Managing the culture shift to a more flexible, remote workforce

clock • 5 min read

It has often been claimed that the coronavirus has caused an overnight change in employee behaviour, with words like ‘unprecedented' rapidly becoming clichés.

The reality is that the pandemic has dramatically accelerated some longstanding trends: towards remote and flexible working; mobility; the adoption of cloud-based collaboration platforms; and the use of apps and digital services to replace transactional needs that were once met in person. These trends have been transforming organisations - and markets - since the 1990s.

For managers, one thing is certain: the crisis has further blurred the once-clear distinctions between workplace and home, working hours and downtime, and business and leisure. These changes have happened at a scale and speed that some organisations were more prepared for than others.

Those that were further into their journeys towards the use of cloud platforms, collaboration tools, and mobility were more grounded in the new world, while more traditional, on-premise organisations are likely to have struggled with legacy systems.

Cloud apps have been a major driver in keeping teams connected, enabling work to continue without any fall in output. A Computing survey of 150 IT leaders reveals that, while adoption was rising before the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of IT leaders have accelerated their cloud plans.

However, the scale and speed of the change creates a complex challenge for business and technology leaders - one that is practical/operational, strategic, managerial, and (often overlooked) deeply cultural.

The latter is because it speaks to the identity of organisations, to how employees feel about them, and to how managers see their roles when they can no longer walk the floor or pull their team into the server room for a chat. For any managers who are focused on status and perception, this may be difficult.

For IT leaders, managing remote teams, remote upgrades, and remote employees' kit, behaviour, authentication, and security are major challenges if the supporting infrastructure has to be built on the fly, with the clock ticking.

Factor in the question of the technology perimeter widening to include insecure home wifi networks, and the task facing them is Herculean.

Many will find that old managerial styles, hierarchies, rigid team structures, and clock-watching do not port well into flexible, demand-led workflows.

It needs to be understood that employees are in their own homes - some in spaces that are ill-suited to the needs of their jobs. Others are balancing competing priorities: childcare, privacy, relationships, and their mental and physical health. Managers must respect all of these factors.

Presenteeism and micro-management are not appropriate ways to deal with remote staff during the pandemic; instead, IT leaders should shift to an output-focused model that shows - and builds - trust in their employees.

The alternatives - excessive monitoring, constant targets, and surveillance - not only don't work in this environment, they are tone deaf. Such cultural challenges need to be understood as soon as possible because, as numerous CIO interviews have revealed since early 2020, many changes are likely to be permanent.

Firms as diverse as technology behemoth Google and investment giant Schroders have said that employees need never return to the office. Other enterprises may have much slimmer profit margins from their prestige offices. If those companies can function at a fraction of the cost, then it stands to reason many will let those spaces go.

Computing's survey found that 84 percent of organisations had experienced increased remote working as a result of the pandemic - which is no surprise. However, outside of lockdown (at the time of the survey) more than 40 percent of staff were still working from home in around three-quarters of firms, as were 80 percent of the workforce at a quarter of companies.

Since then, further lockdowns may have persuaded managers of the need for long-term change.

The same principle applies in the public-sector: in a depressed economy, with an uncertain outlook and an urgent need to take out costs, huge civic centres seem outmoded. Many councils interviewed by Computing over the past 12 months have acknowledged this.

The conclusion is inescapable: we are looking at a permanent change in our behaviours, both as employees and consumers. And the cultural impact of this needs to be addressed strategically and operationally, with supporting technology.

For employers who find culture change difficult, Computing research suggests that remote work can benefit staff - and therefore the organisations they work for. Increased flexibility, plus the financial/time savings from not having to commute, often lead to a more motivated and productive workforce. That energy can be used.

But there can be downsides, especially for employees that need the energy of team mates around them. Some people struggle to operate at peak efficiency at home, while distance can be a barrier to the spark of in-office brainstorming. Measures need to be put in place to retain that dynamism.

In every case, it is important to provide employees with better forms of intra-office communication than email: apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams can go some way towards this, while collaborating in Github and other cloud services can replicate the feel of solving problems together.

IT teams need to collaborate effectively to serve the business, and the importance of the cloud cannot be overstated in this. One of the biggest advantages for IT teams is that cloud apps can be managed from anywhere, and there has been a massive switch away from on-premise and hybrid systems as a result, found Computing.

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