March 2020 may seem like decades ago, but we are coming on the 12th month since the great corporate dispersal brought on by the Covid-19 crisis. That’s when every single office worksite broke up into a hundred smaller worksites ensconced within employees’ home offices, kitchen tables, spare bedrooms, or corners of bedrooms.
How goes this great Work-from-Anywhere experiment? So far, so good, and a lot of lessons have been learned. First, that remote work is sustainable, and doesn’t affect productivity. Second, the experiment has been uneven, mainly enabling the professional and managerial class to work from the comfort of their homes, while frontline workers have had to stick it out in the public space. Third, the tools and technologies available have proven themselves in stressful situations. Finally, even for professional, managerial and office workers, there’s still always going to be a need to meet and interact face to face.
It’s been a year when transformation and trust were thrust front and center. “During the past year, we’ve all had to transform the processes for how we sell, how we deliver services, and how we develop our workforce,” Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom, points out in a recent post. “Customers are saying that they like what they see, and it is clear that expectations for how they buy and how they consume services is changing for the long term. For example, going forward, IT leaders will partner with the sales organization to support continuing pandemic-era selling models that are based largely on digital platforms, and align with product teams to aid in transforming existing processes into modern service delivery.”
How have things changed? What’s the prospect for continued “Work from Anywhere”? To get a sense about what we’ve learned and where we are going with Work from Anywhere, I canvassed business leaders to get their views as we approach the first anniversary of the Great Dispersal. This the first of a series.
Remote work will now be the norm,” says David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc. “It is locked in as a result of Covid-19. Employers are best off accepting that fact and focusing on how to make it work for them, versus planning to revert back to pre-Covid ways.”
Well before Covid-19 struck, companies already had a digital and virtual foundation to work from. “While we didn’t see this coming, but most companies were ready,” says Noah Dye, senior vice president, US at LEWIS. “In many instances, brands we’re already working in more flexible environments. Organizations had started to deploy video conferencing more widely, companies were offering more flexible work situations, and, for the most part, teams adapted quickly.”
There are cases, however, in which at least a partial return to the office will be welcome. “The reality is that we have the technology to serve our clients from anywhere and we’ve been able to do just that. However, we’ve also learned that we miss some of the intangibles,” says Frank H. Sheppard, managing partner of RumbergerKirk, a Florida-based law firm. “We have a strong culture of collaboration and connectivity, which certainly is harder to promote and nurture with the majority of our workforce being remote. We are able to work as teams and collaborate, but we’re missing those ad-hoc meetings or unplanned hallway conversations. It’s also difficult for new employees and attorneys to get a sense of our culture or get to know people outside of their immediate teams. And finally, mentoring and training in a remote environment can be very challenging.”
The most important lesson learned was that digital, virtual engagement has proven to be capable of delivering when companies need it. “Most companies learned that the modern workforce was much more resilient than expected,” Dye says.
The Covid-19 crisis “made automation, digitizing the physical, enabling a work-anywhere economy and mitigating risk in supply chains, more relevant than ever,” agrees Angus Ward, CEO of Bearing Point/Beyond. “Cloud services have proved their mettle this year. They are fundamental to operational efficiency, effectiveness and employee productivity during the pandemic.”
Moving past the Covid crisis, it looks like the Work from Anywhere model is here to stay. “We’ve seen that many traditional office jobs can remain productive while working from home,” says Dye. “We’ll see more hybrid models deployed. Some individuals feel they are more productive, in a collaborative office environment. Others feel they achieve better results with fewer disruptions. The ability to offer both to employees will be a huge benefit to companies in the future.”
To ensure the continued success of remote work, Dye recommends a combination of both cutting-edge technologies, as well as more old-fashioned ones. “Obviously, video conferencing has gained significant traction. However, many organizations have seen fatigue set in across their workforce. It’s important for companies to have a balance when using these technologies. Many organizations encourage team members to have a no-video day, or set hours where you just pick up the phone and have a conversation.”
David Lewis sees video communication as “the center of a successful strategy,” no matter what the arrangement in the post-Covid era. “In-office teams are going to collaborate and communicate best with their remote peers via video; via those common seating areas where an empty cubicle is replaced with a video setup so those remote can be seen and engaged.”
For firms such as RumbergerKirk, technology has provided a means to maintain, if not extend, business. “We were able to make the switch to remote work swiftly and smoothly,” says Sheppard, thanks to a computer-based phone system and video conferencing. Still, he adds, “a video conference or call, while helpful, is not always the most personal way to get to know new members of the team. It has been hard for new employees to build connections and network within the firm while working remotely. We have done our best to maintain a sense of family and connection through our virtual, and now hybrid, small, in-person and social distanced events. We have to be very intentional about engaging and keeping our team engaged.”
At OperationsInc, many employees “have already moved to new places, and with the intention and even expectation that they can and will keep their jobs without the need to move back or to even come into an office,” says Lewis. He adds that remote work has opened up the pools of potential candidates, unrestrained by geographical considerations. “The need to perfect the productivity, communication, engagement and collaboration between remote employees and those in offices comes down to perfecting the ways we have been working since late March 2020.”