As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep across the world, companies from a swathe of different industries are closing their doors and operating remotely to help reduce the spread of the virus. With concerns about employee health and safety, as well as the wider repercussions for public health, remote work is likely to be the new norm for most industries until such time as the threat of the virus has been minimized. Public Health experts believe that social distancing will reduce the chance of group spread, effectively removing the opportunity for the virus to be contracted during a commute or in co-working spaces.
While many technology companies already offer remote working, for some, remote work is unfamiliar territory that they have had to quickly adapt to in order to make it through this crisis. In a bid to better understand the challenges technology leaders are facing as a direct result of the pandemic, we reached out to 25 IT leaders across various industries – from construction to banking to healthcare – to discuss the effects the pandemic has had on their companies. So, what are some of the key takeaways?
Can technology workers work from home? What about everyone else?
With the exception of essential workers, most people are mandated to work from home as a direct repercussion of the coronavirus outbreak. According to the DHS Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the U.S. government deems the Communications and Information Technology industry as one of the Critical Infrastructure industries. This means people who work in technology – from security personnel, IT managers, software and hardware engineers to database administrators – are considered essential critical infrastructure workers.
We heard a variety of answers when it came to how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their work and how their teams are adjusting. While some companies like Arbor Day Foundation, Tecumseh Poultry Smart Chicken, Nebraska Healthcare Association, and Talent Plus, have all their office staff working remotely or working towards it, other companies such as Midwest Laboratories and Gavilon, have drawn up a routine such that their workers take turns coming in to ensure that their workspace is never crowded and social distancing is maintained. Jim Navin, CIO at Gavilon explains “We have implemented a practice where we have ~ 50% of our staff (usually fewer than this) working in the office on rotating weeks. This allows us to socially distance and have fewer employees physically present in the office, while allowing us to maintain all essential business operations.”
Companies like Runza National, Diversified Financial Services, and NebraskaLink have a small presence in office and Haley Residential and Adams Land and Cattle have about half of their office staff working from home. Haley Residential is planning to maintain 50% unless a stay at home order is mandated and Adams Land and Cattle is considering everyone on a case by case basis.
For companies such as Riekes Equipment Company, they have a requirement for a majority of their staff to be on the premises to support their service operations, however, with their cloud based platforms, their dispatch services can be managed remotely. NGC Group, while their corporate office has about 95% of the staff working from home, the construction sites are being tailored to each state’s recommendations.
For healthcare IT staff, this is a busy time, some working onsite now more than ever. At Beatrice Community Health they are trying to minimize exposure by having the same individuals working onsite to support the healthcare staff while CHI Health IT staff have been onsite assisting with the set-up of a COVID-19 testing site and are ensuring healthcare providers and patients have a seamless experience with the remote technology tools being utilized in the facilities.
Essentially, while some tech roles could continue with working remotely almost indefinitely, others seemingly require an office presence to get their work done. Hence, while it may be a difficult transition for some people, others have had no problem adjusting to this new norm. Trent Heiser, Director of IT at NebraskaLink, says the biggest issue has been getting everyone onto remote access.
“They are used to logging in at the office and they get in immediately. Now they are at home, and the process is different, and not always seamless… We ensure that we each take turns going into the office, so that on any given work day, there are at least 1-2 people going in. That puts everyone at ease knowing we have at least someone back in the office.”
What are the biggest hurdles when making this transition?
For companies that are new to remote working, this sudden transition has posed a challenge, especially when you take into consideration the fact that no one really has any idea how long society is going to need to function in this way. For Sean Smith, IT Director at Riekes Equipment Company, the biggest challenge his company has dealt with is the uncertainty of the market, along with the heavy demands of the technical issues that need to be dealt with. According to Smith, “the IT support needs have increased dramatically.” This held true for many of the companies interviewed.
An IT executive from one of North America’s largest construction and engineering organizations said that “some departments were more prepared than others.” They didn’t anticipate a global pandemic, but knew something was going to force a set of actions. The pandemic has forced them to work in different ways, tackling things that maybe they wouldn’t have had to tackle in 10 years, but now know that businesses are going to come out of this smarter and better because of it.
At NGC Group, David Bonifant, IT Director, says their stressors are a bit different. It’s been maintaining effective communication amongst team members that has been their biggest challenge. From a technology point of view, they have been fortunate, a few years back they transitioned from desktops to laptops and made great improvements to the infrastructure making it feel as though they had been “preparing for this for a few years.”
A lot of companies struggled with technical issues in the initial transition to working remotely. Infrastructure had to be set up to handle the influx in VPN connections, making sure everyone had the correct hardware to run their remote set-up, and simply that everyone had access to the information they needed to do their jobs. While those whose staff were already accustomed to working from home found it a lot easier to transition, missing the face to face interaction they would typically have in an office setting has been one of the biggest transitions.
What tools have improved remote work culture?
Some major challenges of working from home can be the inability to access all of the information you need to do your job and can simply be the lack of experience using some of the new remote tools. So how are IT staff handling this? Are they substituting with new tools or are they making more intensive use of some existing tools?
Some of the most commonly used tools that have helped organizations stay in communication with each other are:
We asked TJ Jones, Director of Technology at Nebraska Healthcare Association, about tools they had discovered, adopted or were now using more frequently and Jones singled out Zoom and Smartsheets. “Zoom has been our go to for that. Our team has gotten better and better all the time. There has been a major shift, from using Zoom once to twice per month to twice a week now… Smartsheets is also a great tool for spreadsheets in the cloud. It’s great for project management and is something we have gone to for doing a number of things.”
Jim Navin, CIO at Gavilon Group, said they are subscribed to Office365 and using GoToMeeting for video conferencing. Navin says, “We created some help guides and people are discovering that video meetings are good.”
In many cases, some folks have varying levels of technical knowledge when it comes to using some of these tools, so, there has been a learning curve. Making technical support essential to help ensure everyone is up to date – not just with the technology and tools – but with the team as well.
How can you foster trust in a team with members working remotely and continue productivity?
The challenges of effective remote work go beyond just deploying and mastering the necessary technological tools. Getting people to remain productive and collaborate with the rest of the team while working remotely can be challenging. In the office it is easier for people to feel connected to their team, they can easily walk to a colleague’s desk or speak to the team manager about a problem they might need help with. But when working remotely, connected by nothing more than technology, trust issues can surface within teams. Employers can also find it a challenge to measure their team’s productivity. How do you ensure that everyone is working as they should and fully focused on the task at hand? How do you accurately monitor the progress of a project?
Trent Heiser, Director of IT at NebraskaLink said their company wasn’t experiencing trust issues because they have tools in place to tell them if someone is not doing the work they should be doing. Jim Kudirka, Founder and Principal Architect at Premiere Software Systems, said he felt that their biggest challenge with remote work was the lack of an efficient way to measure the productivity of their workers. “It can be a challenge, you don’t even know if the productivity issue is the remote work or just the ability to understand and get things done, maybe there is just a lack of clarity.”
Overall, we found that in most companies, monitoring productivity in a non-traditional remote environment was their biggest challenge. Rob Nickolaus, Director of IT at Arbor Day Foundation says they have set the expectation with everyone that sometimes you have to deal with the kids, your spouse, or your friend that just lost their job. “We are not expecting everyone to do the same level they have always done; we are expecting people to do their best.”
David Bonifant, IT Director at NGC Group says they are just setting the same expectations for home working as they do in the office, if someone sends an email, it is expected to be responded to in a timely manner, that is how they are maintaining accountability and trust within the team. Scott Wredt, IT Manager at Tecumseh Farms says he is a project-based manager, hours worked doesn’t measure productivity, project advancement does. Sean Smith, IT Director at Riekes Equipment Company gave us some great insight on the initial barriers they had to overcome with their employees working remote and whether or not to have them working 8-5:
“We had to really kind of help shift some of our leadership’s minds on that. When they are working remotely, taking care of the kids, making sure their kids are getting logged into school…. If they are doing billing or managing receivables, it doesn’t matter if it’s between 8 and 4 or 4 and midnight, to me it doesn’t matter. Some of those initial issues we were able to overcome.”
How has remote working amid the coronavirus pandemic affected the morale of workers?
Pandemics like the current coronavirus (COVID-19) can be scary, especially considering the threat to our physical health. Nonetheless, beyond that, people are also worried about the potential effects of the pandemic on their jobs. While working from home may not necessarily disrupt the lives of some people, others may struggle with it. Some people need the social and work structure of an office and hence, working from home might be difficult for them, especially if their home isn’t set up well for working, or if there are distractions such as roommates or family members to contend with.
A VP of a large Financial Services Company that has been around for over 30 years explained that he is opening up communication to allow more fun stuff at work. Sharing photos with each other, using humour and giving people the opportunity to talk with him that wouldn’t normally report to him directly and hosting virtual happy hours. “We joke, talk and wrap up… People need reassurance that layoffs are not going to happen. Finance industries are crucial and they have to keep running.”
Other companies such as Talent Plus, Arbor Day Foundation, and Premier Software Systems are also doing virtual happy hours and other types of team bonding activities that build comradery. They want to get back those “water cooler conversations” that have been missing for weeks and feel this is a great solution. Jeremy Jacobson, IT Manager at Adams Land and Cattle, says their community as a whole is worried, but are taking it well. Everyone is still doing what they need to do to keep the doors open and businesses to support each other. They even sponsored a $300 gift card giveaway to keep the community engaged with each other and engage other local businesses.
Don Tomlinson, COO and CIO at Talent Plus, says they are doing their best to ensure every individual in the company knows they are committed to investing in them despite the uncertainty that looms with the pandemic. They are ensuring every individual in the company will have a career discussion this month, discussing this quarters’ goals, next quarter, etc. The company wants employees to know they are committed to their future, even during these times of uncertainty. Tomlinson also suggests that managers and leaders can help to boost the morale of their teams: “There are good morale pockets and not so good pockets. I think a lot relies on the leadership. The leaders really dictate the morale of the team. The more leadership there is, the better the morale.”
How can managers improve remote work culture for their staff?
A theme to emerge from our conversations is that Tech Executives should expect a period of adjustment to be needed by their teams during this period. Human beings are not machines and will need time to adjust to the new normal. It’s important to understand that this period of adjustment can be difficult for staff and there are things managers can do to better understand the remote working needs of their staff and resolve their issues.
Michael Stinger, Technology Director at a large Financial Services Company, says that managers need to find a way to stay connected with people. He says prioritizing one on one meetings is crucial during these times as well as creating room for non-work. He has been attending more organizational meetings simply as an observer, he wants to make sure he is visible to his teams and says it is especially crucial to have empathy and sympathy for each person’s unique situation during these difficult times.
“I am dealing with kids, some people are dealing with just their significant other. Some people are living alone and are lonely, some people have grandparents living with them and some are living with health conditions but also understanding we have a job and work to do and having some flexibility.”
For Scott Wredt, the IT Manager at Tecumseh Farms, Smart Chicken, maintaining a positive mindset during this time is paramount.
“The one thought that keeps running through my mind is this is not the new norm; it is just a bump in the road. Knowing that on the other side of this there will be brighter times is what I think is the best way to look at it. There are a few things we can control and things you can’t. No need to stress about what you can’t.”
In all, with the changes that come with moving to remote work, it’s important to foster and maintain team morale. There are many things you can do within teams to keep people feeling positive and engaged. Here are just a few final comments from our IT executives:
- Dyann Bradbury, IT Security Executive: “Email phishing attacks are on the rise…make sure you have the appropriate infrastructure in place, hardware and security measures and data loss prevention. Everything you have to think about normally, but the perimeter of your network just grew.”
- Brent Pohlman, CEO at Midwest Laboratories: “Work through the kinks…reduce the noise…thank employees… We are doing Gallup strengths right now to help us understand each other better.”
- Rob Nickolaus, Director of IT at Arbor Day Foundation: “People need to be asking their teams now, what happens when we are ‘done’? What are you really liking now? What are you going to retain when things get back to a different state? I think this is going to fundamentally change our teams, onboarding. What are the things that we just picked up in the past 3 weeks, and, how do we leverage this?”
- Sean Humphrey, IT Manager: “Mental health support is important, I want to help my team be more aware so I am trying to find resources to help them with that. I am making myself more available for employees… This situation is forcing everyone to listen and be more attentive since we aren’t all face to face.”
- Eric Matulka, VP of IT at Haley Residential: “Focus on communication, sometimes we over communicate with our staff, but we want our staff to stay safe and stay home while keeping them paid and employed.”
- Trent Vargason, IT Director at Runza: “The key is just being prepared, we weren’t 100% prepared but we were able to set this up quickly. Hopefully now everyone is coming up with documentation and hardware to get through this for the future.”
- Corey Rector, VP of IT and Operations at Diversified Financial Services: “Nothing is going to be perfect, done is better than perfect right now x 10!”
- TJ Jones, Director of Technology at Nebraska Healthcare Association: “Offer encouragement to your people, offer patience and help those that need the most help.”
- Brian Ardinger, Director of Innovation at Nelnet and Founder of InsideOutside.io: “I have noticed more kids and animals on Zoom meetings. Sometimes being able to see into other people’s lives might actually give you a perspective you might not have had into their lives before. You shouldn’t apologize for you having your child in the meeting. There needs to be room for that compassion in business…Trying to figure out the schedules of life. Deal with kids and dogs, figuring out the cadences. It’s both challenging, but ultimately will make for a better workforce. Having competency of innovation, skillset of adaptability, curiosity, resourcefulness, resiliency, those things are going to serve the workforce longer.”
None of us can say with any confidence how the economy and society will look over the coming days, weeks or months. There are just too many unknowns. But one thing is clear, remote workers aren’t going anywhere soon, and organizations need to adapt to remain competitive. What’s more, people are getting a taste for working from home – and both in the Tech space and more broadly we should anticipate there being an expectation that remote working is more willingly embraced by employers once the pandemic has passed. So, establishing a company culture that fosters collaboration across teams to create positive work experiences and improve productivity can both help organizations stay relevant as they wade through this crisis, but also position them for longer term success.
Note: Insight Recruitment would like to extend our thanks to all the IT Executives who gave so willingly of their time as we researched the themes shared in this article. Your shared experiences will hopefully help others appreciate that the challenges they’ve faced and the ways they’ve had to adapt are not unique to them. Thank you and stay safe.