The novel coronavirus pandemic has sent employees home en masse, moving work from the office to whatever makeshift setup operates as a desk.
For some that's a formal command center, complete with a closed office door and dual monitors. For others, that's a stack of books on the kitchen counter to recreate a standing desk.
Meetings previously conducted in conference rooms now take place over video. Office chatter is enabled through collaboration apps or at the digital water cooler.
It requires a quick shift in processes to get employees to rethink operations. Companies may purchase a tool, but if only 3% of the workforce uses it, "it's not in use yet," Geremy Reiner, practice principal architect at digital tech consultancy SPR, told CIO Dive. "It's the chicken and the egg metaphor too" — to have a good communication tool, you have to have good communication processes.
Since the outbreak began, Slack and Microsoft Teams have reported large gains in their daily active user bases. Video conferencing vendors are offering free premium services to help companies bridge the communication gap.
In the past weeks, what's ensued is a lift and shift of work: Companies have taken routine operations and moved them online. Organizations have changed where they work, but not how they work.
What's missing is rethinking and optimizing the daily workflow for the new reality. Some companies will have taken a tool and dropped it in to bridge immediate communication gaps.
But in three months, there's going to be an effort to make the new tools more efficient and not so costly, said Reiner.
The workflow conundrum
While much of life is disrupted and a recession takes hold, company leaders try to maintain normalcy. They want to create a similar work experience for remote employees.
Effective operations require thinking through the design features of teams, according to Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University.
The people and their skills and characteristics.
Nature of the goals set.
How teams are set up to collaborate, including the technology and routines that support collaboration.
In an environment where a large portion of the workforce is remote, goals are the most relevant, Woolley told CIO Dive. Ensuring people are getting work done is toughest for organizations that don't have clear objectives or are very process-focused.
The more progressive workplaces are more outcome-focused, Woolley said. Companies don't need to be "big brother" if they have clear objectives and goals, whether an employee is in their slippers or children are running around in the background.
Organizations have to trust work will continue and management can step in to set clear expectations and boundaries.
Because a boss can no longer tap an employee on the shoulder, they have to create a new work cadence, said Reiner. Company leadership can set expectations for teams on what's going to be communicated over email, via chat or through meetings.
Lines of business can take a cue from the technology workforce, which is well-adjusted to collaborating in digital environments.
Departments can lean on asynchronous methods of communications, such as Google Docs or in GitHub pull requests, where people can ask questions and provide documentation, said Isaac Wong, VP of engineering at Cockroach Labs, in an interview with CIO Dive.
The comment and response process may take some getting used to, and it doesn't work with everyone's schedule, said Wong. But he is a big proponent of writing down ideas or designs before coming together to form a consensus.
Inspired by Amazon, Cockroach Labs holds silent meetings where the first half hour is dedicated to reading written documentation and writing comments. The second half of a meeting works to resolve those.
Change is coming
Once the semblance of normalcy returns, the status quo can shift. In the coming weeks, the workforce may prove day-to-day operation can continue, regardless of where the employee is. With the freedom of remote work options, employees are likely to ask for the option once again.
It could also reshape how and why companies choose to meet, with the potential to disrupt the flow of people traveling for meetings.
For a long time, sectors have flown people around the world for meetings because of tradition and habit, Woolley said. "I will be thrilled if companies can see how much they can get done without doing that."
Real-time communication is necessary for brainstorming, collaboration and back-and-forth discourse, she said. But there's a lot that can be accomplished through screen sharing or independently adding to the building blocks of a product before coming together.
Cockroach Labs has long had work from home options and employees. It even has "flex Fridays" where people take time to work from home, Wong said. A lot of the focus is on the social aspect of employees and making sure remote workers feel included.
Even as the company works to bring more fully remote people on staff, drawing from a larger talent pool, it still wants to continue to invest in bringing remote people in for face-to-face meetings. While for now some onboarding is conducted online, there are processes Cockroach Labs would prefer to do in person.
Work from home options have been around for years, but getting to the point where employees can operate fully remote has not yet had widespread adoption in the U.S., Reiner said.
The idea that we could get to the point where anyone could work anywhere is ideal, where a heavier weight is put on face-to-face interaction and companies wouldn't require as much office space, according to Reiner. "I don't think it's going to happen personally," but it's the dream.