Just under two months ago, I moderated a webcast with technology and collaboration managers from firms such as Google, Morgan Stanley, Poly, Verizon and others, and asked how they were handling the transition to 100% remote working.  I was expecting the comments to be about issues with technology and other 20-20 hindsight – but surprisingly, the panelists didn’t have many complaints.  They described a generally painless and successful transition.  Now that approximately forty-five days has past, I thought it would be a good idea to check in with them again and see how they were doing.

The prior participants that were available joined me on a new webcast (which you can watch here) and continued to report that things were going well.  The collaboration tools that each firm was relying upon were holding-up well, with no major failures or issues to report.  They did, however, have some interesting insights into managing a nearly 100% remote workforce and working from home for an extended period of time.

Time to Perfect the Home Office Setup

When the stay-home orders first came out, people didn’t think they’d be home for as long as they have been (with still no end in sight).  As we approached two months of remote working, employees have started making requests to improve their home set-ups.  In some cases, this is asking that larger displays and higher-quality headsets be retrieved from their prior office workspace and sent to their homes.  In fact, some enterprises have small teams doing just that and making these available for their employees to curbside-pick-up.  In other cases, employees are realizing that they need higher quality equipment than they previously used.  When joining a meeting remotely was a once-in-a-while event, it was fine to use a tablet’s embedded camera and speaker.  However, when you are making daily presentations to colleagues and clients, the quality of your sound and images is much more critical.  Enterprise managers have been generally open to providing this essential “better than basic” gear for employees’ remote workstations.

Adjusting to Managing Fully Remote Teams

The further into the 100% remote working experiences we go, the more enterprises have realized that it is easy for most employees to be very productive from home.  However, they have also realized that the job of managing a remote workforce takes a completely different skillset than most managers have used in the past.  When you don’t bump into your employees in an office every day, you need to be good at staying in touch, being available, monitoring output, fostering communications and a few dozen other skills that many managers have never been introduced to before.  There are some excellent remote-workforce-managers in the world, so expect these skills to be highlighted, sought-after, and further developed through employer provided educational programs.

Camaraderie Will Take Some Extra Effort

All the participants reported that top-down company culture was doing just fine.  High-quality/high-reliability collaboration tools and platforms were allowing company executives to stay in touch with their teams and provide high-level direction.  Town hall events are reaching tens of thousands of individuals with great success.  However, our participants reported that the typical, daily interactions between employees around the office have been somewhat neglected.  Chats about travel, community, family and similar topics foster a sense of camaraderie between employees, and remote working will not automatically provide such opportunities.  Some enterprises have not yet taken action to replace these experiences.  It is clear that this will require specific efforts to be replaced via collaboration tools.  Enterprises that have done a better job with this issue use events like scheduled “hallway chats” amongst teams for about fifteen minutes twice a week, where video calls that explicitly don’t talk about work take place to allow for social exchanges.  Other activities such as photo galleries and/or contests (with family, outdoor views, pets, etc.) can be shared on a team chat channel.

As the pandemic moves through its various phases, we will see some employees be able to return to traditional offices, but there will likely be significant changes to prevent the spread of the virus (pre- any vaccine or treatment). This phase – “The New Normal” – will see fewer people in the office, but mostly out of fear and/or caution.  Once there is a vaccine or effective treatment and fear begins to drop away from the equation, “The Next Normal” phase will be greatly influenced by the widespread success of remote working – bring about significant changes to the model that was in use before the pandemic.  Some people will return to offices, some will now make their homes their primary workplaces, and some will mix the two.  As this future unfolds you can be assured that high quality collaboration tools will be the glue that keeps knowledge workers productive for many years to come.