The daily routine for millions of people who go to offices, work from their desks and meet in person with colleagues and clients ended almost overnight. With most governments advocating -- even enforcing -- social distancing to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, corporate work now happens at home for the unforeseeable future.
This unprecedented shift of labor placed an incredible strain not only on enterprise IT architectures, internet bandwidth and the accessibility of work applications, but also employee productivity. Even as many companies passed the technology stress test, they still have to inspire employees to focus on work while the disease spreads and the economy halts. Companies also have to accommodate the schedules of employees who are simultaneously balancing childcare. Other than in times of war, business has perhaps never faced a greater challenge.
In the weeks immediately following the global transition to working from home, interviews with more than 60 C-suite executives revealed that while their cloud-supported and VPN-backed technologies have helped provide some normalcy to work, they're hoping their inspirational messages, displays of empathy and attempts to tighten bonds over digital meeting places will keep the fabric of the workplace in place.
"Ultimately, transparency is paramount," said Todd Greene, CEO and founder of the San Francisco-based IaaS company PubNub, which has 120 employees. "The leaders of many countries are in the dark about the actual impacts, timeline and long-term risks that COVID-19 creates. My approach is to share what we know and what we don't know, both about the global situation, as well as specific questions related to the business."
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For Greene and other C-suite executives, keeping customers and clients satisfied remains a priority, but they now intend to give employees greater flexibility to balance the demands of work and home. It's a difficult time, emphasizing the need for close communication and camaraderie.
"You have to be realistic about what's in front of them," Nicole Sahin, CEO and founder of Globalization Partners, a Boston-based employment services company, said of her 207 employees. "You have to be clear-minded and focus on the task at hand. Everybody is really afraid now, and people are looking to each other for kindness and compassion, and that goes a long way."
Companies planning for a new way of work
Work would have undoubtedly come to a grinding stop if not for VPNs and the internet, and from there, cloud-based IT infrastructures and business applications. Yet, the rapid and massive leap to remote work would have been disastrous for companies if they didn't already have familiarity with remote technologies and have necessary procedures in place.
Not one C-suite executive interviewed for this story acknowledged having crippling technology issues as their companies completely moved to remote work. Many cited having robust or at least some semblance of remote work policies, while a few said they had prepared for this day by already being a predominantly virtual workplace.
ADTRAN, a provider of telecom network equipment, had no large-scale issues with cloud configuration and administrator access, according to the company's CTO Ray Harris. "So far, knock on wood, this has been a painless experience. We have had no major issues," he said. With more than 2,000 employees, the Huntsville, Ala., company had its crisis and business continuity (BC) teams start planning for mass telework in late February 2020, as COVID-19 started to capture the world's attention. ADTRAN "assessed VPN capacity, cloud readiness, training for those who usually didn't work remotely and all technical aspects around remote work" prior to many states urging social distancing, he said.
Visier, an HR technology company in Vancouver, also predicted the possibility of a shutdown in Canada as the disease spread, but C-suite executives felt comfortable managing the remote work of its 450 employees. "We did a tabletop exercise to think through everything we could," said Paul Rubenstein, the company's chief people officer. "Our mantra was 'prepare for a month of office closure the same way you would prepare for a day.' We are highly automated for things like passwords, workflow and tons of other apps that help us stay productive. But the real challenge is making sure everyone had their laptops and power bricks with them, so we ran a drill. Our timing was great and it led to a soft close of the office. This gave us a day to deal with any stragglers [who] needed essential equipment from the office while minimizing exposure risk for employees."
Stampli, a California provider of digital accounting services, already had practice when, in 2019, its office in Israel had to immediately transition to a remote environment because the country was under attack by missile strikes, according to company co-founder and CEO Eyal Feldman. For this recent crisis, Stampli's 66 employees in the U.S. and Israel were "equipped with laptops and already [using] all cloud-based applications like G-Suite, Slack and Zoom for interoffice collaboration, Intercom for customer communications, Jira for development collaboration, Stampli and QBO for finance, Qlik for analytics and Hubspot and Gong for sales and marketing," Feldman said.
Some companies, though, had virtually no work-from-home culture prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and had to adjust on the fly. For instance, take the biotech startup Olaris. With the majority of work consisting of hands-on testing in a laboratory, as well as on-site data analysis in offices all at the company's Waltham, Mass., facility, employees hadn't typically brought work home. "We had almost none; it was unchartered territory for us," said Elizabeth O'Day, the CEO and founder of Olaris.
Being a "pretty lean operation" helped Olaris' seven employees migrate their workloads to cloud applications such as Google Drive and Dropbox and chat with one another on Slack, Zoom and WhatsApp. Still, although her team can work on computational and data projects from home, they can't duplicate experiments that are meant only for the laboratory.
Technology engendering close connections
As their workplace technology proves resilient during the pandemic, the C-suite executives interviewed for this story are also mindful of the people behind these BC plans. Faced with great uncertainty about health and personal finances -- not to mention having to juggle the care of children and elderly parents -- employees might be meeting the challenges of this new work environment for now, but their long-term emotional wellbeing can't be overlooked.
Despite the physical separation, the C-suite executives are using digital collaboration tools to break isolation and engender a sense of community. Old rules -- like wearing office attire on videoconference calls -- have been relaxed and in many instances replaced by notions that fun and thoughtfulness matter more in these trying times. With some states under strict lockdowns and the U.S. as a whole observing tight restrictions on work and travel until at least April 30, 2020, caring and compassion in an online workplace are needed more than ever, the executives said.
For example, Propeller, a Portland-based management consulting firm, recognizes that flexibility with scheduling is a must for its 130 employees. "Now that they are home and balancing a number of demands, we've seen many schedule adjustments," said Jeff Foley, the company's COO. "We have some team members who start their days early (and) some who set up an on-off schedule with partners, so each parent has half a day dedicated to work and the other half dedicated to kids." Propeller also created a "buddy" program, pairing employees who have more time to handle work and can pick up the slack of colleagues who have too many parenting and work responsibilities, he said.
Kira Systems, a Toronto tech company that helps businesses uncover relevant information from unstructured contracts and documents, is trying to insert fun into work as much as possible, said CTO and co-founder Alexander Hudek.
"Of course, as the world slows and closes around us, everyone is more on edge and more anxious," Hudek said. "Morale has been mixed for sure. Some people who are used to coming into the office are having a difficult time adjusting to working from home. Meanwhile, our purely remote workers are in some ways more engaged in helping everyone else adjust by sharing tips and rituals that work for them." That support means virtual mixers and coffee chats, the sharing of personal photos and all kinds of hijinks on Zoom have become the new norm for the company's 233 employees.
GitLab, a company that creates an application for DevOps, has more than 1,200 employees in 65 countries and it doesn't have a physical headquarters. Darren Murph, the company's head of remote, said "family and friends are first, work second." A stop-sign symbol on Slack means childcare or a mental health break is in order.
GitLab also holds "juice box chats" over Zoom. Employees' children join in on the fun, talking, playing and bonding over time zones, Murph said. Meanwhile, employees share tips on managing work and childrearing.
Paige Arnof-Fenn, the CEO at Mavens & Moguls, a marketing consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., already misses industry trade shows and in-person meetings with clients. She doesn't have employees but instead works with nearly 50 independent contractors and they're all communicating online; not just about work but also about managing anxiety and raising children during a difficult time.
"Online meetings and webinars are a smart and productive way companies can continue to have conversations that educate and inform, build relationships and move forward during this crisis period," Arnof-Fenn said. "Maybe the silver lining is that this crisis reminded us that technology does not have to be isolating, but it can be used to build real-world communities and relationships, too."