April 3, 2020

The past month has seen a leap into remote work that may never be matched for its speed and suddenness. My clients are mostly still working and, in the case of healthcare clients, working harder than ever.  One client is going the furlough route, but they too are in 100% remote mode for the non-furloughed. For those who still have employees coming into an office, they are dealing with all the expected HR issues:  proper social distancing, enhanced office cleaning, how to deal with coughing employees, quarantines after positive diagnosis, etc. In my own case, my positive coronavirus test has meant that all my work for clients is being done remotely.  Fortunately for me, my symptoms were mild and have now passed. The most striking thing for me in this whole dramatic and sudden turn of events is that for employers that are able to do it, Remote Work is the savior.

Among my clients there has been only a very moderate move to Remote Work in recent years.  With one client, we started 2020 with a pilot program that could eventually lead to large numbers of Customer Service reps working remotely within perhaps 1-2 years. We have seen that 1-2 year projection reduced literally to 1-2 weeks.  Fortunately, the pilot program has been of considerable help. Needless to say, companies that are throwing themselves into large scale Remote Work are experiencing a very imperfect reality. Some jobs fairly easily translate into Remote situations, but most operational jobs would normally require some planning, monitoring and evaluation to properly transition to Remote Work.  And even the jobs which translate relatively easily have their own challenges relating to accountability, technology and productivity.

Some companies such as JetBlue have mastered Remote Work on a large scale long ago.  But most employers have not followed suit, have barely tipped a toe in the waters or have just chosen to stick with the predictability of business as usual.  That has all changed now!

For my own clients who have taken the leap, early indications are actually very good. Productivity has been surprisingly consistent and employees are loving the benefits of not having to commute, saving money on gas and food.  In regular Team Zoom meetings, some prefer to keep their cameras off (as they are permitted to) proudly explaining that they “did not dress for work today!”.

One company president made the decisive choice on March 15 to purchase 50 laptops and had them all set up and distributed within 10 days.  Mountains were moved to make this happen, but urgent necessity can yield amazing results. We had actually been discussing in recent months whether a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach, as some companies do for Remote Work, may be the better approach.  But when the crisis struck, it was clear to him what was called for. For this company, it was not even certain that they would transition to large scale remote work. It was only being tested. Now everything has been accelerated by two years and they are already there.  Plenty of rough spots need to be worked through, but there is no going back now. When this Coronavirus crisis is over, there will be no going back to an old normal. There will only be the new normal. The company had been considering renting more space to deal with its growth.  That won’t be needed now.

Recruiting will change as they are able to attract applicants who are drawn to the benefits of not having to commute.  Expected needs to increase entry level compensation rates may become unnecessary. Ideas are already being floated whereby reps can earn a five day remote schedule based on productivity.  Managers are already learning how to manage and communicate in this environment. Employers who embrace this can take some best practices from brave and innovative companies that have been doing it all along, but they’ll also have to find their own way to a large extent as each business has culture and services that can be unique.

For me, there is much that is good about all this Remote Work in this turn of events.  Some employers who are doing it temporarily will surely go back to the “old way” and perhaps with very good reason. For purposes of discussion, let’s say that 20% of all non-manual jobs cannot be done in person; and another 20% can easily and may already be done remotely.  It’s the 60% of non-manual jobs that are in question. There are assumptions that are made about these jobs every day based on how they have always been done. Two major influences affect how these questionable jobs can be viewed: Imagination and Necessity. Imagination has already played its part to a degree and that is why some companies like JetBlue have been able to achieve what they have.  Now Necessity has jumped onto the scene and it is affecting how many, many jobs will be viewed.

The concept of Change Management has been around for some time and there is a whole cottage industry and specialty that is of merit where an organization navigates, effects and optimizes changes which need to be made. Usually, those initiatives start with an idea.  In this case a major remote Work initiative is starting not with an idea, but with Necessity – a crisis. Even then, as Change Management experts know, there can be resistance. But this is big! This isn’t just some change in software or customer service orientation.  This is about where people work – and for the worker it doesn’t get much bigger than that – especially if it means I can work from home or from my vacation place.

In my ministry work I give engaged couples an online questionnaire which, among other things, assesses their preference to embrace change versus wanting stability.  Both have value in a relationship of course. But if resistance to change is too high, I tell them, it could cause frustration at times because some change is inevitable – death, job loss, kids misbehaving, etc. Here with this dramatic change to much more Remote Work, I see one of those inevitable changes.  It’s been coming very slowly, but now all of a sudden it’s here! Resistance is futile! Embrace the benefits!