The Coronavirus pandemic continues to grip the world, and with no vaccine yet available, it's impossible to predict when it might end.
Organisations have responded by enforcing mass remote working. However, this is not without challenges. Staff who were used to working together now have to become far more independent, seeing one another only on video, and even then only if their connections and the software is up to it.
Computing recently held a roundtable with a host of organisations from different industries to find out how they're faring. The session was held under Chatham House rules, so most names cannot be given.
An IT leader in financial services explained that technology came to the fore with the outbreak of COVID-19 at his organisation.
"We got staff working from home very quickly, and told them not even to go to our data centres. We sent equipment to people's homes, including extra screens, because some of the traders are used to working with three or four screens.
"We were also conscious of the fact that people have to manage families too, and some have partners working in the NHS, so that's an additional strain. We ran remote sessions on mental health and yoga, and interspersed that through the working week."
He added that the organisations is now taking some steps to reintroduce staff to the office.
"We have two data centres, and we've gone through the period where staff weren't allowed in at all, so now they're gradually returning, with extensive cleaning and hygiene protocols. We're also returning to the office, we had nine people in today for instance. We also have to re-organise the workstations on the trading floor, to maintain distance. IT staff however can work from home."
He explained that his organisation is using Microsoft Teams for their collaboration needs.
"I wanted to see introduction of Microsoft Teams to remove the stigma of people working remotely. You can put the technology in, but the outcome is that you want people working productively. So we're getting people to work on Teams using VPN, and on other devices like mobiles, and making that productive. We chose Teams because it's very collaborative, you can have several people working on same spreadsheet at once.
"Initially we saw a mad rush to get people working remotely, so people used Zoom, but we settled on Teams because we find it to be more secure," he explained.
A CIO at a manufacturing and engineering firm said that his organisation had decided to discourage the use of video, to help with bandwidth issues.
"We've had lots of people working at out sites as we're in manufacturing, and much of it is considered essential. We've had people working remotely across the globe too, but we've put significant investment in desktops in the office, so introducing technology to people's homes was a challenge.
"Right from the start we asked people not to use video on calls. That's because we saw so many connection issues early on, that was causing way more issues than simply not being able to see one another.
"In IT for instance we restricted ourselves to audio-only and it hasn't harmed our collaboration."
He added that some tasks were initially difficult to manage remotely.
"We were thinking about starting people back to the office but in the US for instance the situation is worsening, so we've had to pull people out again. For IT keeping firewalls working was initially tricky and created some long hours. Lots of people were using laptops from home, so we had high spikes at our firewalls and we had to have people go in to reboot them."
Another IT leader at a payment services company said that his organisation uses video by default.
"We use video across the business. Irrespective of whether it's collaborative, an information cascade or social, it's a good way to keep in touch. Even for our remote cooking club or gardening club, video has been vital. Being able to see people as you're communicating, knowing they're engaged with you has been essential. I understand the point about bandwidth, but we couldn't give up video."
Stephen Green, CTO of NTT pointed to the importance of including family.
"One of the things we broadcast across the organisation is that family is part of the team as well. Sometimes children walk in during a meeting, and that's fine. We encourage staff to share photos of their family as part of their profile background, and not to worry if the kids run in during a meeting. We use it as vehicle to understand people better and what's going on in their lives, and provide services that expand beyond the work day. That's things like fun quizzes as a stress reliever, or beer deliveries to people's homes. It's been a lot of fun," he said.
The CIO of a home furnishings supplier also advocated video.
"Video was poor early on in lockdown but has improved. We've completed a rollout of Office 365 very quickly. The plan was to complete at end of 2021, but now it will complete in August this year. We had lots of problems with Microsoft Teams early on, someone pointed out the best time to use it is afternoon, it was really poor at 10am.
"Video is much better for interaction but if you're used to telephone conferences that's fine. Traditionally we were all office-based so we were used to seeing one another, so video has helped with that. People weren't using telephone conferencing much before."
Colin Machale, sales director at Intel said that he compensates for not being physically present with staff by using the telephone more often.
"Doing ad hoc calls to people to compensate for the lack of water cooler conversations is natural to me, but not necessarily for everyone else. I try to explain to people that I'm not checking up on them, it's just a quick conversation to check in that they're personally okay, it's not about work.
"There's significant fatigue in every organisation with regard to video, you need to be balanced. I'm a huge advocate for it, I've seen people really flourish from the exposure given by video."
He added that Intel has given people extra time for personal development and mental health.
"We've had two learning days and we're holding another one in September. The organisation has said no scheduled meetings on those days. The purpose is to invest in yourself. You might see an area of expertise you want to add, or polish something up. We also took a mental health day to give people another day out to de-pressurise the system."
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