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6 Workplace Lessons from 6 Months of COVID-19

September 21, 2020 Digital Workplace
scott clark
By Scott Clark

Six months in to the COVID-19 crisis, there have been major changes in the way business operates. From remote workers to rapid transformation and the use of new technologies and methodologies, the way some things get done is hardly recognizable from one year ago.

Here are six enduring ways that business has changed across industries, departments, and borders.

The Remote Workplace Is Here to Stay

The remote workplace kept many business afloat during the COVID-19 crisis and leaders have come to realize remote workers are capable of being just as engaged and productive as they were in the office. A report from the Society for Human Resource Management and Oxford Economics showed that 64% of salaried and 49% of hourly employees are working remotely most of the time, up from 3% and 2% in January 2020. As far back as March, 74% of CFOs planned to transition additional onsite employees to remote workspaces permanently after the COVID-19 crisis ends, according to a Gartner survey.

“One key consequence of the pandemic is determining how to best adopt the use of digital technologies that help reduce face-to-face interactions and safeguard customer and employee health and well-being," said Amit Daga, vice president, portfolio strategy and engineering, Ricoh USA. "Eventually some companies will go back to being mostly in the office, some will remain 100% remote. Most will seek to operate in a hybrid or dynamic environment.”

Ricoh USA enacted a dual path response, first moving to remote work to prioritize the health of the company's 18,000-plus employees. The second path was to enact business continuity plans with customers and understand how Ricoh could support their own transformations.

Even if a business plans to move workers back to the office, many employees are reluctant to go back. In a July 2020 survey conducted by Azurite Consulting, 25% of office workers said they would quit if asked to return to the office too soon. Additionally, 37% said they have better work-life balance by working remotely and 82% said virtual conferencing tools are just as effective as in-person meetings.

This doesn’t mean that the move to the remote workplace went without a hitch. Todd Greene, CEO of PubNub, said their own surveys showed 42 percent of remote workers said laggy video calls annoyed them and 25% said video calls and conferences were the biggest distraction, more than email and phone calls.

“While many new tech and tools have been helpful, they can also cause fatigue and the barrage of services at our disposal can hinder our productivity when they don’t work as needed," he said.

Greene is optimistic that the challenges can be overcome, and from the research his company did, so do his remote workers. “Employees are also optimistic about the implementation of long-term changes to policies and tools," he said.

In their study, 37% thought the workplace could be successful and they already have the right tools in place, while another 27% believe their work can be successful with improvements being made to tools already in place. Only 8% said they could not stay remote long-term and be successful. The only industries not likely to continue to embrace the remote workplace are those heavily reliant on in-person interactions, Greene said.

Related Article: Is It Time for Your Company to Embrace a Remote Workplace?

Virtual Livestreams Enabled the Show To Go On

The most interesting thing has been to see the positive impact remote work has had on everyday interactions, said Brian Rowley, vice president of marketing at Panasonic.

"From a customer standpoint, where we traditionally would travel to their site or office to have a meeting, using digital platforms as our main line of communication has led to different ways of connecting and sharing information, such as through webinars or in-depth virtual experiences," he said. "We’ve seen the same positive effects on how we now run internal meetings via video conferences. They’ve been successful so far, and I foresee them becoming a common practice moving forward for both our customer meetings and internal communication."

Greene is also excited about the acceleration and use of livestream technology, driven by large players like Twitch as well as companies like LiveLike, who scooped up contracts with sports leagues like the NBA to provide a live sports experiences where fans can interact with others in real-time. He predicts the use of virtual events will continue long after the COVID-19 crisis is over.

“It’s not just sports that have moved their experiences online; industries ranging from concerts to retail to professional conferences have all felt the squeeze of COVID and had to make the shift to an entirely virtual experience, all of which need to feel as close to the real world as possible but in a remote-first manner," he said. "It’s left to be seen how far-reaching the adoption of live digital events will extend and for how long but it’s a good bet that viewer expectations and preferences will certainly include digital real-time experiences in the future.”

Bizzabo, an event sofware company with offices in New York and Tel Aviv, Israel, turned its focus from live, in-person events to virtual events this year. Until March 2020, the company only provided a platform for managing in-person events, said Eran Ben-Shushan, CEO and co-founder. 

"Responding to COVID-19, we quickly pivoted the platform to support virtual events by partnering with an enterprise-grade streaming provider," he said. "Since then, we've seen a huge surge in demand for our virtual solution and have partnered with organizations like Siemens, Bloomberg, Amazon, and Salesforce to power their virtual event programs."

"We believe that the future of events after COVID-19 will look very different from today but we do not believe that in-person is going away. Instead, we predict that organizers will embrace a hybrid event strategy that combines both in-person and virtual.”

Flexible Hours Saved the Day

In March 2020, schools and universities in the United States began shutting down. This left parents scrambling to take care of their children while still being able to do their jobs. This required business leaders to provide employees with the ability to choose the hours they worked. Results, rather than the number of hours spent in front of the computer screen became the new standard.

Buffer.com recently released a report entitled "The 2020 State of Remote Work" that showed 32% of those surveyed said a flexible work schedule was one of the top benefits of being a remote worker. For those workers, this means they are able to start and end the workday on their own schedule and take breaks as needed to care for children.

Scott Wharton, vice president and general manager of Logitech Video Collaboration Group, said his company's embrace of the flexible workplace enhanced the lives of employees but also provided benefits for the business as well. “This newfound flexibility allows workers to be more agile in the work environment and therefore more competitive," he said. "In the past when looking for a job, employees were either bound to their current location or needed to be willing to uproot their life. This will no longer be the case, employees will have more options and companies will have more talent. In addition, employees won't need to plan around commutes and travel as much, allowing them to be more focused on their work-life balance."

A May 2020 study conducted by the Adecco Group polled 8,000 office-based employees, managers and C-suite executives across Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the UK and the USA about “the new normal.” Not surprisingly, 69% of employees said that compensation should be based on results rather than hours worked.

Related Article: Working From Home: Are You Overworked, Overwhelmed or Overjoyed?

Emotional Well Being Is Vital

Isolation and loneliness are a problem for nearly 25% of employees that work remotely even before the pandemic shutdown, according to a November 2019 report from Gallup. Since then, the Adecco Group’s study revealed that 28% of those polled felt that their emotional well-being has gotten worse. As a result, employers have had to increase their awareness of the mental and emotional well being of their employees, especially those who work remotely.

As of early September 2020, there have been 925,000 deaths worldwide caused by COVID-19, 194,000 in the United States. A report published by Statista in April indicated that approximately 25% of African Americans and 13% of both white and Hispanic adults in the United States personally know a person that died from COVID-19. Most businesses are likely to have employees that are grieving.

As a result, many employers are training managers to recognize signs of overload and distress among workers. Employees need to be reminded of the availability of mental health programs as they are often not aware they are offered. A study by MetLife on employee benefit trends showed that 58% of employees who are struggling at work said their workplace does not offer mental health programs that fulfill their needs and those that do are hard to access or understand.

Leaders are recognizing that empathy and compassion are chief among the traits employees value during this stressful period. Emotional quotient (EQ) training is valuable for leaders and managers, and should also be part of the onboarding process for every employee. EQ training enables people to manage themselves more effectively, become more self-aware and empathetic, and create and maintain healthy relationships with others.

Security Concerns Will Always Be a Priority

According to an August 2020 report by TeamViewer, security remains a top priority for 57% of the IT executives surveyed. Chief among their concerns: Employees using their own devices along with employee usage of the public internet to access company data and services. Virtual private networks (VPN) has its limitations as a solution, said Tarun Desikan, COO of Banyan Security.

“VPN technology was developed more than 20 years ago to expand trusted networks by connecting corporate offices into a unified network," he said. "Eventually, the technology has been expanded to support a relatively small percentage of users with specific remote access needs."

Cloud-based enterprise data and applications are often entirely separate from that network, Desikan said, and many employees and contractors are now mobile, spending more time outside company walls with a variety of corporate, BYOD and unmanaged devices.

“In the end, VPNs were not meant for such environments and hackers are exploiting VPN flaws every day," he said "VPN vulnerabilities pose a serious security risk with a tangible business impact.”

COVID-19 has brought attention to the limitations of traditional VPN technology and has forced businesses to look at more secure technologies that support both remote workers and a myriad of devices. “Enterprises are moving away from the traditional VPN to modern alternatives based on Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)," Desikan said. "The core principle of Zero Trust is to reduce the reliance on network security by enforcing stronger user, device and application posture."

Related Article: Even the Best Laid Plans Forget This Security Gap

Acceleration of Transformation in Many Industries

The pandemic has forced dramatic and, in some cases, likely permanent changes in the workplace. "Companies are accelerating the transformation of their operations and cultures to enable permanent, widespread remote work and working to adopt best practices during this transition," Greene said. "Getting the right tools in place such as chat, collaboration and project management tools has helped workers stay successful working remotely long term."

The challenge came at just the right time, said Greene, who worked with clients in the telehealth industry to provide a solution that would allow them to continue providing healthcare at a time when it was a critical front-line service. "While the global lockdown has created enormous challenges for education and healthcare at all levels, we’re fortunate that the crisis is happening with the wide availability and lowering costs of internet-connected devices," he said. "While Internet access is still not universal, consider the ability to teach remotely just 10 years ago.”

Some of Greene's telehealth customers, including Doxy.me, saw network usage increase exponentially in just a few weeks, giving a unique perspective on what drives successful implementations and what criteria are essential for providers to leap into online healthcare, he said. Typical video conferencing and chat solutions were not a viable solution for telehealth providers and time was of the essence.

“The user interface needs to be familiar," he said. "So must be the performance: video must be clear and chat messages must go through in a flash. Patients should feel synchronized in real-time to see and react as in the real world (think the status of chat typing or presence indicators for being online). The good news is that the demand will not just be short term. Telehealth is here to stay and COVID has newly introduced a billion people to the concept."

Panasonic’s Rowley said COVID-19 has encouraged companies to reconsider the way they have been doing business and has brought positive changes. “The pandemic has been challenging in many ways but there have also been positives in that we’ve been able to re-evaluate older business processes where we weren’t as efficient and identify areas where we can improve," he said.

"We’ve also witnessed the value and power of technology that align with our mission to build a better world, helping to overcome challenges that this situation has intensified, such as connectivity and safe contactless technology.”

COVID-19 caused a rapid transformation across industries as companies adjusted to new business models to remain profitable. It has been a time of technological innovation and has caused leaders to consider strategies they would never have considered a year ago. The result? Many businesses have learned to embrace the remote and flexible workplace, taken on new security challenges, and ensuring the well-being of employees working through an emotionally turbulent time.

As the pace of digital transformation accelerated, so did the ability of companies to adapt to these changes while remaining focused on their top priority — keeping employees and customers safe.

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