What the last few months can teach us about work and the people doing it
A quick scan of the headlines these days reveals dozens of stories on how COVID-19 will change business technology. From remote work to robotic automation to shifting eCommerce demographics, there’s no shortage of technology trends to follow. What’s more interesting to us at Citrix though are human beings.
The massive disruption of the pandemic and its associated shutdowns has brought profound changes to the way we think about work. Many of those changes will have lasting consequences that stick with us long after the immediate health crisis has passed.
We’ve been speaking to several of our partners—the people on the front lines helping companies pivot their workforces to a new way of working. Those companies have seen a decade’s worth of workplace changes compressed to a few short months. They’re learning more about their employees and their business, more quickly, than they’ve ever had to before. Here are some of the most important lessons our partners and their customers have gleaned so far.
Since the early days of remote work technology, some employers have felt a tension between giving workers more flexibility and keeping track of what they’re doing. For some companies, remote work wasn’t even an option for that reason. If the boss couldn’t see warm bodies toiling away in the office, it was assumed they were slacking off.
“Some companies have always thought about productivity in terms of being in the office grinding it out,” says Mathew Metelsky, chief executive officer of Third Octet. “First one in, last one to leave, that’s how they measure your contributions to the business. Well, how do you do that when everyone is remote?”
Ultimately, it comes down to trust. Can you count on your people to work productively? To make the best use of their time and meet their deadlines, without someone watching over them? These questions may have been theoretical for some businesses in the past. The pandemic has brought them out of theory and into the real world. When everyone is working at home, you must trust your employees. You no longer have a choice.
“We’ve been having a lot of discussions with leaders trying to manage the crisis, and it’s interesting to see the different perspectives and approaches to remote work,” says Nancy Pautsch, chief evangelist of stakeholder value (president) of Envision IT. “Some think, ‘Oh, we have to find a way to clamp down and take control,’ while others intrinsically trust their employees and focus on supporting them. I can tell you, the companies taking the latter approach are doing much better.”
Employees are not robots. Ironically, it can be harder to remember this when everyone is working in the same office. Sometimes, it takes a global crisis to remind us that every one of the people we work with is a real person, dealing with real fears and challenges and struggles.
Envision IT has been participating in leadership roundtables with executives from a wide range of companies, and they’ve heard the same messages over and over again. When your team is working from home—especially in the midst of a crisis—it’s critical to be clear, compassionate and authentic.
“We have to be even more mindful,” says Pautsch. “It’s difficult to be clever or sarcastic over email and video calls, you have to be intentional and clear. And with that, be sensitive to language. If you refer to ‘essential employees’ for example, what does that say to people who don’t fit into that category? Empathy with people and their circumstances is important too because this crisis is affecting everyone differently. And through it all leaders need to be authentic. We’re all human and we need to show-up that way. Authenticity engenders trust and confidence in what you say and do.”
It’s no shocker that companies that previously invested in remote work have had an easier time responding to the pandemic. What may be surprising though is that it’s not just the technology that gave them a head start. As our partners have seen, it is entirely possible to build out an infrastructure to shift to a 100-percent remote workforce in a matter of weeks—albeit sometimes while working around the clock. What’s really helped some companies is having a culture in place that supports remote work and everything that comes with it.
“Our clients who were already onboard with remote work also tended to be very focused on employee engagement,” says Pautsch. “They saw the benefit of extending more flexibility to their employees, of supporting work/life balance. They invested in that, and now they’re seeing better business results. As they put their business continuity plans into action, their employees were already engaged, already felt trusted and cared for, and they’ve been more resilient than in organizations where that wasn’t the case.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought immense struggles, but some positives have come out of it as well. Among the biggest: a growing recognition of the need to treat employees with empathy, support and trust. That’s the kind of change that’s unlikely to reverse when things return to “normal”—at least not if employees have anything to say about it.
“The workforce is going to demand it,” says Pautsch. “Companies that refuse to trust and engage their people are going to be left in the dust. And that dust is what’s kicked-up as their employees sprint away.”
“In our firm, we've been talking about work-life balance and bettering the world through technology for a long time,” says Metelsky. “Well, now we’re in a position where we all have to make that work. Ultimately, I think this is good for humanity, because we’re forced to think about what’s important in our lives, in our workplace, with our employers and colleagues and families. The people making decisions about business direction are realizing that we have to stop, reset and do things differently.”
We’re not out of the woods with COVID-19 yet, and no one can say what the next 12 months will hold for businesses. But one big lesson already seems clear: companies that allow their employees some autonomy, who nurture, support and empower them, will likely emerge from this pandemic stronger than before.