Coronavirus Remote Workforce: 5 Challenges for the Modern Workforce

Is your company ready to respond in a mature and appropriate way to the Coronavirus, while still delivering a similar level of productivity, company culture, and customer engagement? The stock market is saying “no”, most companies aren’t. In fact, the expectation is that trillions of dollars will leave the economy as a result of this emergency. But for some, this just extends the way they are already doing business, because they’ve been doing it all along. A colleague of mine turned to me and said, “I think we forget how many companies aren’t setup to work anywhere like we are… and I don’t mean just work anywhere, I mean REALLY work anywhere”… and I think he’s right. The idea of distributed working for many companies stands to seriously reduce the company’s effectiveness because of the loose collection of tools and capabilities they’ve rolled out to their company workforce. The challenge, or the opportunity, is to use the Coronavirus event as a catalyst to modernize the work environment in order to maximize every employee. This is necessary not just because of the current situation, but because of every future situation and because it has become the new expectation of the modern worker. Your company needs to be prepared to support the digital workplace, able to engage employees regardless of location, and to provide an environment where they thrive, not just exist.

A couple things about the expectation of the modern worker, both for the current situation, as well as the modernization of the workplace in general:

  • I’m productive wherever I am
  • Teamwork is critical in-person or remote
  • Desire to be present for family and relationships
  • Increasing trend of part-time employees and contractors
  • Responsibility to mitigate compromise of critical data

In these expectations you can see both the desire for relationship and the expectation to work anywhere, at any time. These expectations both support a workforce during normal circumstances, as well as what is necessary during an event such as our current health crisis. So, how are those expectations accomplished in modern work?


Expectation 1: I’m productive wherever I am

The first expectations is perhaps the most difficult, which is creating an environment where an employee can be productive wherever they are. In this case, I believe we need to start with the personas of each employee type and understand what is necessary for them to not only do their job, but do it well and provide an excellent environment for them to work in. Many of the end user computing and application environments I have seen are just barely productive on a good day and certainly struggle in remote scenarios. The challenge for a modern business is to make productivity available in any location and scenario. Modern technologies are built to do just that… to enable an employee to engage in their job function seemlessly, rather than jumping through hoops. For instance, take the contrast between a legacy desktop environment and a modern desktop environment. The former struggles to function in an external environment and constantly runs into performance problems because it was built for technology of 20 years ago. The latter is built for a mobile-first world and assumes a different distributed model on deployment, management, and usability. If you haven’t looked into the change in the modern desktop model, this is a good time to start, both from productivity and security standpoints.

Expectation 2: Teamwork is critical in-person and remote

The second expectation builds on the first… if I can be productive in my individual activities (something often stated as a benefit of remote work), how can we enable the same benefits to teamwork? How can a remote worker have the same capabilities of a local worker? I believe this assumption is not just about edge cases, but about providing an inclusive workplace based on different working habits or scenarios. Being able to truly participate in a team, vs. just be that remote guy. This is as much about organizational culture as it is about technology. For instance, it’s one thing to deploy Microsoft Teams to an organization, it’s a second to actually adopt it, leverage it for true teamwork, and turn on capabilities like video conferencing instead of just voice. There is a significant difference in the relationship building and teamwork that occurs over video and shared workspaces vs. that of a legacy SharePoint doc library and conference calls. Teamwork is about leveraging technologies like Teams to drive real relationships with each other, whether physically present or not. Understand that real relationships can be not only possible, but thrive through remote work, if the investment is made in both the collaborative technology, as well as the organizational change necessary to change the culture. If your business believes that to get anything done you need to be in a certain physical location, now is the time to change the perspective.

Expectation 3: Desire to be present for family and relationships

The third expectation is the desire to be present for family and relationships. A significant shift has occurred in the level of acceptableness of remote work as a norm for employees. This shift occurred as a reaction to the burned out team members from many international businesses, where constant travel was the norm. Employees expect to be able to have a flexible work life, where they can be present for their families and still be effective at their job. This is much more possible with a set of capable collaboration technologies that don’t hinder the professional life of an individual, but instead accelerate it. Take Microsoft Teams for example, which has a very feature rich mobile experience, where an individual is very productive even from a mobile device, but also can pair that with a full desktop experience. Your technology ecosystem must allow for the employees to have an excellent productivity lifestyle that includes access to their family.

Expectation 4: Trend toward part-time employees and workers

The fourth expectation speaks to the mega-trend toward part-time employees. The modern worker is often less interested in full time employment and more likely to be interested in providing services based on capability-based execution. The modern working environment needs to support the needs of the common part time employee, the rapid provisioning and de-provisioning, and ability to delineate access based on discrete cloud applications.

Expectations 5: Mitigate compromise of critical data

A concern surrounding remote work which has typically hurt the end user experience is the desire to mitigate the compromise of critical data. This concern has caused us to implement some mistaken directions that have caused extra hurdles that haven’t always paid off. The expectation is that since remote work will become a normal way of doing business, it must be secure. The strategy needs to take into account the responsibility of caring for the secure data environment for a customer.


So, what are the best changes I’m seeing companies make to address the challenges posed by the new way of work? How are they improving the way they structure their end user computing and collaboration to make life better and more effective for their employees, regardless of their location?

Change 1: Unifying the Collaboration Experience

Are you loosely coupling collaboration technologies or are you bringing together the relationship between content, chat, video, and apps? This isn’t about just replacing a chat tool, or rolling out Office 365. It’s about adopting the technologies related to each other and driving beneficial direction and changing the work habits through those technologies. In this case I’ve seen the stark contrast in productivity between organisations which have adopted the Google/Zoom/Slack/Phone System/etc. set and a unified Microsoft experience and its stark. Just sit down between the two platforms and it’s an obvious difference and it increases sharply over time because you see the relationships between tooling and capabilities. In conjunction with this technology, a business should look to:

  • Highly encourage video, starting with leadership
  • Drive collaboration within a Teams experience (not email)
  • Leverage co-editing and mark-up
  • Mobility on the same playing field
  • Structure teams around purpose, not org
  • Scope meetings to 45 or 25 minutes, not 30, or an hour
  • Capture notes from meetings in persistent chat or OneNote
  • Leverage collaborative tooling that encourages engagement
  • Engage employees through Teams content vs. email
  • Drive real relationships through groups of interest

For example, our Concurrency executive meetings leverage a Team which includes our shared Monthly Business Review agendas for operations and strategic, a Planner site for our strategic initiatives, a OneNote for taking notes, a Power BI scorecard, and a punch-out to other apps. To collaborate within our group we have only to go to one place, with one set of tools:

Here is our Executive Team Plan, within the same Teams interface that we all collaborate on, across three regions:

Change 2: Digital Notetaking, with Creative Flair

Learn to use the pen on your laptop for digital note-taking or expression during presentations. Seriously… it will change your life and engage those around you. Even more, learn to do co-creation using digital whiteboard type technologies in OneNote, Teams, and Surface Devices. A major gap between in-person and remote can be the engagement level. The “let’s get in a room and whiteboard” needs to be approximated in a digital world. Learning to leverage creative technologies and your pen enables this.

Here is an example of a slide with mark-up, done during presentation mode where we’re co-creating and bringing attention to certain content.

The next example might be true OneNote digital note taking or creative work, such as the image below:

Or something a bit more simple, like this, talking about market disruption and what we’re doing about it:

Change 3: End User Computing as a Commodity

The transformation of the workforce also requires the transformation of the the end user computing environment into a commodity, one which is easy and secure. We just did a write-up on the key security changes, which you should check out here 10 Changes Every CIO Should Implement. How easily can a new employee or contractor pick up a device and start working in your environment? Is it as easy as connecting a new cell phone, or does it require a complicated imaging and deployment process with a mis-matched set of tools, long boot-up time, and challenging configuration? To understand the continuum between legacy and modern, check this:

Change 4: Leverage Workplace Intelligence to Change Habits

Are your employees effectively using their time in the office or out of the office? How do you know? If you know, how do you zero in on areas where you can drive greater effectiveness? We know that we can leverage data in our businesses to drive outcomes, but have we ever applied it to our employee workplace? This is where technologies like workplace analytics come in and can provide the ability to change the way we organize ourselves. A few examples of changes companies discover based on this data:

  • Wasting time in meaningless meetings
  • Ineffective collaboration
  • Too much time spent multi-tasking
  • Recurring meetings required because initial meeting ineffective
  • Meetings too long for purpose (could be 45 minutes vs. 1 hour)
  • Focus time not allotted to get work done
  • Sending emails at the right time

So, how do we know this? Because we can gather data from our employee work, de-identify it so it is not able to be traced to one person, the leverage it by role to understand effectiveness. A few examples are:

In this we see a breakdown of 1-1 meetings vs. all meetings, understanding who is completing 1-1s and who is not:

Here we see the cost of the low quality, recurring meetings in our corporate calendar and one of the true impacts of ineffectiveness:

We know that collaboration and connections is a judge of effectiveness from numerous studies… who is effective at building connections, in this case external ones:

This also includes driving personal understanding of work habits and driving these into tool tips and analytics that allow an employee to better understand themselves. Here’s a look at my collaboration data:

Here is a shot of my focus time, with clearly a need to get more of it.

Even enabling me to auto-book focus time to be available vs. not available:

Change 5: Driving Creativity of Process Optimization

I’ve been around to experience many process optimization projects fail, mostly because the approach was to attack it from a top down perspective. The history of low-code / no-code has been wrought with large tooling purchases which ultimately didn’t pay off. The reason they didn’t pay off is because the initiative’s success was built on a project, not on driving creativity and engagement at the lowest levels of the business. In the last two years we’ve seen a dramatic rise in RPA technologies, but the most successful has been the organic movement of Power Apps and Power Platform. Check out the #LessCodeMorePower movement. The reason is because it has the right mix of creativity and control, which allows the employee to achieve their outcome while being paired with governable services like Common Data Model and Power Automate, where we can understand and protect at a corporate level.

The RPA efforts will succeed where you drive effective business engagement, most likely through a direct organic model supported by a center of excellence. The goal is to drive the business to use technology as a verb, rather than a noun. It is an asset for the business to responsibly achieve its goals in partnership with best practices and standards, but not hampered by them.

We’ve also seen RPA and commodity RPA as a starting point for AI based projects directly within the business. The identification of a ROI tied to a tangible business outcome and the focus to achieve it.

Look at the move to the cloud and the catalyst of the health crisis not as an opportunity to just work on a business continuity plan, but instead as an opportunity to move the user state to a seamless environment that is more secure and easier to work in.

Nathan Lasnoski

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