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We Got WFH Done… Now What?


Illustration showing looking to the future
Image: IRStone -
Organizational change is tough, hence the copious amount of software tools, strategic frameworks, business seminars, and sundry other guidance devoted to helping enterprises get it right. And yet, quite often, they still don’t.
I started thinking about this following a recent conversation with an IT analyst and consultant who specializes in enterprise communications, particularly of the video sort. Among his enterprise clients, he shared, support for video meetings has become de rigueur for the newly distributed workforce. No surprise there, as the rise of videoconferencing during this period of stay-at-home/work-at-home has been discussed ad nauseum. And while IT is to be applauded for smoothing the path to WFH, his next point gave me pause — that being, he’s not seeing much interest among his clients in optimizing the WFH collaboration setups so hastily spun up.
Is ‘Good Enough’ Good Enough?
In some cases, I get it. Others, not so much.
I get it in cases such as the trader who told me his firm packed up his entire work setup and shipped it to his house overnight. After the move, the company even arranged for a dedicated Internet connection, so he didn’t have to share the bandwidth with his wife, also working from home, and his child, distant learning (and playing video games).
I don’t get it in cases like the government analyst who told me he’s having a tough time being truly effective working from a small laptop (when he’s used to looking at various data sources simultaneously on desktop and wall-mounted monitors), relying on shared residential bandwidth, and restricted to use of Microsoft Teams for collaboration. He noted a couple of frustrating moments early on, like being unable to hook up an external monitor because it was an "unauthorized peripheral" and missing a “mandatory” third-party training webinar because it was hosted on the Zoom platform.
I would say the first case is the exception, prompted by the high-dollar value said individual and others on the trading desk generate for the firm. The company can’t afford these workers to miss a beat. The second case is at the other end of the spectrum, with employers with strapped budgets relying on workers to use whatever they have at hand and calling it good to go. Some companies will have been forced into doing a bit more to reach that good-to-go state — either allowing employees to bring home desktop computers or distributing laptops to those who didn’t have them to start. But, as we heard from the video consultant, it doesn’t seem to matter that being good to go for a short period isn’t the same as being good to go for the long haul.
Needing a Long-term View
For me, all this begged the question: Does the traditional change management discipline account for the type of monumental shift in the workplace and for the use of collaboration technologies that we’ve seen with COVID-19?
For an answer, I checked in with Melissa Marsh, a social researcher with her firm, PLASTARC, and occupancy experience expert with Savills, a global real estate services provider. Marsh has given change management considerable attention over the years, and you can read some of her thoughts on the topic here, here, and here. When hearing what I had learned from the video consultant, Marsh said she wasn’t that surprised — that failing to take the next step with change isn’t particular to the forced change brought on by COVID-19 but rather characteristic of what often happens when making changes in office environments. It’s a matter of thinking of change as instantaneous versus continuous, she said.
Moving to a new office or building, taking a new approach to furniture, bringing in new technology… these are big change initiatives. Thinking about a change in an office environment as a one-off, “like we’re going from this to this,” can be the crux of an unsuccessful project, Marsh said. Rather, the organization needs to think in terms of increased flexibility and greater nimbleness, and that means thinking about a change project not as a one-off but as one step among many, she added.
"Many organizations miss an opportunity when they adopt new workplace solutions. … Organizations are more successful when they adopt the continuous change model, especially when they’ve had one solution for a long time,” Marsh said. And it is a bit of a no-brainer — “If you’re going to put all that effort into change number one, you might as well keep it going.” But whether in typical times or in unique times such as this period of pandemic there is an impulse to say, “‘Hey, we made the change. We got it done,’” and that’s that.
That’s an easy trap to fall into, but it’s more than that, Marsh said. While this crisis period created an incredible opportunity to change because everyone was forced to do something, “it’s still in our human nature to want to go back to what we had before that we knew and were comfortable with — so it’s all the usual change management kinds of topics rolling in here.”