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How will remote work get harder or easier if the pandemic lasts for months?

How will remote work get harder or easier if the pandemic lasts for months?

Customizing communication tools, updating infrastructure and security, and fostering serendipitous creativity are some ways Protocol Braintrust members believe companies can avoid making remote work harder over time.

Angela Yochem

EVP and Chief Digital & Technology Officer at Novant Health

Forward-thinking companies will recognize the power in adopting remote work as the norm rather than the exception.

Companies that encourage remote work can cherry-pick differentiating talent from anywhere, and investment can be shifted from facility costs and travel expenses to innovation. Using fluid teams and being nimble were essential capabilities even in the pre-pandemic economy, but are even more so now as our future becomes less predictable.

We've already seen some of the challenges to the long-term adoption of remote work. For example, it is difficult for pacers, white-boarders and kinetic learners to be tethered to the same location in every meeting. Distributed work models are also hard for people who draw energy from the "vibe" of the room, from the closeness and energy of others. And after the 15th back-to-back meeting of the day while sitting in one place, context switching becomes difficult — as does remembering who said what in which context about what topic.

None of these challenges is ultimately prohibitive, and small tweaks have a big impact. Accept that team members may temporarily go off of video to pace around a bit during meetings for a minute or two. Incorporate some casual conversation into meetings where it makes sense. Encourage a practice in which all meetings end 5 minutes prior to the top or bottom of the hour to allow brains and bodies to context switch effectively. More significant investments might be necessary over time, such as incorporating AR/VR into brainstorming and design activities — or deploying unconventional work spaces with advanced sensors and display options for certain types of roles.

What we learn about our cultures, our reliance on past norms and our ability to adapt quickly will be tremendously valuable as we adjust our long-term strategies — and will determine which companies and industries thrive in the new world.

Diane Chaleff

G Suite Lead, Office of the CTO at Google Cloud

As we settle into the routine of everyone working from home, companies shouldn't settle for tools that just "get the (remote) job done." While at first there may have been a rush just to get something up and running for business continuity, now we must focus on improving these initial tools and processes. Ambitious companies should set a challenge for themselves: Make working from home more productive than their previous office setup.

For example, since video is currently the primary way to meet for many businesses, make it a best practice to record meetings so anyone who missed it can watch. Or, even better, use tools that inspire collaboration beyond meetings so you can reduce the number of meetings entirely. These can include opting to collaborate within a real-time editing document, or implementing team-based real-time chat to move work forward. These thoughtful changes to core processes can have outsized impact on how we collaborate remotely.

That being said, no matter what tools we use, the distance we feel from our teammates will continue to be a challenge. As we take the initiative to stay connected to our friends and family, we should do the same with our co-workers. My team has an always-on Google Meet nicknamed "watercooler," purely for impromptu banter. We sometimes pop in to catch up just for 2 minutes or use it for a longer break. We also take the first few minutes of team calls for a quick check-in or schedule a virtual coffee to replicate the spontaneous conversations that happen in the office.

Matt Murphy

Partner at Menlo Ventures

Remote work won't be one size fits all. For some companies and individuals it will work well, and for others it will be a struggle.

Generally, over time, it will get easier to work remotely as people embrace and learn new behaviors. Even routines like taking a walk and better home offices setups (better monitor/Wi-Fi/chair) will make it easier. But the biggest change many are waiting to see is what new tools — and startups — emerge to help make WFH more productive. Some areas to be particularly enthusiastic about are automation, digitization of workflows/processes, as well as collaboration tools. But companies that are successfully operating remotely often built their culture that way, so to suddenly shift is difficult. Understanding and adopting best practices (such as small group face-to-face meetings several times a year) from other successful companies that embrace a remote workforce, will be key.

On the flip side, many companies will struggle with the adjustment. Remote work may be better for execution vs. planning, so they may thrive at the individual level of productivity, but miss the connective tissue that constantly coordinates them to make them better, and even allow for real-time decisions to modify or optimize a course. Creativity also has the potential to suffer for many companies due to the lack of serendipitously or even more formally sharing ideas and helping each other face to face on a daily basis. Finally and potentially most troubling would be those companies that don't figure out a way to maintain their culture norms that bonded them in the first place. Being surrounded by people who one can both gain energy from and give energy, too, is the lifeblood of many companies and not easily replaced Zoom happy hours, virtual white boards, et al.

The key is to understand how your organization's tools, processes and culture should be proactively adapted to the current environment. Assume it will take longer than you think, so you fully embrace changes vs. building short-term Band-Aids. This will fortify the company during the transition, and they'll be better prepared to adapt back to the new normal however they define it.

Dave Wright

Chief Innovation Officer at ServiceNow

The biggest challenge with remote work appears to be the inability to control environmental and technical elements. Not everyone has the physical space or setup to allow them to work remotely, and the combination of home, work and potentially school life colliding in one space can be chaotic. Everyone assumed you would be able to control the technology elements — IT equipment, peripherals and software — but the one thing that cannot be controlled is people's home network connectivity. This can be dictated by infrastructure and/or geography, resulting in difficult performance, especially in video technology. The lack of video capability can lead to a lack of a feeling of inclusion. Networks are also stressed with multiple families using streaming education and on-demand entertainment, and without the technical knowhow to be able to throttle access, this can cause bottlenecks for remote users.

However, it's not all negative. The work will become easier as people fall into a more regular cadence. Currently people are still in shock, and ironically, work-life balance can be degraded as we over commit to meetings. As everyone starts to get used to the new normal, work will stabilize and companies will look for ways of streamlining workflows to be able to help people to help themselves.

Jared Spataro

Corporate Vice President, Microsoft 365 at Microsoft

As millions of people continue to work remotely, it will get harder for many because most homes aren't set up to be workplaces. Suboptimal workspaces, and the disruption to routines that comes with merging home, family and work in one location, are wearing on many people.

Parents, in particular, are challenged to balance work with caring for and homeschooling children. As school lets out for summer, working parents — myself included — will have to find a new routine that works for their family, which could be more difficult. For many others, in-person interaction brings them energy and sparks creativity, making a prolonged period away from the office more trying.

Yet technology has helped us weather this challenging time and connect with one another in ways that would not have been possible had this occurred a decade ago. Millions of people have discovered new tools for working together while physically apart. During the pandemic, we have seen unprecedented growth in usage of Microsoft Teams, which we expect will be sustained even after people return to the office. That's because new habits and work styles have emerged, and people are discovering a more fluid and connected way of working that is durable and will persist well beyond the present moment.

Learn more here.

Christina Janzer

Senior Director, Research & Analytics at Slack

One important distinction to make is that we're not just working from home, we're at home working during a crisis. I believe the things people have implemented since the start of this crisis to facilitate remote working have the potential to turn into long-term changes. Some of the challenges we're experiencing now are not 100% new, but they feel much more amplified.

I think it's important that companies take the time to revisit the way they work. I believe if teams and companies continue working as they were before, only making minor adjustments (e.g. having the same meetings as before, but now over video), remote work will only get harder and more draining as time goes on. Now is the time to revisit the fundamentals of how work happens and to make drastic changes when necessary. One thing we've done is audited the meetings we were having and made some hard decisions about which ones were absolutely necessary and which ones might be better-suited by other solutions. This overall reduction in meetings has been very positive and something we expect to maintain.

We've also heard from customers about how challenging it can be to stay connected to their colleagues on a personal level while not being physically around each other. These are real concerns that can be solved by changing our patterns as employees and leaders. My team, for instance, started focusing more on our cohesion as a unit before COVID-19, and that work has set us up to emerge from this crisis — whenever that may be — as a better and stronger team overall.

Sanjay Poonen

COO at VMware

While the timeline for when people will return to the office is unclear, many agree that this experience has forever changed the way employees and companies view remote work. I believe very strongly that work is what you do, not where you do it.

Prior to the pandemic, digital transformations were failing by some measures north of 70%, but now more than ever transformation initiatives must be embraced. The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a premium on business agility, which in turn has led to a faster acceleration of the transition to the cloud as businesses scramble to adapt to the sudden pivot to remote work.

While most businesses have been focused on keeping the proverbial lights on, there is still a broader challenge on the horizon. Communication and commerce will not be digital-only forever, but this experience has already reshaped consumer expectations and economic realities. This means businesses that once treated digital experiences as secondary now must prioritize them as essential.

Digital solutions will continue to maximize and unlock access to the corporate benefits that remote work offers, including efficiency, productivity, profitability, engagement and retention. The solutions will need to encompass modern communication tools, and also a modern digital workplace, endpoint security and network acceleration. The good news is that these investments will continue paying off long after this business disruption fades with company sustainability and economic resiliency steadily strengthening.

The next era of transformation will be defined not only by digital capabilities but by a flexible, digital-first culture that enables businesses to adapt to evolving human needs. In this "new normal," businesses need to do more than transform. We must reform our mindset to ensure that the role of digital is not just to enable business to continue — but to thrive.

Emmanuel Schalit

Co-Founder and CEO at Dashlane

If quarantine conditions extend for months, employees will continue to get more accustomed and comfortable working remotely. Remote workers will adapt. Teams will figure out new ways to collaborate. Tools will improve. WFH used to be aspirational — even exciting — to some employees in that they didn't need to commute or even wear pants to do their jobs. But the pandemic made that dream collide with reality. The stress on employees, businesses, and the world at large have somewhat counterbalanced the traditional benefits of remote working. Still, employees will continue to adapt and improve. This will get easier.

Unfortunately, many people and businesses don't realize that this massive WFH situation comes with new and varied security risks. Phishing scams with fake login pages are up. (There's a lot of "free money" in the news — perfect phishing bait.) Employees share passwords, potentially exposing company data when working from a personal device or an unsecured Wi-Fi connection … the list goes on. It's not like the bad actors have gone on vacation; in fact, many are jumping at the opportunity to take advantage of new remote setups. Heightened security measures and training along with good password hygiene remain best practices, working remotely or not.

See who's who in Protocol's Braintrust. (Updated May 6, 2020)

Questions, comments or suggestions? Email braintrust@protocol.com.

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