While many companies have previously embraced remote work and geographically-distributed teams, even more businesses have been forced to turned to remote work due to COVID-19 and social distancing rules. This sudden and unexpected shift to fully remote environment has shown that many businesses have struggled to make a seamless transition.
So what was the main obstacles that businesses faced when transitioning to a fully remote work environment?
Attitude towards remote work
This stage of maturity in internet technologies gave rise to top of the line collaboration tools which made it easier for teams to stay connected outside the traditional office setting. Most businesses have implemented a remote working capability for a lot of their staff, but also continued to view remote work as a necessity for traveling employees, or as a privilege for those who have proven their productivity under minimum supervision (more on this below!). Such mindset towards remote work has prevented companies from considering, planning and testing scenarios where teams, departments or the entire enterprise would work remotely. This attitude towards remote work has led to other challenges:
Lack of support capacity for remote work
The result of failing to plan and test the transition to a remote workplace on a large scale, has resulted in overburdening IT support teams in first days and weeks of business lock-down. Support teams everywhere were bombarded with support requests from employees who struggled with VPN, couldn't access files and applications, lost their access tokens and more. COVID-19 has put a lot of support mechanisms to the test and exposed various gaps that severely affected employee productivity. Some businesses discovered that their process for remotely accessing corporate resources is too complicated and does not scale well. Many corporate remote work policies made it the employee's responsibility to ensure they are able to connect to corporate resources when working from home. Recent events have shown that wide-scale remote workplace drills would have been a natural fit within the regular DR/BCP policies most companies have.
The long term solution to this problem is to study support process and technology gaps that have been identified in transition to remote work. Organizations who decide to return to on-premise as the primary work model, should include regular, wide-scale remote work drills as part of their BCP strategy.
Performance management gap
A major cause of why businesses continued to view remote work as a privilege reserved for responsible, productive employees is because many enterprises have not come up with effective ways of measuring employee performance across all roles. It's common for organizations to set annual, semi-annual and quarterly performance targets on organization-wide or department level which means shortfalls cannot be addressed proactively.
Then there are managers who either resort to micromanaging, or simply assuming that since employees are at their workplace for a certain number of hours per day - they must be working. We can see how all of these performance management styles would create a gap which prevents businesses from embracing remote work as a normal or even referred work mode. What precisely is the effect of this issue? For business, the effect is potential loss of productivity and control over employees. Although it should be noted that if an organization is concerned over productivity of unsupervised employees, there is an engagement problem that needs to be addressed via Organizational Culture changes. The irony is that for employees, transition to remote work often translates into overworking because absence of measurable performance targets leads to anxiety about the workload.
Some companies have resorted to very strict forms of control over remote employees, such as logging the number of keystrokes, cursor movements, capturing desktop screenshots or even recording workers over webcam. All of these forms undoubtedly increase the amount of control, but also communicate distrust, raise concerns over privacy and lead to burn-out, which will eventually translate into loss of productivity and decreased job satisfaction. Not to mention this creates additional overhead as business needs to have appropriate tools and task someone with responsibility of reviewing logged performance. In many cases, the expectation that more control equals more productivity, will not be met.
Our recommendation to businesses faced with absence of short term performance measurement tools is to borrow from agile methodologies and implement a short stand-up meeting at the start of each day where targets and expectations are set. A weekly close-out meeting towards the end of the week will instill a sense of accountability when team members summarize their activities during the past week. Both of these check points are a quick fix to help the team stay connected and bring awareness to any challenges that team or individual members are facing. Implementing a reasonable set of KPIs is long term solution that will help employees measure and self-regulate performance, while allowing businesses to gain better visibility into performance.
"We normally pride ourselves on our on-boarding launch pad process, unfortunately we can't deliver it in a remote environment."
Process Maturity and Compatibility
Lastly, businesses who rate low on process maturity model have experienced adverse effect on productivity due to employees spending too much time finding information about how to do their job. According to a McKinsey report, employees spend 1.8 hours every day searching and gathering information. On average, that’s 9.3 hours per week! This figure likely became higher with transition to a fully remote environment. Low process maturity usually means person-dependent process practices, which in an office environment translates into desk-side process collaboration, job shadowing and etc. These activities can be effectively replaced with online collaboration, but it does take time for teams to get comfortable and effective in collaborating this way and thus cause a temporary productivity dip. Next issue is with compatibility of processes within a fully remote environment. As an example, businesses faced an obstacle with on-boarding and training new employees because their processes relied on classroom training, job shadowing and other similar face-to-face interactions.
Businesses will always find value in growing their process maturity, and COVID-19 only underlines the benefits of having accurate, well-documented and accessible processes. Along with increasing process maturity, businesses should also review which of their processes did not convert or scale well in a remote environment. All process design going forward should include testing the process in both on-premise and online environments, even if businesses opt to maintain on-premise as the main workplace model.
Quayside Digital Consultants is a Toronto-based digital consultancy specializing in digital transformation and process excellence. Contact us today to find out how we can help your business solve process-related challenges.