At first, it was disruptive and challenging. Then it became weird and tricky. And now, it’s normal and simply different. Remote work, work from home, virtual work: Whatever name you use for the workstyle driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has transformed the way work gets done in America now.
And while this episode is not completely behind us, it is already obvious that the lessons learned about how to get work done with distributed teams have been taken to heart. Many companies have decided that some or all of their team working remotely is as good—or even better—than having everyone pile into the same office. For this reason, not all staff personnel may be returning to the office soon, if ever.
If you’re considering a similar move, think about all the changes you will want or need to make. Here are some areas for examination:
Saving One Square Foot at a Time
If you don’t have as many—or any—people coming into an office, what is that space for? There’s a good argument to be made for having a physical space to receive clients and prospective clients. It exudes substance and seriousness. If that’s not the case for you, then maybe you don’t need that second address at all. A lot of companies have come to that conclusion. Or, if you just want to keep work and personal life separate, all you may need is a desk, a power supply and a little peace and quiet.
On the other hand, it may be critical to have a business location. Perhaps you need it for the clients mentioned above. Perhaps work goes better and actually more efficiently when some staff can look over each other’s shoulders. In that case, you just need to decide how much space is enough. If some of your team will be working remotely, you won’t need to retain as much space. Those savings can help you recover from any setbacks during the downturn.
Offsetting The Cost of Off-Sitting
Having remote staff doesn’t eliminate all office expenses. The technology costs may be neutral or even go up a bit. After all, you’re replacing office space with a technologically enabled alternative.
It is already commonplace for companies to offer subsidies for employees who wish to use their own mobile phones for work. These “BYOD” (bring your own device) plans have proven both popular and practical, and they often provide cost-savings over maintaining a telecom contract. With the advent of virtual PBXs, calls to the general corporate phone number can be easily routed to specific individuals… just like the old days. Except, now personnel are using their personal phones and could be working from anywhere. Likewise, support for Internet connectivity might make sense to assure necessary bandwidth.
It’s usually recommended that companies own the computers their staff uses. This is the easiest way to address the legal requirements of proper use, data privacy and document retention. Depending on what kinds of systems you ordinarily use in the office, the requirements for a suitable laptop system (the system of choice for any remote or mobile staff) may be nominally more expensive. IT support is usually a non-issue; most of that is performed remotely these days regardless.
You may need to invest in a VPN (virtual private network) to assure secure channels between personnel. These are standard for companies with multiple locations. But if you have just one location and are enabling remote work, this may be an additional requirement. There is a certain additional complexity that your staff will need to master, and your IT support will have to understand. But this technology has become very intuitive, and there are versions at a range of price points with features scaled accordingly.
Softskills and Software
By now, everyone knows some or all of the virtual meeting apps on the market. There are actually a range of software tools to enable remote work. Many are applications designed for corporations spread out across offices; technically this is just one location. But the software doesn’t care. So, it can just as easily be used for small teams situated across the country.
Such apps include chat, shared whiteboards, workflow management, document sharing with real-time editing capabilities, shared storage with version control and more. In fact, any SaaS platform—and most software is now SaaS—can be used in this way. This means that teams of any size can share a common virtual workspace. But shared tools don’t necessarily equal a team.
A company’s culture is just as critical to its success as its work product. That’s where the soft skills come into play. The qualities of leadership that keep a team energized and focused have yet to be baked into software. It falls on management to take the foibles of software and challenges of distance into account when implementing policies and procedures.
Many workers find the prospect of working remotely very attractive. But even in teams of two, it’s important to have practices in place to assure alignment, cohesion and mutual backstopping. With the right dynamic in place, a virtual team can be just as effective as an onsite one.
As your business comes out of quarantine and you look ahead at your operations, you may see a lot of remote work in your future. In fact, you may see only remote work in your future. With the right tools and the right techniques, any recent economic setbacks may be reversed by this change in workstyle. The change could even trigger new and unexpected possibilities for your business.
If that happens, the business disruption of the pandemic could be a blessing in disguise.