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Remote Working and Distributed Teams: How COVID-19 has Accelerated the Future of Work

QX Limited
QX Limited
13/05/2020
Life at QX , Covid 19
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“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Milton Friedman

With governments around the world implementing strict lockdowns and advising people and businesses to practice social distancing in a bid to flatten the curve of coronavirus (COVID-19) infections, many businesses were forced to scramble and implement remote working. This includes businesses and industries that were previously dismissive of the whole idea of ‘work from home’.

In this scenario, there is no doubt that our work culture is experiencing a seismic shift, with millions of employees and thousands of businesses participating in the great ‘work from home’ experiment for the first time. Undoubtedly, this situation has given rise to a number of challenges – however, it also holds opportunities for large-scale transformation.

Head of Marketing, Vishal Kurani (VK) spoke with QX Group CEO, Frank Robinson (FR) and UK Country Head, Pom Chakravarti (PC) to understand how businesses are responding to the new normal of work-from-home and how this trend will influence working practices in the future.

VK: Frank, how well have businesses responded to the challenge of this situation?

FR: You are aware of how our amazing Business Continuity Planning team worked tirelessly to configure laptops, desktops and phone technology so that we can start to work from home as quickly as possible. QX was also fortunate in the fact that we started our preparations well in advance, which enabled us to implement secure work from home for all our staff in the nick of time.

From what I have seen so far, and based on the conversations I have had with other business leaders, companies that already had some form of remote working arrangement were quick to pivot to a new way of working.

Among businesses that traditionally did not support work from home, many struggled at the outset to implement remote working – especially because it was such a fast-moving situation. With stringent lockdowns in place, quite a few, unfortunately did not succeed in getting their operations up and running for a long time.

Another key element is the type of business; travel, hospitality, cinemas, cruise lines, amusement parks and other such businesses that are require physical presence of customers and face-to-face interactions have had a tough time.

For many of these businesses, remote working is not really an option. Having said that, we are seeing the invention of innovative models to fill some of these gaps – for example, many retailers and restaurant owners are combating the steep decline in footfall by focusing on home deliveries.

PC: I agree with Frank, while some businesses have been able to implement their BCPs in a timely and effective manner, many other businesses have had a tough time, mainly owing to the short timeframes available to them and also due to the dynamic nature of the situation.

Businesses had planned for floods, earthquakes, or social and political upheavals – the obvious solution here was to have multiple office locations from where the work can be done. These plans have limited effectiveness in the face of a global epidemic that has impacted almost all the countries and regions in the world.

“However, most businesses that have employees who work on a desktop or laptop have eventually found ways to implement remote working at least for the most critical of their resources.”

So I would say that the by this point of time, most businesses have, wherever possible, discovered some or other way of functioning remotely.

VK: Do you think that this pandemic will foster new business attitudes and alter how employees and businesses view remote working? Will we witness a greater acceptance and increased demand for remote working going forward?

PC: “Digital workspaces”, “remote working”, “telecommuting” – these buzzwords have been doing the rounds for years. We have also heard a lot about digital transformation and automation, and how these will transform every aspect of our life. Pundits have talked a lot about how the advances in technology will revolutionize our economy and our society.

While we have seen a huge rise in the gig economy and the number of people working digitally has increased over the years, the impact on how traditional businesses function has been low. More businesses allow their employees to work from home in case of an emergency, but the expectation is that people will come to the office and teams will sit together on the same floor.

With the Coronavirus epidemic forcing all businesses to allow their employees to work remotely, businesses have been forced to invest in processes and platforms to facilitate work from home. Companies are training their people to work effectively and efficiently from home. Managers and executives are finding ways to achieve pre-lockdown levels of productivity and outcomes in a remote working scenario.

“There is no doubt that we are seeing the future of work unfold rapidly – the changes that would have taken years to materialize are transpiring in a span of months.”

VK: Will remote working and distributed teams become a norm in the near future.

“People who spurned the idea of video calls a few months ago are now supremely comfortable with Skype and Zoom calls. Most managers and employees have figured out how the different tools for online communication and collaboration work – in fact, they use these tools with expertise now.”

PC: It is difficult to make a prediction, but I would hazard a guess that as businesses and employees get more comfortable with this mode of working, we will see more remote working in the post-COVID world. In fact, many large businesses are setting ambitious targets of having a large portion of their workforce operate remotely on a permanent basis after the crisis is over.

FR: Pom raises an interesting point: how this crisis and our response to it will shape our behaviour. There can be no doubt that the business world is experiencing a massive mindset shift.

I recall reading about how a strike on the London Underground tube forced people to experiment with new routes. This study by academics from Oxford and Cambridge universities concluded that 1 in 20 commuters who had to adapt and find another way of reaching their destination stuck with the new route. The study found that the disruption and loss in time caused by the strike was more than compensated by the time saved by the people who discovered and use a new, more efficient route!

With unprecedented lockdowns affecting billions of people across the world, I think we are seeing major transformation in overall work patterns and behavior. Closer to home, I can observe the changes in QX – many of our managers who would have insisted on having in-person team meetings are now conducting meetings online. Do you know what they are saying? They say, well the digital medium is not so bad after all. And the ‘meeting that could have been an email’ is often just an email or text nowadays!

VK: Remote working comes with its own set of challenges – especially for teams and employees with limited to no experience of teleworking.  What can organisations do equip their employees for remote working? How can team leaders inspire employees?

“Remote working is relatively easy for businesses that have traditionally allowed their employees to work from home for a few days a month or a couple of days every week. However, even for such businesses, the complete lack of face-to-face interaction for weeks or months on end will pose significant challenges. For businesses that do not have a history of supporting remote work, the learning curve will be a lot steeper.”

PC: There’s a lot to unpack in that question.Take QX for example. As a business, we have dedicated teams that work on client projects. We have invested heavily in physical infrastructure for security, communication and collaboration. Our contracts with clients do not mention an agreement to work from home. To shift from this office-based working environment to having over 1,300 employees working from home, we had to get a lot of things right, and fast.

Within a day, we deployed our BCP team and made plans for implementing Work from Home (WFH) – the only possible alternative in the face of a countrywide lockdown. We identified and procured the IT resources needed for each employee to enable remote working, we extended our security protocols to ensure safe work from home, and we signed updated agreements with our employees and clients.

This was a mammoth undertaking and organisations would need to work round the clock to implement remote working at such an accelerated pace.

FR: And that’s just the beginning. The biggest question is how do you support and enable your employees adjust to remote working overnight?

Investing in tools and systems that allow communication and collaboration is just the first step. Businesses must focus on psychologically supporting the teams – providing them with information on how to deal with the outbreak, how to set up a workspace at home, how to maintain a schedule, how to take care of their health, and how to get back into the flow of things.

For example, at QX, we have designated HR staff that employees can speak with, in addition to an independent external partner that run a Wellness Clinic to provide confidential counselling to our employees. We are also conducting anonymous employee surveys to understand the most commons issues our employees are facing. Actions are taken based on the results of these surveys and the leadership team addresses these weekly online town halls.

PC: That’s an important point, Frank, one that many organisations fail to take into consideration. Too often, the managers are frightened by the loss of control they experience in a remote working situation. They want to keep an eye on what’s happening, they fear the dip in productivity, and they worry that the teams will not able to collaborate when everyone’s working from their home. And they forget to focus on the people aspect.

Video calls and conferences can work as well as personal meetings.

Training the senior leaders and managers pays rich dividends in this situation. Well trained managers are able to support their teams psychologically and act as friends that any team member can talk to. The result is happier and well supported teams that are inspired to do their best.

VK: Working remotely can definitely be tough. Frank and Pom, you’ve worked remotely for years. What’s your advice to managers and executives conducting extensive meetings online for the first time?

FR: We both live and work in the UK where our clients are based, while our fantastic team is located in India. Thanks to our IT team and the communication platforms at our disposal, this has never posed a problem. However, I wouldn’t deny the fact that it is a lot easier to connect with individuals or teams when you are sitting in the same room.

In my opinion, it is possible to recreate the same level of connectedness using video conferences – all you need is a reliable platform and good connectivity.

For any remote meeting, I would suggest that you turn on the video and ask the person on the other side to turn it too – this makes both the parties more attentive to the discussion at hand and therefore more invested in the conversation. In addition, for calls that include a number of people, it is often a good idea to encourage engagement by inviting everyone to share their thoughts.

“Also, I am mindful of who is invited to the meeting – no one enjoys spending an hour listening to a discussion about something that doesn’t pertain to them. So it is best to consider the subject under discussion, to figure out whose inputs are essential, and invite only those members to the meeting.”

I also find it useful to prepare in advance, especially when I am presenting or conducting a discussion. I expect the same of my team – unless it is a freewheeling brainstorming session, of course. For recurring meetings with lots of action items on the agenda, or when the subject under discussion is complex, it is a good idea to distribute call notes in advance and share MoM at the end of the meeting.

This helps to conduct quick and effective meetings – a worthy achievement when one big compliant of remote workers is the number of long winding meetings they are forced to attend every day!

VK: Could a potential shift to remote working help businesses save on travel expenses and costs associated with working from an office building?

PC: That’s a tough one to answer. I’m sure companies are seeing a huge dip in their travel expenses and most of the offices are unoccupied in India and the UK. Will these necessarily translate in cost savings? Only time can tell.

Some large businesses are refusing to pay their lease rent for the period of lockdown, invoking the ‘Act of God’ cause. How these savings stack up against business losses during this period remains to be seen.

The major shift will be visible in the longer term – we are likely to see conferences and industry events move online. Business trips where a face-to-face interaction is preferable but not essential may get replaced by teleconferencing. The combination of advances in communication technology and the improvement in the ability of individuals to use remote working tech could definitely lead us into a future with a lot less travel and costs related to travel.

Similarly, if some businesses realise that they can adopt full-time remote working for all or some of their employees, they can save some serious amount of money on office rents. So yes, there is a potential for cost savings in the long term – but it is too early to tell.

“UK companies spent somewhere between £150-1500 per employee in office rent, every month.  Imagine if a company is able to move half their workforce home – it would save them a significant amount of money in the long run.”

Remote working can help businesses avoid costly rent/lease arrangements.

VK: What steps must businesses take to survive this crisis and to thrive in post-COVID world?

FR: Businesses have a duty to their employees and clients. The key focus should be on providing their employees with the support they require to work efficiently from the safety of their homes. At the same time, wherever possible, the businesses should strive to deliver the same quality of services/products to their clients and customers.

The key objective should be on conducting business in a way that supports social distancing and isolation measures of the local governments. Safety comes first and we all need to come together to help the fight against coronavirus.

“However, I am reminded of the words, “Never waste a crisis.” Wars and epidemics are periods of great pain and sadness but they also act as fertile breeding grounds for innovation.”

The SARS epidemic in 2003 helped the Chinese e-commerce sector to grow rapidly. The world wars, with all their deaths and pain, were period of great scientific innovation. We are now in a period when scientists, institutions and governments across the world are working together to fight coronavirus.

I think that businesses across the world – especially the ones that had no choice but to implement remote working – could take this as an opportunity to build, test, analyse and sustain work from home practices. And, of course, plan their strategy for the post-COVID world.

Head of Marketing, Vishal Kurani interviewed QX Group CEO, Frank Robinson and UK Country Head, Pom Chakravarti for this article. 

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