Embracing the “New Normal”

Accepting change can start slowly and ease toward the mainstream over several years or decades. Remote working – using web connectivity to work from home or other non-office locations – exemplifies such a shift. For some, remote working is a given. Many others remain happily tethered to their offices. They may bring a laptop home after work in case a need arises, but their working life continues to center on their assigned offices or cubicles.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that no more than 50 people gather in one location for any purpose, later reducing the number to 10. Even for families at home, health experts recommend social distancing to the point where two people sharing a couch is one too many.

The need to minimize direct social contact has forced organizations ranging from companies, government agencies, and nonprofits to schools and universities to institute remote working or distance learning systems as quickly as possible. For organizations whose web infrastructure has supported ever-increasing levels of remote working or distance learning over the years, such changes, if necessary, have been relatively easy to implement.

Other companies and industries have been slower to adopt the remote working model. For example, several months before the COVID-19 emergency, a recruiter from a high-profile consulting firm told me the oil and gas industry was “way behind” in offering remote working options.

Companies with limited or nonexistent remote working systems are scrambling to adopt solutions quickly. Growing pains are inevitable as these companies choose among the myriad available cloud computing and virtual meeting systems. But it’s 2020, not 1995. We have simpler and better tools that have greatly reduced the challenges associated with implementing a remote working system or expanding an existing limited configuration.

Remote Working Model Barriers

Barriers to achieving success in remote working and distance learning include:

  • Weak web connections, resulting in time lags and other challenges to real-time video and audio communication
  • Simultaneous revision of different versions of the same document, requiring rework and reducing efficiency
  • Difficulty in maintaining order and focus in group meetings
  • The need to establish an atmosphere of teamwork and belonging in an environment where every connection is virtual
  • Distractions and interruptions that may reduce productivity
  • Challenges in managing people without the clarity of face-to-face communication to address concerns, maintain focus, and verify understanding of assignments

Organizations typically can find relatively simple solutions to technical problems such as weak web connections or work process issues such as version control. But complex interpersonal issues such as distractions, isolation, and loss of focus in meetings likely will remain for the time being. On the positive side, today’s communication tools have started to make inroads in these thornier areas. A complete discussion of challenges related to remote working and the tools available to address them are beyond the scope of this blog post.

Remote Working Model Adoption

Remote working systems adopted in response to COVID-19 will reveal the convenience of remote working to a new population of employees, many of whom will resist a return to the strictures of office-dependent work after the pandemic has run its course. These employees will expect their employers to embrace a “new normal” with remote working opportunities expanded to the greatest extent possible. Companies that want to keep these employees happy and avoid losing them to more tech-savvy competitors must meet such heightened expectations.

Remote working systems assembled hastily in response to COVID-19 will lack the efficiency and durability to function well over the long term. Establishment of a successful remote working system for the long term will require implementation of a comprehensive process of analysis, planning, execution, and continual improvement. Spark Thought recommends the following approach:

  1. Gain a thorough understanding of current status.
  2. Establish a clear and detailed view of the desired solution – where you want to go.
  3. Identify the gaps between current status and desired solution and plan the tasks needed to close them.
  4. Call on experts in knowledge management to help complete the tasks and implement the desired solution quickly and efficiently.
  5. Use the solution and continually seek out ways to improve its core functioning and address new challenges.

This approach ensures establishment of a robust remote working system geared toward meeting current needs and addressing unforeseen events.

Companies cannot predict the future, and no one can know the nature or timing of the next major crisis. Still, establishment of a robust remote working system as soon as practicable likely will put companies in a better position to respond effectively to whatever the future brings.