What We’ve Learned in the Rush to Work From Home and Where We Go From Here

Many of us, including my team at Eclipse, have passed the one month mark of working-from-home [WFH], making it a good time to reflect on the early learnings for enterprises and discuss what might become our new normal. Our communal yet “unprecedented” fatigue from the COVID-19 crisis, stems in large part from both the number of people who suddenly began a new experience working from home and the speed at which the readying of the new WFH environments had to happen. I’ve asked my friend and IT leadership consultant, Jim Cook, to join me for a discussion on what we’ve learned in these first few weeks and how the nature of work will be forever changed by this crisis.

Dave Dyson: Jim, working remotely has been part of the business vernacular for many years. Given that, why were so many companies caught off-guard when the coronavirus forced them to send most or all of their employees home?

Jim Cook: I’ve been talking with people from various companies and found similar experiences.  Many remote work capabilities existed, but most companies were not ready for ‘full remote’. Previously the road warriors of the company were the primary users, while the majority of staff remained in an office setting pre-crisis. Email, phone calls/conferences and in-person meetings were the primary way to conduct business. Some had chat and other collaboration features available, but not many companies had fully embraced the tools as the primary way of communication for the entire workforce.

DD: In my experience, the many IT teams that were not fully cloud-enabled still did great work scrambling to get people home and working safely and productively. Yet, surprise can only be an excuse one time. Every company will now need a plan and infrastructure to support it that lets anyone work from anywhere. From your perspective, what should business leaders be doing right now, in terms of planning and roadmapping, to ensure that their information and systems are accessible from mobile first and WFH environments if or when they become the norm? 

JC: I think ‘scramble’ is a great way of describing the recent moves to a remote-enabled environment.  Because the move  was assembled as a reaction, potential new issues and risks are likely to emerge.  As the workforce is adopting the new tools thrust upon them, many are not just learning the tools but developing new behaviours and communication norms. Without pre-existing standards and policies in place, business and IT leaders need to recognize that there is likely inconsistent and/or improper usage of these newly-acquired tools. The consequence of misuse is that company data and where it resides is spreading, costs are increasing or duplicating, and new security and protection risks exist.

This, of course, doesn’t even consider that  very soon (hopefully) there will be another ‘scramble’ to get the business re-opened in what looks like a potential ‘hybrid’ working environment.  A lot of competing priorities are happening. Planning needs to begin now on immediate and longer-term options.

DD: You bring up two topics near and dear to my heart, user adoption and information security. I will ask about security in a bit, but in terms of adoption and training, given the speed with which we sent everyone home with new tools to make them functional, how do we go back and train everyone on new technology to maximize usage, benefit, and satisfaction?

JC: First, we need to recognize that the focus for the company will be re-starting and basic survival, which will obscure the immediacy of this issue.  Training and maximization needs to move up on the IT priority goals before it becomes too unruly. IT leaders need to get a handle on the new ‘stack’ of tools the business has enabled and how they are being used. This needs to be done with the business, because it is not just the technical tools at play; companies will need to define the remote working standards and policies to build the proper training and management techniques for their cultures. Even some basics like – acceptable availability at home for work, use of personal phones, timely response standards to chat requests, assessment and management of fully virtual team productivity – are all challenges facing business now and likely after re-opening.  I am currently working with a firm that is drafting guidelines that engage human resource and training teams as partners, with the goal of creating  appropriate action plans. As I said earlier, there will definitely be competing priorities and this may put a strain on IT resources.

DD: Moving on from adoption to everyone’s favorite topic, cybersecurity. Most enterprises added new tools and functionalities to send everyone home and did so quickly. The reality of that is we have broadened the surface area for cyber attack and possibly added tools that weren’t fully vetted to meet our security standards. My take is that once everyone is up and working the next and most important thing that needs to be done is a security assessment of the new environment and all of its endpoints. How should business leaders be going about ensuring everything they just did in response to this crisis is not exposing them to unnecessary risk?

JC: As with any technology that was hastily deployed (for good reason in this instance), the reaction potentially opens up new issues and risks.  Across the tools, data and information is currently being spread beyond and within, backup protection is not in place, vendor licenses and access to that data is not understood, and sensitive information (employee and financial) could be shared on unsecure channels – which are just a few of the possibilities.  Also the opening of these new doors to provide remote access to network resources increases the risks of existing systems that were previously sitting comfortably behind defenses.  While companies’ risk identification and mitigation maturity is currently all over the board, it is well known that security is critical. This needs to go hand-in-hand with the acceptance of the new working environment. Risk identification analysis needs to be understood by the business immediately so that they can begin approach for mitigation.  We rushed to a new model, we need to address the risks.

DD: Speaking of new models, it’s my belief that this crisis will prove to be a line of demarcation concerning not only the way we work, but our relationship with work as well. Clearly, more of us will be working from home, at least part of the time, and companies will be thoughtfully deploying cloud technologies like Unified Communications and Contact Center as a Service (UCaaS and CCaaS), Desktop as a Service (DaaS), next-gen networks like SASE and SD-WAN, and just about every other as a service technology you can think of. As we move with deliberation into the new world of work, what do you see as the key short, medium, and long-term trends that IT and business leaders should be thinking about?

JC: First out of the gate is the immediate concern – re-opening the business in a hybrid environment. Heavy remote will continue in what many may have thought was a temporary situation, while companies begin to sort out the effort to start up their supply and services as quickly as possible. Communicating will be extremely important as nimble decision-making and coordination will be necessary for the restart challenges. Physical space will need to be considered – mixed in-office and remote workforce, rooms enabled for video conferences and separation of workspaces (will hoteling make a comeback?).  CIOs will need to identify and address the most important hurdles of information standards by developing basic standards and policies for organization.The takeaway is: Triage the critical. Getting the business operational quickly and effectively is the main theme.

Secondly, business models will be examined to account for the existing impact and new realities of the remote workforce.  New sales channels may need to be created in a highly impacted industry, and to meet the new demands of supply for home services, delivery, and drop ship to reach the customer. This is where business leaders should map where they are and where they need to be.  This process should not just focus on the business model, but the impact on technology as well. Businesses will need to examine cost profiles of the new stack, financial commitment of new work tools and other available enabling technologies (as you mentioned above) to determine the course of action for addressing the fallout of the rush to remote.

And, finally, CIOs need to take a long term approach to develop and put in motion a holistic plan of accessibility of the business for the new future.  The strategy in place at the beginning of 2020 may not be one to move forward.  Information organization, security and business continuity (not just disaster recovery) has an increased critical relevance.  Technology was the enabler to keep the workforce together during this shutdown. Communication tools and increasing accessibility of the business model now makes technology part of the go-forward business value proposition. These are all business issues and leaders need to be able to present technology options that are understandable in business terms.  If IT leaders couldn’t explain their technology strategy previously, they need to now.  This was undoubtedly an unprecedented event and everyone should be ready to respond accordingly.

DD: It’s been awesome to get your perspective, Jim, thanks for sharing. Let’s close on a high note. Tell me one thing you’re optimistic about regarding the future of work on the other side of this. For me, I believe that this crisis brought into focus how inefficiently we had been working prior to this crisis. I think that we will exit the era of email clutter in favor of collaboration platforms, video meetings, and yes, even good old-fashioned phone calls. No one is going to miss the 50 person, four year long “reply all’ email threads that have crept into all of our lives.

JC: Interesting you chose the term ‘The Future of Work’ which is the title of a 2004 publication written by Thomas W. Malone.  In it he cites how the changing methods and cost of communication affected the transformation of the business organization. The ‘future of work’ he predicted was a revolution toward decentralization of organizational decision-making. While there were companies that may have adopted some of the characteristics, I would argue there was not much of a revolution (other than pure internet businesses).  Almost 20 years ago, the new communication technologies referenced were email, chat and the internet. Over the time since, we have seen the evolution of incredible virtual communication technologies with smartphones, widespread connectivity, personal video capabilities, VoIP flexibility, collaboration platforms, data analytics and cloud access to business systems.  These are mature technologies that exist today.  And up till this time we are in now, these may have been only  partially deployed. I still had leaders questioning the value such technology could bring to conducting business – sometimes a tough business case to make without a vision for the future.  Now that has changed.  Businesses front office and back office are all now remote workers forced to embrace these alternate communication technologies (and hopefully finding a way to reduce reply-all email threads:).  Remote work will occur at a much higher rate moving forward. Leaders will hopefully now see the value across the enterprise workforce and take the next step.  Maybe Mr. Malone’s revolution was just a bit delayed.