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WFH in a Hurry: 4 Lessons Learned


Image showing "WFH" spelled out in legos
Image: dontree -
Reflecting on the changes COVID-19 has brought to an industrial society, widely respected independent IT consultant and analyst, Tom Nolle of CIMI Corp., posed a thought for the times in a recent post he wrote for our sister site, No Jitter. One of the biggest challenges of all resulting from this disease is having a “society” without socialization, he posited.
For employers, this leads to the question: How can we maintain our corporate culture without being able to engage with people in person?
Clearly, even as companies have talked up work from home (WFH) for decades, few ever expected to adopt it widely, as Nolle pointed out. In some sectors dealing with highly sensitive data, I’d add, WFH simply would never have had a place save for the situation this coronavirus has wrought. But enterprise organizations globally are lining up to place personal safety above all else.
In his No Jitter post, Nolle described some of the early lessons learned from nearly two dozen companies that he had conversed with last month regarding their WFH efforts. He described four primary points that bubbled up during these conversations:
  1. “You can’t make your entire company, or even a large part of its workforce, into a single virtual entity and expect to communicate.”  To keep employees engaged, most of the companies he talked to had tried conducting all-hands meetings. They quickly learned, however, that the tools for doing so either maxed out completely or, after about the 250-participant mark, left all others able to listen in passively but not actively participate. His advice: “… create manageable teams and think about hierarchical dissemination of work, decisions, and deliberations. … Divide up tasks, assign them to teams, let the teams collaborate using favored tools, and then have the team leader report upward.
  2. “The biggest problem wasn’t collaborating, but having something to collaborate on.”  This statement goes to my point above regarding the infeasibility of WFH for companies in some sectors. Enabling at-home access to some data and applications placed half the companies he talked to running “afoul of security and compliance requirements,” Nolle reported. Sorting these issues out took several days, but even then, he added, “some of the companies admitted they were collaborating in WFH mode only by winking at some of their governance policies.” Companies sought his advice on the availability of a collaboration tool that would convey access rights to information as part of a meeting invite. To this question, Nolle said he had suggestions.
  3. “You can’t translate in-office work practices into WFH form by simply connecting people at home together.”  Nolle had a few good examples to share here. One example is that when companies set up WFH programs, they tend to forget the importance of casual interactions that lend to creating an engaged workforce. Likewise, they don’t consider the people working remotely typically take more time to get up to speed and converge on a decision. And, despite all the hype around video meetings, some companies reported finding little to no difference in team productivity when using video to collaborate.
  4. “Web collaboration based on whiteboard and file sharing, and parallel application access capability, were the closest thing to the right answer that’s widely available.”  This comment is more to the point about video raised in number three. “Pure communications-centric collaboration, video or voice, group or pair-wise, quickly became unsatisfactory because workers were not guided into a common context. Visual representations of what was being discussed were far more important than representations of other workers,” he wrote.
The upshot for those of you trying to figure out how WFH fits into the collaborative workplaces you’ve been building up for your companies is this, at least as Nolle sees it:
“We are more dependent on information technology today than we’ve ever been, and yet it’s clear that we’ll become even more dependent in the future. Unless we want to assume that there will never be another driver for WFH like COVID-19, we need to think in terms of framing our information and communications tools contextually, or we’ll risk losing the WFH option completely.”
Read the full article here, and share how you’re grappling with supporting employee engagement and workplace collaboration in the comments section below.