Many conclusions are being drawn about the good and the bad of remote work from what has been called the world’s largest work-from-home experiment. In fact, there are vast differences between remote work in the context of crisis response and remote work as part of a carefully planned strategy for achieving business benefits. While there is much to be learned from this ‘experiment’, we need to be mindful of these differences and their impact on any results we observe prior to drawing conclusions.
The differences between location-independent work (any combination of remote and office work where the location does not matter) as a strategic approach to business improvement and as a tactical response to a crisis begin with the desired outcomes. In the former, we expect productivity improvement, cost reduction, improved ability to attract and retain top talent, and a happier, healthier workforce. Success is measured by the degree to which these benefits are achieved, while minimizing risk to the business.
In the crisis response scenario, we need to provide an acceptable level of secure access to data and tools needed to carry out the most important processes of the business. Success in this case is defined by productivity remaining something approaching what it was before, and our workers remaining safe.
Planning is essential in either case (though with a crisis response it will usually begin with a pre-determined business continuity plan then evolve in the early days of the crisis); what that plan looks like however will – and should – be very different, precisely because the objectives are different. A good plan for crisis response will not be effective for a strategic approach. On the other hand, incorporating location-independent work into ‘normal’ operations may aid in crisis response planning.
Policies and procedures
In the early hours and days of a crisis response, updating policies and procedures to reflect location-independence will not be a top priority. Either the policies will already incorporate remote work, or people will simply work around them as needed for the short term. If the crisis continues beyond a few weeks – as in the case of the current pandemic – this will become increasingly difficult and risky and we will need to make revisions.
The plan for a strategic approach to location-independence on the other hand will include activities for updating policies and procedures in advance of transitioning workers out of the office.
The initial focus for technology during a crisis response will be on providing access to tools and connectivity to data for a potentially large number of employees. Unless a significant portion of the workforce is location-independent in ‘normal times’, this will probably entail setting up and scaling a VPN solution and installing a basic set of collaboration tools. Some companies will need to procure, configure, and distribute laptops. Enhanced cybersecurity such as endpoint encryption / backup / recovery, device health checks, intrusion detection, and malware scanning – unless already set up prior to the crisis – will probably not be addressed initially; the longer the crisis continues, the greater the security risk this attracts.
When using location independence as a business strategy, a stack of cybersecurity tools will be selected, installed, and configured prior to laptops connecting to company assets from anywhere other than the office. These tools will go far beyond VPN – and may even utilize SD-WAN instead of VPN. Laptops will be backed up using endpoint backup and restore. The data stored on laptops will be protected with endpoint encryption. Firewalls and intrusion detection systems will protect laptops from attack while malware scanning tools and device health checks will protect the network from compromised laptops.
Suitability of roles
When responding to a crisis where offices become unavailable, all roles normally carried out in the office will be moved to a remote location. Certain roles that are location-dependent, but not in the office (e.g. field workers, customer facing roles) will continue – perhaps with additional health and safety measures. Certain roles are not well suited to remote work but keeping in mind the objectives of this scenario we will do the best we can. The longer the crisis continues, the more negative impact we will see in these roles.
An early step in planning for location independence as a business strategy is to analyze each role for suitability – finding the optimal balance between location independence and location dependence. This hybrid approach maximizes the benefits while minimizing the risks and downsides.
We all have different personalities – some of us can only truly thrive when we are around our colleagues frequently, while others prefer to focus in a quiet, distraction-free environment. Some of us have an ideal workspace at home where we can be comfortable and productive while others are constrained in their work-at-home options.
In a crisis response where the office is not available, we are forced to make do with what we have available. Companies must provide the best support they can, such as guidance on setting up an effective workplace in the home, and office equipment where needed.
On the other hand, a plan for using location independence as a business strategy will accommodate the varied circumstances and needs of all individuals, incorporating ways for people to maintain social connections with colleagues (even if that means virtually), providing suitable workspaces (whether through hoteling facilities or assistance in setting up work-from-home arrangements) and avoiding any disparity between location-dependent and independent workers.
Wellness of employees
Flexible work arrangements and reduced commute time allow for more harmony between professional and family life; this is one of the benefits of location-independent work. In the strategic scenario, this has been shown to contribute to increased happiness and reduced stress – factors in employee wellness. As such, wellness is a measurable benefit of location-independent work .
The crisis response scenario is much more complex in this regard, with multiple stress drivers including financial uncertainty, job security, health concerns, loneliness, and a continuing state of lockdown all weighing on the emotional well-being of people. Isolating the impact of location independence on employee wellness in such an environment is difficult if not impossible, and therefore not a reliable metric of the success or failure of location independence. At the same time, it becomes even more important for companies to monitor, and build strategies to improve, the emotional health of their people.
Historically, one of the impediments to adoption of location-independent work has been skepticism about whether remote workers would maintain the same level of productivity and dedication. Although surveys show that this skepticism is on the decline, effective performance management remains a critical success factor. For companies where managers are accustomed to seeing team members at their desks to know they are engaged and productive, success with location independence will require a shift in performance management culture.
When location independence is treated as a business strategy, the plan will include all the pieces necessary to implement an outcomes-based performance management approach. On the other hand, where location independence is part of a crisis response plan, there simply isn’t time, and short-term measures must be taken; some companies may even resort to tools such as keyboard or webcam monitoring , which many consider invasive. When attention turns from ‘keeping the lights on’ to a sustainable approach to location independence and unlocking the potential for productivity benefits and reduced attrition, these short-term measures will not suffice and may even prove detrimental.
Security and Privacy
Physical security and privacy are very different in a remote work environment than in company- controlled facilities. Your organization is no longer able to restrict physical access, ensure that computer monitors are not visible through a window, or prevent smart speakers from being in the same room as a confidential conference call. Furthermore, principles for privacy in the home must be respected while at the same time accommodating the need of your company to manage its workers.
The plan for adopting location independence as a business strategy will include security awareness training tailored to remote work, policy updates that consider the unique security and privacy constraints of a home workplace, and implementation of supporting cybersecurity technology. Unless location independence was already ingrained in your company, the crisis response is unlikely to be comprehensive in this regard and may be limited to setting up VPN access for remote workers. While this achieves the short-term objectives of a crisis response, it exposes your company to unnecessary risk in the longer term.
Change management will be a critical component of any plan for using location independence as a business strategy. Training and communication are essential to setting expectations and minimizing the uncertainty that can negatively impact employee engagement and productivity.
In a crisis scenario, change management will certainly be an early part of the response – in fact, communication procedures are nearly always included within business continuity plans; plans for deploying a business strategy centered on location independence, with the advantage of sufficient lead time, will be much more thorough.
The response to the global pandemic has been very difficult for most organizations. Despite the pain, for many companies it has also been an opportunity to test-drive location-independent work. The experience has demonstrated some of both the potential benefits of remote work and its limitations. It has also forced us to overcome challenges that often go far beyond those that would have been presented by remote work in more usual circumstances.
While this should be viewed as the first step on the journey to incorporating location-independent work as a business strategy, for most it is not yet a sustainable solution. To succeed and deliver true business value beyond achieving the short-term crisis response objectives, much work remains.
Smeltz Consulting Group specializes in helping clients design a hybrid workforce strategy that balances location independence with place-based work and to develop a plan for getting there, optimizing the benefits while mitigating the risks. Contact us to see the business benefits we can deliver.