Digital transformation: Leaders bear down on remote work challenges

As remote work continues to evolve, do the challenges imply companies simply need to do even more digital transformation than they already have - more tools, more speed? Probably not. Culture and process will be the focus in 2021
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Remote employees connecting from around the world

The experiments in remote working forced by the pandemic have gone better than expected, agreed digital leaders and C-suite execs at The Economist’s Innovation@Work earlier this month. Users were able to get online quickly.  Digital transformation has accelerated in many cases. Productivity has mostly held up, most employees don’t miss commuting, and remote selling has generally proved effective. And while the pandemic obviously has had many deeply negative aspects, it’s almost certainly opened the door for more flexible work patterns in the future, for many employees.

What's the hybrid future of work?

There also seems to be considerable agreement about the broad outlines of what post-pandemic work looks like. Some companies were already fully or mostly remote pre-pandemic. And, according to data presented at Innovate@Work by Nicholas Bloom, Senior Fellow and Professor of Economics at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, about 27 percent of workers would like to work from home (WFH) five days a week.

[ Is your team exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

While some companies and workers want to go back to most employees being co-located in an office most days, many expect to see a hybrid model develop – with people who can do so working from home one to four days a week, with an average of about two days.

Companies need to combat remote workers becoming second-class citizens once some come back into offices.

All that paints a generally rosy picture, but some speakers and panelists highlighted the challenges of a hybrid model. Dr. Nicola Millard, Principal Innovation Partner and BTIO, BT Enterprise, said that “her anxiety is what I call a horrible hybrid, a meeting with half the people in the office and half remote.” She went on to say that we’ve “learned that digital is the great leveler when everyone is a little box on the screen. The best common ground is probably digital.”

Mike Tumilty, Global COO, Standard Life Aberdeen agreed, adding that the “hybrid world is dependent on a digital first strategy.” It’s a common theme: Companies need to combat remote workers becoming second-class citizens once some come back into offices at least some of the time.

Can we still collaborate?

What things haven’t worked as well remotely, to date? These things will probably seem familiar to anyone reading this – and they’re all related. We’re talking close collaboration, serendipitous conversations, building trust in teams, and creating community.

"Figuring out how to build the camaraderie and build the trust in the virtual world remains a quest."

Kedar Deshpande, the CEO of Zappos talked of missing the water cooler, because you cannot “get the pulse, the direct eye contact, the touch. Figuring out how to build the camaraderie and build the trust in the virtual world remains a quest.” Ruth Cotter, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, Human Resources and Investor Relations at AMD, noted that remote “has elongated our onboarding cycle… to immerse people into our culture.”

In addition, in a common theme, Cotter added that “Ad hoc conversations are very important and they have to be forced.” Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO of GitLab, a well-known remote company, emphasized something similar. “Informal interactions don’t happen organically. With ‘coffee chats’ it’s possible to create watercooler moments.”

Offices will be about collaboration, not productivity

In general, the expectation of most of these leaders is that offices will be re-engineered to be more focused on teams meeting and collaborating.

"The ratio of collaborative and meeting spaces to desks will go up."

For example, Erica Brescia, COO of GitHub, argued that “The office is no longer the center for productivity. Offices are going to be used and structured differently. A place where we can meet together.” Sarah Cannon, Partner, Index Ventures said that “If people go into an office two days a week, they’ll be much more oriented towards stuff that you can’t do remotely. For example, the ratio of collaborative and meeting spaces to desks will go up.”

But is all of this just a tools problem? Do these companies just need to do even more digital transformation than they already have? Probably not. While there was some discussion of immersive spaces, virtual reality tools, and so forth, the consensus is that collaboration and the development of community depends more on deliberate processes and gathering in a physical place at least now and then.

Even David Heinemeier Hansson, CEO and co-founder of Basecamp, another famously remote company, talked about how they take a week out of the schedule twice a year to get everyone together. Chris Ciauri, President EMEA, Google Cloud, said “Initially the things we will prioritize back in the office will be things that require connectedness, collaboration, and brainstorming.”

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

The value of cross-functional and asynchronous work

Hanson also cautions about just trying to recreate the office remotely – instead of taking advantage of the things that remote buys you. For example, he observed that “the office is actually not a great way to talk to someone in another team. Create connections across your company, not just your team.”

Hanson also stressed that “writing is one of your key enablers. It’s not about having all the same meetings at the same time. Could we accomplish some of the same things we do with meetings in a different way? Start with writing as your primary way of organizing.” This is part of a general theme to embrace more asynchronous work.

A decade's worth of trends, compressed?

No one likes to be forced into experimentation. But COVID-19 has mostly accelerated changes that were in motion already for at least a segment of the workforce. As Sarah Cannon put it: “The pandemic has brought the next decade of workplace trends to the present.”

While technology is a great enabler – these levels of remote work would almost surely have been far more challenging even a decade ago – we see, yet again, that culture and process probably matter even more.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Gordon Haff is Technology Evangelist at Red Hat where he works on product strategy, writes about trends and technologies, and is a frequent speaker at customer and industry events on topics including DevOps, IoT, cloud computing, containers, and next-generation application architectures.