Challenges of Staying Connected with a Remote Workforce
If you ask organizations what the biggest modifications are that they’ve been forced to make during COVID-19, among the top changes would be the emergence of a vastly expanded remote workforce. Back in April, McKinsey & Company conducted a survey and found that 62 percent of employed Americans had begun working at home, compared to 25 percent just a couple of years earlier. Of the workers questioned, 80 percent indicated they enjoyed working at home, and 41 percent said they were actually more productive than before. How this will all work out once a vaccine is found varies from company to company, with some organizations anticipating a certain percentage of their employees will continue working at home, either part-time or full-time.
Many articles and blogs have been written on this work/life change, but often on a more generic overall focus. The reality is that each department within a company has to deal with its own unique challenges that need to be addressed to enable this major change. We asked Buffi Gibbons, Corcentric’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Eric Faulkner, Corcentric’s Chief Technology Officer what their individual teams went through to make it all happen.
The need to go remote happened so quickly, how did each of you manage to migrate Corcentric’s employees to remote capabilities?
Eric: We had to look at this from both technology and people aspects and we followed local country, state, and city recommendations for closing offices and working remotely in addition to voluntary work from home options in advance of these recommendations. As a company with several offices in the U.S. and Europe, our workforce was already enabled with many online collaboration tools. And as a company heavily involved in technology-enabled productivity, many of our global team had the necessary equipment to work remotely for an extended period of time. As such, we were able to transition fairly efficiently to remote working capabilities.
Buffi: I agree with Eric. We were fortunate that the vast majority of our employees were already set up with equipment and software which allow them to work remotely, so while there was some “organized scrambling” to get a few groups up and running from home, we really had very few hiccups. In a time of such serious crisis–as schools and businesses were shutting down fast, and hospitals were filling up even faster – moving our workforce from office-based to remote work luckily didn’t present too many challenges. People were aligned, responsive, and focused, and we got it done. Healthcare workers and first responders were dealing with such horrific tragedy every day that this seemed easy in comparison to the daunting challenges they were facing.
It’s obvious that this kind of move requires a great deal of collaboration. Eric, what other departments did you need to work with to make this migration go as smoothly as possible? And what security changes and structural adjustments needed to be made?
Eric: Our IT team worked closely with our global operations group and our human resources team to coordinate the migration to work-from-home. As well, the executive team took a proactive stance in monitoring the pandemic in each location to help ensure the heath of each team member, and our continuity of business. As far as security adjustments, we have increased our focus on remote activity on our systems as well as monitoring security sites for new Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) being used by hackers during this unprecedented shift to remote access. Plus, with everyone moving to a “home” office, we sent out best practice recommendations for home network setup that was developed by the SANS Institute – an information security organization – and we send out periodic advisories to supplement the security awareness training. Actually, one of the recent security awareness training programs focused on working from home.
Buffi, I know Corcentric has transitioned to Microsoft Teams. How have employees responded to meetings on an exclusively remote basis.
Buffi: Everyone is doing their best, and we are making it work somehow. That being said, I laugh to myself some days because you can fairly easily distinguish the extroverts from the introverts during virtual meetings. Who always turns their webcam on right away? And who waits to see if it’s required, or if they can get away with just their avatar or initials on the screen? (I’m firmly in the latter camp.)
One of the main issues concerning organizations is the level of productivity that will be a result of working from home. Buffi, what have you found so far?
Buffi: Everyone has more (and less) productive days, and that has nothing to do with whether you are office-based or working remotely. I do think in the beginning of the pandemic response, everyone—employees as well as managers—was running on adrenaline, thinking this would be a temporary thing. We were busy, productive, and putting a lot of energy into trying to figure out how to make this remote thing work. As the weeks went by, I think it became harder to be productive—the “newness” was gone, fatigue and weariness had set in, and yet it still all felt temporary somehow. If I’m honest, I think a lot of employees and managers likely thought “I’ll deal with that when we’re all back in the office” but of course we didn’t go back to the office, and we don’t know when we will. Straight talk here from HR: it’s time to realize that we need to find effective ways of communicating, measuring our work, and resolving issues remotely because 100% office-based working is not coming back any time soon.
Eric, along that line, has your Help Desk seen an uptick due to the remote situation?
Eric: We have seen a marginal increase in Support requests revolving around email and how to use the new Microsoft tools that we’ve been deploying. This increase was expected and our team has done a fantastic job of proactively working with people to not only be onboarded to the new systems, but also to make sure the IT equipment they are using is up to the task of remote working over a long period of time.
Buffi, this is a big change for people that are used to being in a social setting. Have you been faced with any emotional/stress issues from employees? Loneliness? Staying motivated? How do you deal with them?
Buffi: Of course! Firstly, we are coaching managers to check in regularly with their employees, and to ensure a good flow of communication, so that if issues surface, we can address them. In the US, we have also urged people to use the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for 24/7 confidential guidance and support. There are similar support systems available through private medical plans and/or government resources in our UK and French locations as well. In order to help our employees feel connected, we’ve used a variety of tools – All Hands calls, Town Hall meetings, employee sentiment surveys, and of course lots of social and company emails–to keep everyone feeling connected. Some teams have found their own additional ways to stay connected as well, with games and contests, jokes of the day, and other conversation starters, which have all worked really well.
Along the same line, how do you balance the work and private lives of employees? How do you get them to unplug?
Buffi: Listen, the balancing act required to take good care of yourself, your job, and your family and friends can feel like trying to juggle three bananas, a television, and a peacock feather at the same time, all while riding on a unicycle. And that’s BEFORE the pandemic threw absolutely everything we thought we knew out the window this year. So, the challenge many people are struggling with now is how to balance all of those things without the natural boundary line of a daily commute, which can serve to psychologically separate the time we reserve for self-care, or family and friends, from time we reserve for our work lives and job responsibilities. Before COVID-19, we all often had obligations such as picking up a child from daycare, meeting up with friends at the gym, or getting home in time to let the dog out, which forced us out of the office and onto the sidewalk at a certain time. Without that little tiny voice whispering, “you’d better leave now or you’re going to be late!” it would be so easy to just keep working. So one really impactful thing you can do while working remotely is to keep that “natural boundary” between your work life and everything else – set an alarm, or better yet, have a friend or family member remind you that you’re on THEIR time now. You still need that tiny voice whispering, “you’d better leave now or you’re going to be late!” even if your commute is from a desk in the corner of your living room to the backyard where a friend, a child or a pet may be eagerly awaiting your arrival.
This question is for both of you: do you think your teams are prepared to handle the remote workforce for the long haul?
Eric: Absolutely. We are prepared to continue working remotely as long as needed in addition to supporting a blend of some offices partially opening with others closed. We are in a very good position for our entire workforce to thrive in a work at home scenario.
Buffi: We are! With employees in 23 of the U.S. states, and several office and remote locations in the UK and France, the Human Resources team has necessarily been supporting employees who sit in other locations all along. The only real change is that we ourselves are working remotely from 100% of our internal customers now, which isn’t a typical arrangement for an HR professional, but we are making it work!
Last question. What unexpected challenges did you face/are you continuing to face?
Eric: The past few months have proven challenging in many ways to many people. Fortunately, we have not seen many unexpected challenges to our shift to remote working. Of course, we are looking at an unknown amount of time for remote or partially remote working, and certainly new challenges are expected. The best we can do is to be vigilant and prepared to quickly adjust as the situation evolves.
Buffi: I used to call my mom on my commute to the office every Wednesday morning, and now I’m not sure when to call her. But to be serious, this is new for most of us…an unexpected challenge that will force us to conceptualize new ways of working and make our teams and our company stronger in the process.