Presented by Realm Digital

The future of the workforce – Remote working

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced our country to address huge uncertainties: Who will contract the virus? Will our healthcare system hold up? What will be the impact on the economy, both short and long term?

If you are in the fortunate position to be able to carry on with a workforce working remotely, you are most likely concerned about the potentially adverse impacts to productivity.

Perhaps you are concerned that critical issues won’t surface to you quickly enough? How will you cope with the necessary alignment around managing risks and dependencies, in addition to getting work done on time?v

With working from home likely to be the status quo for a significant number of administration teams, IT departments and project teams, it represents a massive challenge for us – but also an opportunity as we ready ourselves for the 4th industrial revolution.

With increased automation on our systems and processes, and fewer dependencies on being in the office, we expect large segments of the future workforce to spend significant time working remotely.

It would be a mistake to take our office-based methods of yesterday, and simply replicate them in the virtual world of today. That world has changed. Instead, teams must determine their outcomes, re-frame the issues around reaching these outcomes, and implement tailor-made systems and processes specifically addressing the new dynamic.

Consider the move from the 1st industrial revolution to the 2nd. It may surprise you to learn that the move was not seamless – most factories simply went from utilising a steam engine to a more efficient electric power model.

In what is known as the “productivity paradox”, we see technologies becoming available, but without real thinking around how to harness their full potential, the expected immediate uplift in productivity fails to materialise. In actual fact, many factories who didn’t harness the new technology of electricity appropriately, lost out competitively to those who did, and some even closed.

In the 1st industrial revolution, power was delivered from a central steam engine and drive shaft, typically in the heart of the factory, delivering power to multiple floors and machines via belts, gears and chains.

Simply replacing this shaft with a new electric one could not magically achieve a paradigm shift and mass productivity – yet this is the means by which many factories handled the initial change: replicating what they did yesterday, but simply through a different medium.

It took time for industrialists to realise how the medium of electricity could be truly realised. Eventually, electricity was delivered directly to different workstations. It was turned off and on per machine as work demanded, rather than running on full power for just one machine.

The factory setup was no longer defined by the central steam engine, and instead was now designed around the production line. And with these changes, massive productivity improvements were delivered.

In living memory, we have all seen similar issues with the growth of computing and the internet. Ten years ago, an ‘old’ internet request for a taxi would not have been more effective than picking up the phone to request a taxi – it simply served as a one-way communication request.

The innovation of the internet and computing did little on its own. Today we have all seen the advent of e-hailing services – we request via GPS, the nearest taxi comes and picks us up, and knows exactly where to drop us, and how much to deduct from our credit card.

The innovation of the internet and computing did little on its own: it has required original and responsive thinking to set up frameworks within which to function in order to provide optimal results.

Just as the two problems articulated above required a re-framing of the issue, so too does our current predicament of working remotely. Office-based work grew during the first half of the 20th century to become the accepted and widespread means of white-collar working in the developed world and beyond during the second half of the century.

It developed incrementally and organically. However, now in the 21st century, and specifically with the current health crisis, it is no longer appropriate. In the last couple of weeks, we have received multiple communications around ‘degraded services…” and “longer than usual waiting times…” but why?

With rich and mature technologies now available at our fingertips, and with our staff no longer having to commute, and with the same amount of time for work (notwithstanding enforced childcare!) the only explanation for decreased productivity has to be how we engage with each other.

Learning from what has gone before, the response cannot be to simply try to replicate what we did yesterday to today, only remotely. An effective working day cannot simply be transposed from the office to the home – if it could, we would all be doing it by now.

Instead, new approaches need to be applied. Organisations must determine what they need to deliver: a customer order, a client query resolution, a project, understand the current constraints, staff working remotely, and then work to understand how the most effective and efficient results can be delivered utilising the rich tools and technologies we now have at our disposal.

While there is no set formula on how to implement an effective remote working policy, and it will vary from industry to industry, the team at Realm Digital have been contending with this issue well in advance of the pandemic. Here are some of our tips:

  1. Virtual Stand up – The ‘Stand up’ was born out of technology projects and the ‘agile’ methodology, yet the practice is easily applied to other teams. The team should make video call contact once daily (perhaps twice initially to get everyone comfortable), and ask each person 3 simple questions

a. What did you do yesterday?

b. What will you do today?

c. Do you have anything impeding you from completing your tasks?

Performed correctly, this will keep small teams honest (it requires a level of self-discipline to work from home), aligned and on track, and will highlight issues for management to resolve. In today’s environment it is a must-have in order to swiftly identify impediments and productivity issues.

  1. Info boards – This is seen on projects with scrum boards, and workflow dashboards. It measures progress, service levels, and other key metrics, and is ideally used to contextualise the Stand Up, and other meetings. Implemented and maintained well, it serves as Management’s official and real time information, enabling teams to respond quickly to challenges.
  2. Communication – There are a wealth of tools that enable us to work effectively – The use of collaborative tools such as JIRA, Monday, TFS and even Google Suite enables us to handle our Info boards and Stand Ups better. For conference calls, video conferences help us to engage with each other better than on teleconferences. For ad hoc communication, such as team broadcasts, try Slack or MS Teams. WhatsApp can also be put to good use, but be careful to minimise distractions, and not not to over communicate. Not all the methods of yesterday have to be excluded – whilst tools can be effective for one-on-one conversations, a quick telephone call can be just as effective. It’s quite easy to lose the teaming aspect when working from home – some organisations have set up communal virtual lunch vide-conferences to maintain the team dynamic.
  3. Shift-work – You may be feeling that the days are blending into each other at the moment. Today there is no office with set open and closing hours. But you may be faced with other challenges – no childcare or school and bored children. Teams need to define what are the core working hours given the new constraint, and how much they are willing to let people handle work outside of normal working hours. Those with client facing activities may not be able to do so much, but those running projects, writing reports, performing QA and other tasks may see it advantageous to flex.
  4. Mindset – In the office we typically set up a meeting when we need something. Working remotely, the meeting mentality needs to change – if the host sets a clear agenda focussed on outcomes, figures out who they need in the meeting, and estimates the meeting duration correctly, they may determine they don’t need an hour meeting – they may not even need a meeting at all!

Working remotely makes it all too easy to revert to e-mail as the primary communication tool. However, for certain crucial activities, this is ineffective and can lead to delays.

Teams must use solid judgement over the different media to use for communication, and not be afraid to make direct telephonic contact where warranted.

Henry Ford once said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

Effective working from home will not emanate from replicating how we worked in the office – it will come from challenging the way we used to work.

If you are interested in any of the topics addressed in this article and would like to discuss, please contact Realm Digital to set up a virtual meeting.

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The future of the workforce – Remote working