COMMENTARY

How is the private sector pivoting to 'distance work?'

As coronavirus has disrupted society over the last few weeks, some of the distancing measures that once seemed drastic have become acceptable — in a few cases even preferable to the way things worked before. Nowhere has this been truer than the workplace, where companies and employees have found remote operations far more feasible than expected.

University of Chicago researchers recently analyzed government employment and income data by industry and concluded that 34 percent of U.S. jobs can “plausibly be performed at home.” Journalist Liz Farmer predicts that “the long-expressed resistance of companies and individual bosses to WFH arrangements will decline markedly after they see how well the arrangement has worked.”

But COVID has also taught us that leading an entire organization through the transition to distance work in a matter of days or weeks can be wrenching, akin to passing through the five stages of grief. In an article about how corporations are adjusting to COVID-mandated remote working arrangements, Australian start-up accelerator Steve Glaveski sees a broad spectrum of adaptation beyond pre-COVID practices:

  • No deliberate action. This is where most companies were at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, with little to no capacity for widespread remote work.
  • Recreating the office online. This is where most traditional organizations have landed. More effective companies offer access to e-tools, but without any redesign of how work gets done.
  • Adapting to the medium. These companies are investing in better equipment (for example, they may provide employees a cash grant to improve their lighting for video calls). Their work favors text-based communication, with fewer meetings that have clear agendas and include only ‘must have’ participants.
  • Asynchronous communication. These companies are structured more in line with how work gets done than where or when. They are typically global and recognize that presence does not equate to productivity.
  • These companies field purely distributed teams that work better than in-person teams. There are a handful of companies like this, and most are in the tech industry.

Glaveski acknowledges that moving across this spectrum won’t work for all industries, and he notes three common challenges to effective distance work that need to be addressed: team building and bonding, the value of informal office communication, and endpoint security.

How IBM Made the Transition

Fletcher Previn — IBM’s chief information officer — recently offered a candid description of how he and his colleagues grappled with these challenges and others as they pivoted the organization’s global workforce of 350,000 people to working from home over a four-week period this spring. Pre-COVID, Previn said, about 30 percent of IBM’s global workforce predominantly worked from “other than a traditional office” (i.e., from a client site or home). This figure shifted to about 95 percent within a matter of days.

He explained that there were two key components to this transition – technological and cultural.

Previn says that the company benefited from having a longer-term internal IT strategy to enable workers to self-service. This began with mailing employees their mobile devices instead of delivering them in person, and creating an internal app store to distribute software. Those measures meant that all employee hardware and software could be delivered outside the office, making it easier to transition quickly to remote work.

IBM had also adopted a standardized set of tech tools to enable collaborative work across the globe through remote meetings, file sharing, remote access and cybersecurity (the company is shifting from a VPN-based to a zero-trust model). Over the past year, Previn created a common “tool box” that employees can access based on their job function (e.g., consultant, scientist, analyst):

  • Slack for collaboration
  • Box for document repository
  • Trello for project management
  • WebEx for meetings
  • Mural for design thinking and whiteboarding

In terms of security, Previn says that his team detects a lot more cyberattacks and fraud attempts on home-based workers. In response, they’ve increasing training to identify phishing and tightened endpoint controls on inbound emails and other traffic. In addition, they are using AI to look for unusual behavior based on a user identity, location and the device being used.

While the tech tools are a necessary prerequisite for working from home, Previn noted that there are also cultural issues. For example, traditional ways of balancing work and personal life need to be redefined as employees work in new settings with new routines. He advocated a model of small three-person teams interacting with each other and with other teams not only through scheduled meetings but spontaneous communications that help maintain human bonds and trust. Previn said he schedules virtual happy hours with his team to bring people together informally rather than just for agenda-driven meetings.

To help ease the cultural transition to distributed teams, IBM HR developed a series of training guides and online modules on how to lead remotely, and tips for remote workers and their managers.

Long-Term Benefits of the Transition

One factor that enabled IBM and many other companies to respond quickly to COVID was the longtime use of distance work tools to improve cross-organizational collaboration, even when the parties at both ends of the line sat in offices. A 2013 survey by McKinsey Consulting found multiple expected benefits to these measures, such as reduced travel costs and increased employee satisfaction.

But the survey also discovered that there was faster access to internal experts and corporate knowledge when using collaborative tools. This implies that in both the private sector and government contexts, it’s less important where you do knowledge-based work than it is how you do it – using collaborative tools in a team-based work environment.

In the last two months, the corporate world has gradually come to realize that it cannot wait to adapt these tools fully to an at-home workforce. Companies have shifted from a strategy of "do what is most urgent and feasible now and postpone everything else until we return to the office" to "we have to make everything work remotely because who knows how long this will last and we can't push things off any longer."

For most companies, that means mastering levels three and four of Glaveski’s remote work hierarchy by embracing text-based communication, fewer meetings and asynchronous schedules.

And a few small tech companies have even reached the “nirvana” state that Glaveski describes. For example, Pipedrive, a new software company with staff in both the United States and Europe, responded to COVID by becoming a completely virtual company inside of 24 hours, according to futurist Heather McGowen. And one tech company, Automattic (the company behind WordPress, which powers 35 percent of all websites on the internet), beat COVID to the punch. It is 15 years old and has nearly 1,200 staff scattered across 75 countries – and no offices!

It is easy to think of the current disruption in workplace operations as a temporary shift that will reverse itself after the COVID threat recedes. But as McGowan suggests in Forbes, this pandemic “might be the great catalyst for business transformation,” producing changes in months that might have otherwise taken years to transpire.

“We’re seeing changes that affect work, learning, and daily life,” she writes, “changes that will become a new normal and that take place against a backdrop of several fundamental shifts.”

For example, a slow evolution in corporate culture even before COVID was giving employees greater autonomy and an increased role in meeting business goals. Companies are beginning to recognize culture, creativity and innovation as ingredients of success, and managers increasingly trust their people to “do the right thing.” Corporations have started to consider employee welfare as a central goal in addition to profit. These trends too are bound to accelerate as social distancing continues, and will persist long after it ends.

Future columns will explore these distance work approaches further and how they can be adapted to a government context.

* * * * * *

Note: This post is the second in a series on distance work. Click here to read part 1.

About the Author

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. He can be reached at john.kamensky@us.ibm.com.

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