There is a difference between having remote workers and having a remote work culture. COVID-19 has sparked a rapid shift in workplace dynamics and companies are learning as they go along.
Standing desks, multiple monitors, ergonomic chairs, the ability to swing by a coworker's desk to ask a question — gone. To recapture camaraderie, some companies working remote during the coronavirus pandemic are creating virtual happy hours or digital water coolers.
CIO Dive spoke with five companies to understand how they executed a shift to remote work and are preserving culture along the way. Have a story to tell? Email us at [email protected].
Balancing global office dynamics
Engineers at collaboration and work management software company Smartsheet are set up, in theory, to work from anywhere. But the transition to full-time remote work had employees heading into the office to grab chairs or unhook monitors to install at home, Praerit Garg, CTO of Smartsheet, told CIO Dive.
In a remote environment, employees have to rethink office interactions and setups, customizing what works for them. Some office chatter is recreated, through virtual happy hours or 10-minute check ins, said Garg. Routine daily scrums on the engineering side remain.
With offices in Bellevue, Washington, Boston, Edinburgh, Sydney and London and 1,600 employees, Smartsheet has seen a normalization of communication between offices. Now, when everyone joins online, it's not a Bellevue-dominated conversation. Communication is evenly weighted globally, he said.
In a return to "normal," some change will stick — namely, the appetite for remote work.
"Right now there's no traffic," said Garg. The normalization of remote work will shift workplace dynamics and employees could change to a couple remote days per week.
Once muscle memory builds, even though people will want to come into the office, "traffic will sting more," Garg said.
A 3-part plan and culture preservation
Business continuity planning (BCP) is a common business practice. It's a tool companies can turn to for prevention and recovery. But it's hard to imagine a BCP that would have covered a global, multi-week shutdown.
"We had enough kind of good meat in the BCP to give confidence to people that we weren't winging it," Matt Quinn, chief operating officer of TIBCO, told CIO Dive. The BCP was not designed for a pandemic, but the goal was to "get back to a normal situation in an abnormal" crisis, leaning on communication and collaboration tools such as Slack and Zoom.
To close offices and start the process to work from home, the integration, analytics and event processing software company transitioned in levels, according to Quinn:
Level 1: Executives identified a core group of operations employees to work from home before the company pivoted fully remote.
Level 2: TIBCO began to close offices. In some cases, as in Seattle, it was in conjunction with local authorities. In other areas, it was more proactive.
Level 3: As the bulk of employees moved to work from home, TIBCO had to identify what changes it needed to make on a system level for consistency. The goal was to ensure there were no gaps in productivity or holes in the security posture.
Level 3 is "longer work," Quinn said, something the began the moment initial operations employees were sent home. But it picked up once everyone was remote.
TIBCO was familiar with the collaboration and communication tools that made remote work possible. It rolled out Slack companywide in June, CIO Sharon Mandell told CIO Dive.
Technologies such as Zoom have faced heavy scrutiny with the shift to remote work. But those concerns aren't a heavy weight on TIBCO's platform selection.
"I don't want to belittle it," but with Zoom, "there were issues there and they needed to be taken care of," Mandell said. But "you have to strike this balance. If you go to a zero risk model, you're not going to get anything done."
Part of security concern with the platform comes from attention, which isn't new in business technology. When Windows became the dominant platform, it became the most attacked platform, Mandell said.
It's up to the companies to understand what risk they can tolerate. The business has to validate and monitor security while learning to effectively train and trust the user base.
This is particularly relevant when the workforce is distributed. If traffic is coming from an unexpected source and an unexpected time of day, it's up to the company and IT to validate.
The coronavirus has broken apart work concepts that have been in place for 100 years, Quinn said. Following the shutdown, "I don't think the office ever becomes as important as it was in the past."
Some dynamics will change. People will start to consider whether they need to meet, or if email could suffice. And it could change work travel dynamics.
Other workplace mainstays are noticeably missing in a remote setup. Developers and designers lack some elements of whiteboarding and collaborating in person, according to Quinn.
Certain people are going to enjoy working from home and will want that opportunity moving forward. Others will lean on the social benefits of a workplace.
Key to business performance is ensuring company culture and the values instilled in employees remain. The "office artificially tried to put that in place," Quinn said. Culture was falsely tied to having a cool office or a Kegerator. "Strip that all away and you're left with people," collaboration and culture.
"If you have those values and that trust exists between people, your company will live through this for a longer period of time," Mandell said.
Playing network 'whack-a-mole'
IT company Altair was comfortable with remote work, but the transition to 100% remote impacts culture — it's well-known narrative more than a month into the shutdown.
Altair has "really loyal" employees who have been with the company for years, said Altair CIO Andrea Siudara. Just because people aren't physically next to each other doesn't mean that power goes away.
That's helped foster a video culture, where people will grab coffee for 15 minutes on video, same as they would with the office machine, Siudara said.
Ahead of the shutdown, Altair revamped "how to" guides and started adding additional VPN licenses incrementally because the company didn't want to run out of secure logins, Siudara said.
Another consideration is depending on where an employee is they might not have a formal office. It requires employees to listen and schedule what works best for them, working around dog barks or babies in the background.
Beyond person-to-person flexibility, the move to remote work has tested network connectivity. Altair is in 25 countries and in some regions, connectivity in homes or in particular cities might have low bandwidth, Siudara said. It's like playing "whack-a-mole" with those issues coming up, in the process of moving from relying on a robust network to something more mobile in nature.
A move each day of the week
With the impacts of the pandemic unfolding, on March 9, software development company Laserfiche decided it needed to prepare and conduct a work from home test, Thomas Phelps, VP of corporate strategy and CIO of Laserfiche, told CIO Dive.
Tuesday, the company evaluated essentials and critical processes.
Wednesday, Laserfiche executed companywide training and made sure everyone could log in.
Thursday, it locked down the building and everyone worked from home.
Things changed so quickly that on Friday, Laserfiche conducted a wide set of training and allowed everyone who wanted to take home laptops, monitors and anything else they needed, Phelps said.
It was a rapid shift and some of the obstacles involved maintaining consistent security protocols and having enough VPN licenses so employees can connect to the network in a secure way.
The move to remote work has highlighted the importance of the CIO role in a crisis event, Phelps said. COVID-19 has shown accelerating to digital is part of business continuity and imperative in moving the workforce forward.
With a pandemic, when we talk about business continuity management, we can't forget about people, Phelps said. It's reminded us that we need to make sure we take care of how they're responding and building redundancy.
As soon as the crisis hit, Phelps had some individuals from each support team rotate out to ensure business contingency plans were met.
Change in customer conversations
At cybersecurity company Balbix, the move to a remote environment, from a collaboration and work perspective, had "no impact whatsoever," Vinay Sridhara, CTO of Balbix, told CIO Dive. But the setup required adjustment.
Face-to-face meetings took some additional effort, and people had to get used to the virtual whiteboards, said Sridhara. With close to 100 employees, the company has always had very little infrastructure, which made the transition seamless.
Even Balbix's lab, which has test equipment, is also accessible through a VPN.
One of the key changes is the conversations with customers. "People ask a lot more questions," said Sridhara. A focus is on products that can do more than one thing as companies are trying to adopt offerings with multiple functionalities, getting more service with a single subscription.