You can’t transmit a virus via VC – how companies are implementing remote work
Remote work was already a ‘thing’
(a lot of execs just didn’t notice!)
I advise multinational companies on workplace and workstyle strategies and over the past decade this has increasingly involved implementation of some sort of formal or implied remote working strategy, usually as part of a broader initiative.
While globalisation, supporting decentralisation and access to diverse talent are regularly cited as organisational benefits of remote working policies, the COVID-19 ‘global pandemic’ has catapulted remote work into the spotlight as an important risk management and business continuity strategy.
There are many drivers fuelling the growth of remote work in its various forms, including increasing adoption of ‘activity-based workplace’ programs, increasing demand for flexible work policies by employees, greater reliance on contractors and networked platforms to support projects and business initiatives, and more recently perceived environmental benefits of remote work.
Unfortunately, many organisations – both large and small – have been slow to adapt to the changing social and economic context over the past decade and have no remote working strategy in place. This has left them scrambling to cobble together a solution to the demand (by governments and their employees) to work from home during the COVID-19 outbreak. Is your organisation one of them?
Fortune favours the bold – past investment in remote or mobile working strategies is paying off
I’ve seen a range of responses from Clients and colleagues from human resources, facility management and risk/safety departments, who are typically charged with responsibility for these types of issues.
Companies that have an integrated remote working strategy as part of ‘business as usual’ appear likely to be able to manage their risk exposure to the outbreak and their employee experience better than companies who don’t.
The following three examples illustrate this point (all identifying details have been removed so don’t even try to guess!)
Company One have three employee workstyles; assigned, mobile and remote. In addition, many assigned or mobile employees manage the days and times they come into the office to balance work and personal commitments. Their culture encourages distributed leadership and a high level of participation and consultation regardless of whether this is face to face or digitally enabled.
Work from Home (WFH) designations were quickly applied to offices in locations deemed more at risk (before government mandated shutdowns), allowing employees to feel protected while remaining productive. Restrictions on international travel and large group gatherings has necessitated a different approach to events such as workshops, but the overall impact on operations and employees has been minimal.
The ability to ‘flick the switch’ on remote work even in major hubs means the company has demonstrated the benefits of aligning its values, culture and workplace/workforce strategy.
Company Two operates in a highly risk-conscious industry and have only recently initiated a limited work from home trial (unrelated to the outbreak of COVID-19). Technology constraints are slowly being removed although digital access to people and information remains very difficult even with workarounds.
Remote work at any scale in the current organisational environment would have serious productivity implications, however a form of business continuity strategy was enacted during the early stage of the outbreak. This restricts operations and employees to specific sites – even within the same city – and includes building entry temperature screening, cancellation or rescheduling of events over 40 people (and in many cases smaller events are being avoided as well) and significantly increased cleaning and hygiene support in the offices.
These measures appear to have minimised the business impact, however it is unclear whether absenteeism rose due to concerned employees staying away from the office and avoiding public transport before some work from home was granted for a limited period.
The company has since accelerated approval and implementation of an investment strategy in technology and workplace enablers of mobile and remote work, aligned with its broader cultural transformation program. This is a significant decision and the holistic approach led by human resources in partnership with technology and property is a solid platform for successful rollout and ongoing evolution of mobile and flexible work practices.
While the pandemic may be largely over by the time this is fully implemented, the enduring benefits to the organisation in building workforce resilience, future of work capability and organisational agility are significant.
Company Three encourages people to come to the office, whether the site has a shared desk policy in place or not, and until last week offices were still technically open with heightened site health and safety procedures. Their technology platform enables seamless virtual collaboration, so while many employees appear to have made a personal choice to work from home more frequently, industry peers appear to have had a much larger proportion of employees in affected countries working remotely before governments mandated lockdowns.
The overall impact on business is perceived to be minimal, although there are some indications that employees in certain cities were not particularly satisfied with the company’s initially slow response to requests to work from home.
However, since moving to remote work for all but critical roles the company has benefitted from past investments in employee health and wellbeing. A wide range of digitally-based support tools and services are available and promoted to employees to assist them in adapting to work from home and coping with the challenges and fears of the pandemic.
The focus on physical and mental health as a priority underscores the genuine concern for employees and demonstrates authenticity.
Each of these organisations has a different level of readiness to adopt remote work (in this case work-from-home) and a different approach and context. There is no ‘right way’ to respond to a challenge like this –
the takeaway here is that to operate effectively in a volatile and uncertain environment requires planned agility.
Walking the talk on trust
For my consulting firm Workplace Revolution it’s pretty much business as usual as we “walk the talk” on remote work.
Our team are empowered and trusted to work when and how they feel is most appropriate or convenient to deliver the results and value our Clients deserve, so for now everyone is spending more time working from home.
Our digital platform allows us to communicate, collaborate and manage project workflows within our team, with partners and with Clients remotely in real-time, so apart from most Clients putting a temporary hold on international travel by employees and partners our assignments are largely unaffected.
The advantages of building a distributed talent model for our Clients seem even more beneficial today,
but I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of trust as a the foundation of successful remote work strategies.
Uncertain and unpredictable futures do not compel unplanned responses
Our world is becoming increasingly physically and digitally connected. Outbreaks like these are going to happen more frequently and the economic and personal costs of containment are going to remain high, especially when there is a huge degree of uncertainty about the nature of the disease. This cost will be disproportionately borne by some industries and some nations more than others, but there are things you can do for your company to mitigate future business impact.
Remote working strategies can be a valuable risk management tool as the global COVID-19 outbreak amply demonstrates, but they can also be much more than that.
A remote working strategy that is embedded within your culture and structure brings numerous benefits for the business, for teams and individuals and for communities.
Despite its many unknowns and costs, the COVID19 challenge could be an opportunity to re-design how we work over the next decade.
I’ll be sharing more of my research and experience in upcoming articles on remote work, including why it’s so important to preparing for the future of work, critical success factors for remote work, and how organisations can better support managers of remote workers and virtual teams.
You can also keep an eye out for my upcoming presentation and paper on critical success factors and framework for remote work at the Transdisciplinary Workplace Research Conference later this year (developed with our Workplace Revolution Community Partner and author Anetta Pizag).