pandemic has been a more relaxed workplace. Sweats and ponytails have replaced business-casual clothing and groomed hairstyles. Even important client meetings might take place within earshot of the family-room TV. But can — or should — this last? While the anything-goes style may suit some corporate cultures, others might need to move past “the great COVID pause” and start buttoning things up or setting a baseline for brand-compliant or standard behavior, especially for client-facing roles. This is particularly true as businesses phase in the return of workers to the office, where the contrast may be more visible between the WFH and the on-site crowd.
Considerations may include dress codes, videoconferencing background choices, noise levels and whether it’s mandatory to use a camera during a videoconference. During the crisis, it might have been a welcome stress relief for a meeting participant to wear a virtual-reality balloon hat or have a dog on her lap or hear a child practicing piano, but these distractions may begin to chafe as businesses take on the hard work of recovering from the downturn.
Security is a major factor for any new policy considerations. Hackers quickly jumped on vulnerabilities on the Zoom platform, suggesting that WFH tools and platforms represent a new attack vector. Even within the home, it’s impossible to know who’s within earshot when sensitive content is being discussed on a videoconference. Businesses may consider mandating the use of a headset to keep conversations private or even a private room with a door.
With so many workers at home, such decisions are uncharted territory, but organizations need to find the balance between the newly relaxed cultures spurred by the WFH mass migration and what suits their own brand message and security needs.
Not long ago, workers were clamoring to work from home. Now, even companies like Google are acknowledging that too much of a good thing can cause stress and burnout, and are providing resources to remote workers to ensure health and wellness. While not every company can afford to offer employees a $1,000 stipend to upgrade their home office as Shopify and Google have, one thing is certain: The next phase of WFH will be very different from the last one, as the black-and-white restrictions of the initial shutdown fade into gray areas of navigating the recovery. If we have learned anything from this crisis, it’s to have the tools in place to support approaches to work we would not have imagined before.
This article was written by Suzanne George, Chief Architect of Cognizant’s Modern WorkPlace.