The initial scramble to transition office workers to home-based employees in response to the COVID-19 crisis is behind us. Mirroring a country-wide 72 per cent decline in office-based work, public servants throughout Canada are adapting well to doing their jobs to the best of their abilities while confined to their homes. Initial indicators are positive. Some reports, based on aggregate data, show that Canadians have in fact increased their overall productivity by up to 25 per cent. But as the economy slowly begins to open up, schools, government agencies, and businesses are planning for a staggered return of some workers and a transformed workplace that will be characterized by ongoing change. The emergence of the post-COVID-9 workplace is the beginning of a new normal that will encompass workers across a mix of environments – home-based, mobile, and onsite. The key to making this distributed workforce productive is the ability to easily collaborate among teams, management, and staff. 

Those with the technology, training, and know-how to effectively collaborate remotely are without a doubt best equipped to maintain the positive productivity trend. As noted by Chief Human Resource Officer Nancy Chahwan, while most government employees have the standard equipment needed to rapidly adapt to remote work (i.e., likely a laptop and a smartphone), this will not suffice on an ongoing basis for many. Our workforce needs the tools and training to replicate the communication and collaboration that underly their in-office productivity and efficiency. Now is the time to begin planning and laying a path to long term success. 

For the foreseeable future, the “workplace” will be an entirely different beast. Research suggests that the coronavirus will present in a yet unknown pattern of waves until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed. The general consensus among epidemiologists is a horizon of at least two years. Until we reach that point in time, we can expect the workplace to continue to shift and evolve to support a mix of employees working across home-based, mobile, and onsite locations.  

Based on this assessment, likely workplace scenarios include: 

  • Rotating office (or classroom): A percentage of the workforce/students alternating days in and out of the office
  • Staggered return: A small percentage of employees return in phases over time
  • Permanent distributed teams: A large percentage of the workforce does not return to the office 
  • Hybrid approaches: A mix of in-office, home, and mobile employees

Whichever of these scenarios comes to pass, one constant and fundamental requirement will be the need for efficient collaboration. 

Steps to take now 

Crisis creates change. But will it last? Many predict that the swift switch to remote work will result in a decentralized and a more distributed workforce, which could result in substantial cost savings through increased efficiency, productivity, and employee satisfaction. For this future reality to unfold, strong communications and collaboration tools are critical. The next steps require optimizing virtual capabilities beyond home-based laptops by adding enhanced conferencing and cloud-based collaboration tools. 

1. Move to the cloud. Adopting a cloud-first strategy ensures that critical applications are redundant, resilient, and available everywhere at a relatively low cost. This applies to collaboration systems as well as sensitive cloud computing. In fact, the more key functions you can serve from the cloud, the better, as it ensures anywhere, anytime access. A hybrid workforce approach could be what works best for your team, in which case cloud apps will efficiently bridge the divide between in-office and remote workers. When supporting a fully distributed workforce, cloud-based systems will keep all members of the team connected and collaborating. In any scenario, harboring your apps and information in the cloud reduces costs and provides loss-proof redundancy.

Across North America, for organizations that have already transitioned to support virtual workspaces, we estimate that 70 to 90 per cent of their infrastructure and apps reside in the cloud. However, a surprising number of companies remain far from achieving that level today. 

2. Standardize content sharing and ‘virtual’ conference room technology. By deploying standardized content sharing solutions and interactive display capabilities you will enable a more integrated, virtual collaboration function that closely replicates the in-office experience. Wherever your organization is in the transformation to the cloud, there are simple solutions to bring these benefits to your virtual collaboration strategy. 

In the education sector, cloud-based collaboration apps and software such as ViewSonic myViewBoard enables teachers, students, and parents to share and interact with content in a myriad of ways that can also adapt to any workplace. Currently available during the COVID-19 crisis at no cost to schools, myViewBoard brings people together wherever they are, and from virtually any device, enabling all to interact with the shared onscreen content.

3. Simplify for success. Make it easy for employees to keep in touch and communicate. Take the time to develop and share clear procedures with easy-to-follow process documents. Don’t assume everyone knows what to do with a Zoom link. We all know that in-person meetings can result in lost productivity, as employees trickle in, struggle to find the right cables to connect to the conference room display and slide from topic to topic if there’s no defined agenda. Video collaboration is no different and, as many have learned these past weeks, can open up even more avenues for wasted time if not managed appropriately. In addition to documenting how to connect, providing the right technology tools and participation guidelines can help keep teams aligned and on topic. 

One useful way to simplify is by adopting a software-agnostic digital collaboration system that can intuitively bridge your conference room, home-based and mobile workers. Typically consisting of an interactive conference room display plus cloud-based software, a fully compatible solution lets users choose their preferred conferencing platform, from Zoom and Google Hangouts to Cisco WebEx and Skype, leverage their existing experience and skills for added efficiency.

4. Adjust budgets to the tasks at hand. The new normal is anything but normal. Attempting to move ahead based on previously established budgets won’t enable the flexibility to meet the changes we face today, and those we can expect to happen over the next months. Realigning budgets to reflect a changing digital workplace will enable the necessary resources are in place to support infrastructure expansion, hardware purchases, and training.

5. Take the time to train. Investing in training is an investment in success. A wide range of evidence indicates that efficient training leads to greater employee engagement, retention, and productivity. IT professionals know that end-user training is one of the keys to the successful implementation of any software. Now more than ever, employees need to feel confident about their ability to efficiently use systems and software for reliable connectivity and collaboration. They need to feel supported by their organization and their managers. Now is the time to expand training and support to improve your users’ experience while working towards future stability and sustainability for an expanded remote workforce. 

Assessing user capabilities is a good place to start. When implementing new cloud-based collaboration software, for example, your team will have a range of familiarity and skills with this type of communication. Determine who excels and consider implementing peer-to-peer training, which has been shown to produce outstanding results: boosting trainers’ commitment and accountability while gaining greater acceptance from the trainee. Hands-on training by an outsourced expert may not always be an option. Leveraging tech-savvy staff to train their peers can be particularly powerful when some co-workers may feel isolated and disconnected. To further boost the impact of training, tailor lessons to your team’s use of the application rather than relying on generic examples. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when support ticket requests decrease. 

Laying the Groundwork for Virtual Collaboration

Ensure employees have what they need to succeed now, before beginning long-range planning. Direct managers to:

  • Assess their team’s home workstation needs which employees have/need the necessary hardware, software, and internet access. 
  • Upgrade technology and tools as needed to provide adequate internet or increased internet speed. 
  • Ensure the team has access to necessary files; consider a VPN solution.
  • Update remote work policies as needed. 
  • Ensure the team has all of the necessary productivity tools and apps to allow communication and collaboration with teammates and supervisors, whether they are home, mobile or onsite workers.
  • Support employees with tips on setting up an ergonomic workspace with computer /laptop, keyboard, mouse, chargers, and monitors. 

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Canadians are adapting well to the challenges of unanticipated remote work. As the new normal continues to emerge, employees will look to managers to provide the productivity tools for continued success across a mix of home-based, mobile, and onsite environments. Collaboration technology will be the key to unlocking this success. Now is the time to begin preparing, by adjusting budgets, moving applications and data to the cloud, and standardizing content sharing and virtual conference room technology with an eye toward providing intuitive solutions, simplified processes, and appropriate training.