We have the technology. We only need the management vision.
One of the greatest worries about the work-from-anywhere/work-from-home movement was that things were rushed, and that productivity momentum was lost. The reality is, though, that we actually have been preparing for this moment for decades, requiring the right blend of technologies and forward-thinking management.
The technology was there — but the forward-thinking management was lagging. It took a major global upheaval — in this case, the Covid-19 crisis — to realize what we had been developing all along.
“The rush to remote we experienced a year ago quickly shattered the idea that employees can only be productive within an office,” says William Stemper, president of Comcast Business.
Through the global crisis over the past year, “We’ve learned that quality work can still be done when we work from home, meet virtually, and even conduct events and networking from our home offices,” agrees Mark Cressey, executive vice president and general manager of global digital services at Liberty Mutual.
Of course, there are many stumbling blocks still present with work from anywhere/work from home. The ability to collaborate — indeed, have those moments of relaxed serendipity that come from regular in-person interactions — is often difficult to replicate digitally. “We learned it’s both harder and easier to collaborate remotely,” says Colleen Berube, CIO and senior vice president of operations at Zendesk. “While location barriers were broken down, and we’ve experienced increases in productivity, constantly relying on Zoom can be exhausting for all. We’ve learned it’s not only about the technology, but the practices we use in working every day that make remote work successful.”
Still, the past year has proven that remote work delivers results, and that corporate workspaces take on a different purpose. In the aftermath of the Covid crisis, “we are leaning into creating a digital-first workforce,” says Berube. “We expect to have up to 40% of our workforce remote moving forward. For the future, the office will shift from a place to get work done, to a machine for collaboration.”
At Liberty Mutual, a combination of technology and forward-thinking management enabled the company to rapidly shift more than 44,000 employees across a variety of jobs, locations, cultures and living situations from working in offices to their homes, while maintaining operations and productivity. “We learned a lot in the last year in this large-scale virtual environment,” Cressey relates. “In the early stages of our shift to work-from-home, it was critical for us to achieve a new level of capacity for remote users, by expanding network capacity across a few of our locations.” The company delivered end-user capabilities with a scalable virtual desktops infrastructure located within its global data centers.
Collaboration across the Liberty Mutual organization has been delivered through Microsoft OneDrive, Teams and Zoom. “Teams has been critical for enabling more social collaboration and audio conferencing around the world and has enabled 22,000-plus daily meetings and 43,000-plus direct calls across the company,” he says. “Zoom has been a strategic enabler for more than 57,000 large-scale meetings and nearly 1,100 webinars across the company between March 2020 and January 2021.”
At Zendesk, the company achieved “a lot of success in fast-tracking new resources for our employees including our brand new intranet, better search tools and enhanced self help,” says Berube. “We believe giving employees some choice in what tools they use and have provided that choice in tools such as white boarding, Zoom and Slack, which have been technology wins for connecting employees driving effective collaboration remotely.”
Zendesk’s managers also “listened to feedback from employees who started to experience Slack and Zoom fatigue. These tools can’t re-create true human contact, nor replace hallway conversations, casual interactions or the ease of reading body language in person,” says Berube. “We encourage employees to be more aware and empathetic when all we do is communicate through technology. We take a lot for granted when we see each other in person every day. In this environment, you must be more purposeful in checking in with people.”
Even after Covid finally fades from the scene, working from anywhere/working from home will continue to define the new workplace of the 2020s. “As business leaders rethink their operating models and strategies, workplaces will literally be all over the map in 2021 – from back-to-work to never-going-back-to-work,” Stemper predicts. This creates a need for companies to avoid shifting office costs directly to employees as well. “As the workplace model evolves and the lines between work and home continue to blur, expect businesses leaders to begin budgeting for stipends for home office supplies and even offering credits toward the monthly bill for an in-home, enterprise-grade network separate from employees’ residential networks,” he says. These aren’t extra perks – they support remote employees’ basic needs to be productive.”
Support for remote employees needs to be technological, financial, and empathetic. This past year “has proven that treating employees with empathy and seeing them as a whole person—not just a coworker—is an imperative,” says Berube. “At the beginning of the pandemic, companies were scrambling to set up new systems for work and communication, and Zendesk was no exception. But after successfully migrating to remote work practically overnight when the pandemic hit, we organized around our remote and digital transformation strategy, and ultimately prioritized our employees’ experiences. We’ve all had our time to panic, and now we can focus on delivering the best experiences for our employees and customers.”
I am an author, independent researcher and speaker exploring innovation, information technology trends and markets. I am also a co-author of the SOA Manifesto, which