Working from home: lessons learned
In April 2020, Intelligent Business Research Services (IBRS) conducted a virtual roundtable with senior ICT executives, supplemented by interviews, to identify the key lessons learned during the unprecedented mass migration of staff to remote working during the COVID-19 crisis.
The key outcome from the roundtable was the need to keep an active journal of the reasons behind decisions taken and the lessons learned while enacting business continuity plans (BCPs) during this emergency. All the participants were interested in learning from the past, which is why they had elected to attend the roundtable. However, only one organisation had a running journal of ‘decisions and actions in the moment’ that could be referenced in the future to look for valuable insights, lessons learned and better practices.
Opportunity to spearhead tech upgrades
Astute ICT executives recognised that board-level demands to get people working from home quickly and effective was accompanied by a need for reliability. The need for reliability was then used as a rationale to replace or upgrade overdue ICT solutions. For example, one organisation had previously been unable to make a sound business case to replace laptops that had known battery issues. The pandemic changed the equation — with people needing to be productive away from direct tech support, it was decided that the problematic laptops should be replaced immediately, rather than attempting to ‘sweat the assets’.
■ Business cases — especially those relating to upgrades or modernisation of existing end-user computing or productivity solutions — can be revisited in light of the need to increase reliability. This can include business cases to modernise end-user computing architecture, such as moving away from traditional SOEs (and System Centre Configuration Manager) to the ‘self-service’ models, such as Microsoft Autopilot.
Collaboration at scale and product selection
Staff have quickly discovered that ad hoc communication tools used in the office were not designed to cater for widely distributed teams or whole-of-company meetings. This requires a rapid round of trial and error in choosing which collaboration tool was most appropriate for which type of meeting. This was accompanied by vendors rushing to modify product UIs to cope with the different use cases demanded by people working from home. The result has been a rapid maturing in understanding about how to select specific tools for specific collaborative tasks.
■ Categorise the types of meetings needed by the organisation in terms of scale, level and type of interactions required. Socialise these observations.
■ Capture feedback from team leaders to understand which tools are most effective for which types of meetings. Recognise that one communication tool is unlikely to fit all needs and share better practices on which tool to use and when.
Service desk resourcing
A few organisations with outsourced service desk partners reported frustrations with the service supplier’s flexibility, and modifying or setting aside contract terms in order to support at-home staff. However, more organisations reported that after an initial spike in activity, service desk volumes have returned to a semblance of normality.
One interesting approach mentioned during the roundtable was to immediately put a hold on all ‘change projects’ in order to reduce ICT management complexity during the pandemic and focus on ‘the new business essential of the service desk’. This organisation reallocated ICT staff from frozen projects to bolster support of staff working from home.
■ Outsourced support desk contracts need provision for rapid change when BCP plans are enacted, with clear lines of communications, roles and processes defined.
■ Consider documenting a process for reallocating ICT staff to bolster staff support during BCP.
■ Review support desk logs from the move to working from home, and see where operational improvements can be made or automation applied.
BYOD was an advantage
Organisations with BYOD programs (even if just limited) found the transition to mass working from home relatively easy. They had processes and technologies to manage the transition.
■ Although BYOD (of laptops) has been sidelined by many organisations, the well-established technologies, practices and management tools of BYOD should be explored as part of future BCP and pandemic planning. Note: This is not an issue of who owns the device, but the approaches taken to enabling secure digital workspaces when outside of the organisation’s traditional network border.
Capacity of software to handle real workloads
Despite specifications claiming otherwise, some software products struggled to support the number of concurrent remote workers. Vendor estimates of performance assume relatively low individual worker usage patterns. These estimates have proven inaccurate for real working-from-home scenarios.
For example, Microsoft’s Direct Access, VDI infrastructure and some VPNs were unable to handle the volume of activity with the resources recommended in the products’ documentation. In most of these situations, organisations were able to quickly scale up the products by adding additional capability, albeit at additional cost.
■ Take vendors’ capacity claims with a grain of salt.
■ Where available, review recent usage patterns (logs, traffic, etc) for critical infrastructure software and test a future vendor’s products (and product updates) against these more realistic metrics.
■ Define processes to call upon ‘elastic scale’ for critical infrastructure software in your BCP plan.
■ Some vendors waived additional licensing or contract terms related to scale during the lock-down period. Take advantage of such terms if applicable.
There was an overall agreement among participants that the challenges of working from home were dominated by behavioural issues rather than technological. In particular, staff were (and still are) engaging in activities that increase stress for themselves and colleagues. These behaviours included:
- Staff are filling ‘dead time’ with work activities. As a result, they are negatively impacting their work-life balance.
- Related to the above, staff are not setting defined hours for being ‘at work’. Many staff are extending their work hours, or expecting others to be available after traditional hours (especially into the evening).
- Worries about lack of casual feedback on work, social visibility and recognition.
- Isolation from friends/colleagues at work.
■ Training programs and policies are needed to ensure people understand that ‘off-time’ is just as important as ‘at work time’. Explicit ‘better practices’ for work-life and workplace mental health need to be considered. Ideally, this should be accompanied by approaches to share time availability and coordinate team member presence.
■ Consider hosting a wellbeing week activity to launch or re-enforce the above program(s). Introduce experts to discuss physical and mental health and better work practices, both for remote working and to prepare people for a return to the office.
■ Establish regular water cooler team meet-ups. These may be weekly or even daily, depending upon the nature of the work and team.
■ Managers need to engage with teams and give public feedback, as well as one-on-one feedback. It should be recognised that this places additional workload on managers.
Working from home has shifted team leaders’ — and indeed all team members’ — attention to output, as opposed to presence. The result is that working from home has increased the visibility of:
- High performers — those team members who produce a lot of work, versus
- Background performers — those whose input may not be as tangible or who are genuinely adding less value to a project than others. In short, working from home exposes performance issues.
IBRS has some concerns over this issue. While many managers believe they are measuring staff performance by output, the reality is that most staff performance appraisals are heavily influenced by presence and time. The danger with working from home is that presence and time are disrupted, exposing only output. However, a better metric for the digital workforce is outcome.
■ Organisations need to rethink/relearn how staff are appraised, given that managers’ perceptions on staff performance are likely now forever transformed.
■ Managers need to be clear on what expectations they are setting for staff: presence (time), output (deliverable) or outcomes (solutions and quality).
■ With regards to performance measurement, organisations must consider the role of children and parenting in remote working, beyond the simply banning staff from working from home if children are in the house.
■ Consider Scrum or Agile team meetings both to keep projects on track, but also to build social cohesion and performance visibility, along with the peer appraisal of outcomes that results.
Act by principle, not process
The mass migration to working from home has exposed the fragility of many organisational policies and processes.
Remote working policies were particularly troublesome for some organisations, with some clauses being unworkable (for example, children-at-home clauses). However, the majority of the participants at the roundtable had overcome bottlenecks in policy or process by simply recognising that such policies were written before the pandemic and did not apply.
One respondent commented that their organisation focuses on principles, not process, when making decisions on how to deploy end-user computing rapidly to staff homes.
In all cases, senior executives (COOs, CFOs) gave ICT permission to change or bypass processes in order to get staff working quickly at home. Procurement and asset management processes in particular were modified or ignored.
■ Policies and processes need to be updated to deal with a potential second wave of pandemic lockdowns. Pre-COVID-19 policy conditions or processes that negatively impact remote working need to be removed or amended.
■ Mid-level managers should not be able to reinterpret company-wide principles. For example, line or business managers demanding staff come in to work for meetings; HR managers insisting that anyone with school children be categorised as ‘essential workers’ and demanding they attend the office; asset managers refusing to allow staff to take home keyboards, mice or screens and other operational items.
Trust, staffing, management
One of the key factors the push to working from home exposed was the inherent lack of trust in employees that is baked into organisations’ workplace policies.
This is particularly evident in how staff are tasked and measured. For example, in one organisation the HR team demanded that people working from home keep timesheets in quarter-hour blocks, with these being reviewed at the start and end of the day by managers. (And, yes, this did require a massive productivity overhead on staff, managers and the HR department.) Another example was refusing to allow the staff to take home additional monitors or office chairs under the premise that such furnishings would be stolen.
Small organisations and those with well-entrenched remote working programs did not appear to suffer from this institutionalised lack of trust.
■ Trust in staff is a cultural issue as well as the result of the risk profile of an organisation. Organisations should revisit their policies to determine to what extent trust — or lack thereof — is been prescribed in policy and process.
■ Increased collaboration (using new digital tools) demands a higher level of trust in staff. However, the benefit of such collaboration is demonstrably greater team productivity and staff empowerment. When reconsidering trust in policy and process, the disruptive role of new digital collaboration tools must be taken into account.
The new norm?
Roundtable participants’ views on what the new normal would look like varies greatly. Some participants believe that after the lockdown, most of their workforce will return to the office and work in ways not dissimilar to pre-COVID-19 environments. Others believe that a portion (20%+) will work from home at least two days per week, and that collaboration/video communications tools will become a standard work platform. Still others argued that as executives now see that the workforce can be managed remotely, there will be a greater use of gig workers.
What can be said is that the experience of mass working from home has opened eyes to what is possible in the workforce. It has also exposed weaknesses in workforce management practices.
The result is that most organisations have seen a leap forward in digital workforce maturity.
Some organisations will take the lessons learned from this experience and fundamentally change workforce structures. Initial drivers for these changes will be cost — efficiency dividends from both casualisation and automation. However, over time the drivers are likely to shift to delivering a social good (greater support for children and family through flexible working, staff happiness, mental health, among other examples).
Other organisations may not alter the workforce structure, or may find doing so is inappropriate for their endeavours. Many government agencies and service providers fit this category of workplaces. These organisations are still expected to see an acceleration in the uptake of collaboration tools. In the short term, this will cause disruption of knowledge management and compliance policies and even bring forward the need for new information/records management solutions.
■ Consider conducting scenario planning workshops to identify possible futures for the workforce (eg, taking into account global economic trends, local social factors, additional waves of the pandemic, etc). Use the scenarios to inform workforce strategies.
■ Leverage the information and insights captured in the organisation-wide BCP journal and create a future state vision (three-year) for the workforce. Whiteboard sessions with key executive stakeholders — in particular, CFO, HR Director, CTO, CIO — may be a quick method to develop this future state vision.
Most roundtable participants were not limited by budget considerations during the push to working from home, though several did mention they froze projects in order to reduce management complexity during the period. However, most are expecting ICT budgets to be under pressure in the coming year.
■ ICT executives should conduct project assessments and identify any at-risk initiatives. The viability of such projects should be weighed against the likelihood of constricted budgets in the 2020–21 time frame.
■ ICT teams should review and re-prioritise ICT efforts in light of changing organisation priorities and budgets.
Determining what the workforce of the future should look like is a challenge. The impact of COVID-19 is far-reaching and far from clear. Budgets will also be under extreme pressure.
The good news is, there are formal models and better practices than can be implemented to enable you to make the best decisions possible within the scope of an uncertain future, and the flexibility to respond to the majority of situations.
No organisation will return to a pre-COVID-19 workforce. However, exactly what the new workforce will look like and how and where work gets done is largely dependent on the decisions that you and your executive make in the coming months.
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