Look beyond the crisis: the next chapter of remote work

A person sits at a table engaged in conversation with his colleagues over Zoom

Faced with business disruption of the scale and speed of a once-in-a-century pandemic, the quickest fixes to keep working may well have seemed the best option at the time. But have those initial fixes truly enabled continuity of the best, most strategic work or just remote conversations and video conferences?

According to analysts at 451 Research:

“The shift to mass remote work will likely expose how much work across the enterprise has been stitched together based on assumptions, tradition, conversations, meetings, and siloed tools giving very imperfect information, as well as reliance on rigid business systems, email, and pure-play collaboration apps absent impactful workflows.”

The challenge for business leaders today is what Workfront CEO Alex Shootman describes as seeing themselves on the other side of this crisis. Beyond the initial shock, pivot, and adjustments we’ve all had to make to get remote teams up and running, it’s time to focus on the next chapter of remote work.

It’s time to prioritize the long-term enablement of their remote teams so they can adapt quickly, communicate well, stay connected, make critical decisions, prioritize, and stay productive. It’s time to rethink how work gets done.

Consider the speed and scale of today’s disruption.

A flash survey of 800 enterprise decision makers by 451 Research in March revealed the rapid impact on performance and profound operational strain caused by COVID-19 in the early stages of the outbreak in the U.S.:

In a recent Workfront webinar, Chris Marsh, Research Director at 451 Research, explores themes he developed in two must-read reports on the pandemic: Coronavirus quick fixes aren’t scalable; business leaders must rethink work itself and Coronavirus will disrupt your workforce: Ensure that you have the right tooling strategy for remote workers.

Chris explained the core problem that modern enterprises are up against today:

“It's tempting to think that conferencing and messaging tools can bear the brunt of remote working, but the reality is that prolonged and mass remote working changes the dynamics around work that remote conversation doesn't solve. Instead, tools keeping employees focused, aligned, and engaged around goals should be at the heart of keeping the workforce productive.”

Today’s top work challenges—and how to start tackling them.

Chris was joined in the webinar by Megan Pannier, VP of marketing and analytics at Fiserv, who explained how her organization is addressing the rapidly changing business environment. Megan and Chris discussed five challenges that every organization is facing—challenges that demand a strategic rethink of work itself—and how to start overcoming them with the right culture, the right business practices, and the right workplace technology.

Challenge—A dynamic external environment.

An ongoing highly dynamic environment is likely to characterize markets for some time to come, with compounding disruptions and businesses having to take their lead from public policy prescriptions that may change day-by-day and week-by-week.

Action: Integrate workplace technology to feed the right data to the right decision makers.

Chris advised aligning corporate performance management, project management, business intelligence, key systems of record, and communications tools to ensure the right data is being fed into the right decision makers. Use this data to scenario-plan around major disruption events so you can respond with clarity and velocity when needed.

Challenge—Broad and compounding workforce impacts.

“From hiring freezes, to productivity challenges, to engagement challenges, to operational issues, this isn’t one thing that businesses can focus on, there are a broad range of impacts across the workforce. Businesses need to think about how they can leverage technologies to counter that,” Chris said. Crucially, Chris drew a distinction between “synchronous” and “asynchronous” remote work: working in real-time with colleagues versus working alone to complete projects.

Action: Provide visibility, transparency, and accountability to support focus and alignment.

Before the pandemic, 451’s research had shown that one-in-four non-managerial employees wanted to spend more time on their work than in conversation with colleagues. Chris said: “Tooling that can drive engagement around asynchronous work will likely drive productivity more strongly; in particular, providing visibility, transparency, and accountability to support employees’ focus and keep them aligned. Synchronous conversation should be a support, not a replacement, for those efforts.”

Challenge—Unsettled and anxious employees.

Employees are dealing with a range of unsettling uncertainties: from new routines, to concerns about health, to anxiety about job security, to working at home and balancing personal and professional commitments. Measuring sentiment across your workforce, over communicating your organization’s response to the crisis and any available support policies, and recognizing and rewarding contributions won’t go amiss, Chris said.

Action: Clarify work priorities and connect work to company goals.

Clarity around responsibilities and goals and easy access to critical information can also support employees feeling engaged, in control, and able to focus.

Challenge—Less access to key information.

The switch to mass remote work poses new challenges to data sharing, data handling, and compliance in addition to ensuring that key decision makers receive the insight they need. Also, much of the context that employees’ previously would have captured, from travel to events and meetings, from conversations with peers, and from their networks of relationships, will be harder to leverage.

Action: Connect all facets of work—people, data, process—with work management technology.

Chris said: “Mass remote work could easily leave some employees feeling disconnected from key projects and initiatives in a way that conversation, email, and file sharing can’t address. Work management tools could provide a useful plane across different initiatives to maintain focus, demonstrate progress, and around which purposeful and effective conversation can be directed.”

Challenge—Competitive disruptions as companies look for opportunities amid the crisis.

For organizations that weathered the initial shocks, new opportunities and new threats from their competition will emerge as businesses look to ‘not waste a crisis,’ Chris said.

Action: Adapt to changing market forces to stay competitive.

Chris emphasized the importance of businesses staying connected to their external ecosystems of partners, influencers, and other communities to maintain a pulse on shifts in market dynamics.

Remote work at scale: our new normal.

Remote work was a reality for only one-in-seven U.S. workers before the crisis; the pandemic has made it the new normal. Leaders must now consider how to keep teams productive while charting a new course through unnavigated economic waters.

As Chris Marsh advises: “A range of technologies and strategies are there to respond effectively, and if business leaders do the considered thinking now, they may find it pays off in the long run when the crisis abates.”