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Blog Post|11 minutes

Key Lessons in Remote Work from 2020: A CIO Perspective

Key Lessons in Remote Work from 2020: A CIO Perspective
January 12, 2021

The events of 2020 — from the pandemic to the resulting mass quarantines — have been one of the most impactful societal events of this century. Nearly overnight, it has relegated hundreds of millions of workers to their homes, likely through much of 2021 and perhaps beyond. The pandemic has also caused organizations to abandon long-standing expectations and traditions related to in-office working—or to hurriedly rethink and redefine them with the remote worker not only in mind, but as a primary stakeholder.

Approximately 46 million people in the United States alone have shifted their primary, full-time workplace from office to home, according to recent data. This is a historic migration the likes of which has not seen before in the workplace, especially over such a short time. Within just a few weeks in early 2020, organizations were suddenly required to provide workers with the devices, Internet access, and services that they needed to function independently and autonomously—but safely—from their residences.

This vast shift in workplace has profoundly affected organizations and their workers. Yet little is known to date about the actual issues that workers have faced or what enterprises are having to cope with as they attempt to provide a digital employee experience that can compare in effectiveness to the physical workplace that has just been abandoned en masse.

The Way We Work Has Changed

People sequestered at home, distracted by family members and the global crisis as well as by the interruptive rhythms of home life. Disrupted customers struggling with their own remote-access issues. Lost efficiency. Siloed communication. Important business issues going unchecked and unmanaged. These were the worst fears related to remote work during a major worldwide event such as a pandemic.

Yet a growing cohort of data shows that the global shift to remote work, which took most organizations just two or three weeks to accomplish, has resulted in a generally successful transition, at least in terms of basic computing and network access. Along the way, organizations have been swiftly learning about the new nature of remote work itself.

A key data point is telling in this, namely that 96% of IT leaders in October 2020 report they felt digital employee experience was an essential function for them, up from 46% a year ago according to The Nexthink Pulse Report.

Enabling Both Office and Remote Workers Must Be a Priority in 2021

From this, three key lessons can be extracted:

  1. Trust is the Basis of Successful Remote Work

Remote employees expect a relatively high degree of autonomy because in most cases they will carry out their day-to-day work unsupervised. Managers generally don’t have a way to directly supervise remote workers and often resort to productivity measures or worse, monitoring technologies that fail to capture the digital employee experience.

Managers themselves typically swing to extremes on this issue. At one end of the spectrum, managers let go and cross their fingers, hoping their employees are performing and concerned that supervision will be perceived as micromanagement. At the other end of the spectrum, managers impose intrusive measures to monitor and scrutinize every detail of their remote employees’ workday.

Fortunately, managing the performance of remote employees doesn’t require anything special. First and foremost, managers can inspire trust by defining clear performance expectations, establishing transparent means to measure performance, and instituting regular check-ins to keep an active dialogue with the employee. Evaluations and even the occasional corrective action help build trust when employees know what to expect, when they see that individuals are held accountable for their actions and when they understand how excellence is rewarded.

In turns out that managers and their remote workers are most successful when there’s mutual understanding on what their shared goals and objectives are, and that the worker is empowered and encouraged to address “how” those things will be accomplished.

It’s also telling that in Constellation Research’s dozens of discussions with C-level executives on the topic, everyone has offered up or confirmed that remote work has resulted in higher productivity. This should inspire trust that most of the time, remote work is a positive model.

  1. Invest in the right collaboration tools and skills

While technology has offered many solutions to in-person and technology-enabled communication, most solutions weren’t designed for workers to spend as their dedicated way to work. Video conferencing, messaging apps and enterprise social networks allow people to have effective meetings across multiple locations.

However, a significant amount of interpersonal context is lost when people are only communicating through technology. Most commonly, people express frustration about not being able to fully “read” the room. Subtle facial expressions, tone changes, body language and context can be difficult to catch and interpret, even over video conference.

Another, more pernicious challenge is that most of the meeting technologies being selected are “blocking,” in that workers have to be sitting in video or conference calls, instead of getting meaningful work done. Yet, many newer but less well-known collaboration tools — such as enterprise social networks and team chat tools — allow large scale collaboration around artifacts with everyone being able to communicate and work at once.

In the end, traditional conferencing tools can enable communication with remote employees, but they won’t fully engage those employees. Managers need to couple the technology with training their teams on how to conduct productive and inclusive meetings that engage all participants, and to use channels that are most productive for the type of work. Video calls are great for creating human connections, while textual collaboration tools actually facilitate and enable work directly, without interrupting it. By investing in both modern collaboration technology and some simple training on how to get the most from it, managers can set both their remote and local teams up for success.

CIOs should review their collaboration portfolios throughout 2021 and adjust them to be more remote-first, as well as ensure they have effective skill building programs for them.

  1. Build a remote-first employee experience

In today’s more remote workplaces, people have to go more out of their way to interact with their colleagues. Whether they are structured or informal, planned or accidental, employees within an office have more opportunities to engage each other, have small talk, or overhear useful information.

Worse, the employee experience most workers have now was designed for the office worker. Now it must be rethought and redesigned for the remote worker as well, as a primary persona. This leads us to several key insights:

  • If experience is at the core of employee experience, it should be the organizing principle. Remote employee experience should be represented as a recognizable capability on the IT side, and used by HR and everyone else to produce the experiences needed that tap into our full capabilities as individuals and organizations. This is a different approach than in the past  when organizations acquired individual digital tools, touchpoints, or suites, branded and configured them a bit, and deployed them. Now we need a digital employee experience that forms a consistent “center of gravity” for the worker and their daily activities.
  • Automation, analytics, current and ongoing revolutions in digital experience, consumer-grade user interfaces, low/no-code and the emerging tech spectrum must regularly inform and improve the employee experience. The employee experience must now evolve as fast as the world. It must therefore be represented in a cohesive but loosely-structured stack designed to change and keep up with shifts in the organization and the world. Most organizations will spend the next five to 10 years getting this model right for them, and it will be an ongoing journey to maintain.
  • The daily moments of the worker must be the unit of employee experience development and management. This makes it human-centered, value-centered, and aimed at the most meaningful work activities. Disjointed work across many systems must be reorganized into singular job activities (sell a product, build a team, manage a project, get a promotion) that formerly spanned many siloed applications. Unify them into easily customized and personalized digital experience that are contextual, have built-in just-in-time training and can be created by anyone in the organization.

The pandemic highlighted many issues, including the realization that CIOs must do much better helping their organizations reformulate the modern worker journey around the experience model. Combined with urgent needs post-pandemic, especially around well-being and resilience, and it’s clear a mandate now exists to do much better for workers.

Most organizations will start at the core of their employee experiences and steadily go outward until they reach diminishing returns. Some will find that it’s better to start at the edge and work their way inward. But change they must, because the status quo is near the breaking point in terms of ever-lengthening employee onboarding times, needless cognitive load on workers to manage growing complexity, stagnating worker productivity, and low employee engagement/satisfaction. The future belongs to organizations that sustain modern and effective employee experiences.