Work-from-home (WFH) has exploded with the spread of COVID-19, raising questions about how well companies and their employees are coping.
“The current crisis will test the reality of organizations’ readiness to support a distributed, offsite workforce,” IDC analyst Holly Muscolino said in a recent blog. “Our research suggests that the technology reality has not kept pace with policy.”
Part of the problem is that tech infrastructure for WFH hasn’t kept pace with the infrastructure inside an office, IDC said. Slightly more than 50% of the 700 respondents to a recent IDC survey said they have difficulty communicating and/or collaborating with internal colleagues when working from home. Also 43% said this same difficulty applies to external stakeholders, including clients and customers.
The COVID-19 transformation to WFH has been big, the IDC research found. The same IDC survey said that just 15% had worked from home or on the road before the crisis hit. Other estimates have found that WFH at least half the time affected less than 5% of U.S. workers before COVID-19, but has mushroomed to nearly 50%, with employees now working full time at home.
IDC also found that a large percentage of companies surveyed struggled to keep up with flexible work expectations, including WFH. Of 305 companies surveyed, 61.9% agreed with this statement: “Expectations are way ahead of our company’s ability to change.”
While IDC raised some of the basic concerns related to WFH, there are a few anecdotal insights from top executives that suggest companies may be adapting to the remote work transition better than expected.
At WPP Group, more than 100,000 workers globally in the advertising and marketing company have suddenly started working from home because of government personal distancing requirements due to COVID-19. “If you’d asked me three weeks ago if I thought we could [work-from-home], I’d have said absolutely no way. I’m amazed, actually, how productive people are being,” WPP CEO Mark Read told CNBC on Tuesday.
The company has seen a 60-fold increase in usage of Microsoft Teams collaboration software over the past month, Read said. He has conducted country-wide conference calls as well, with 2,500 dialing in from Italy last week. "We'll learn to trust people to focus on output rather than how many hours they are behind their desks," he said.
Workplaces have admittedly been turned on their heads with the WFH transformation, he acknowledged. “We’ve had 10 years of technology innovation crammed into four weeks,” Read said. The company has also been blogging about how brands, including technology companies, need to adapt to reaching their customers who are also working from home, sometimes while accommodating young children also at home.
Amy Loomis, an IDC research director focused on the future of work, said in a recent webcast that the impact of COVID-19 has hit so quickly that it’s been hard for companies to prepare for a massive uptick in WFH.
While some organizations in the Boston area may be accustomed to remote work for a single snow day, COVID-19 is going to keep workers at home for a long time. “We’re in a situation where we’re looking at a six-week snowstorm if not more,” she said.
IDC has learned from previous research that engineers in development and design have learned to work well in teams from their homes in different time zones and across the globe. “That agile team structure has been going on for many years, so the challenge is to use that structure to be a part of work in different functions in business development, sales and marketing and more,” she said in an interview.
It can be hard for people unaccustomed to WFH to quickly change collaboration contexts online, going from one tool to chat with a work group and another tool to chat with a single colleague. A worker might also use email and another chat tool to communicate directly with a supervisor or subordinate. In a given day, IDC has found that an average worker has to switch between eight different apps and content types.
Because the pandemic could come in waves over as much 18 months by some estimates, WFH is also forcing employers to cope with how their workers may feel isolated or even depressed about the daily COVID-19 death counts and reports of layoffs.
“The biggest thing is, keep talking to your employees,” advised Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. “Give them regular updates, be totally honest, don’t sugarcoat things. People can deal with adversity, and in much better fashion, if they believe they have all the facts and are part of the team.”
“Managers need to engage with employees and let them ask questions and voice concerns,” Gold added. “That’s the critical way to keep up morale.”
In an interview, IDC’s Loomis added, “Unlike prior times when work at home was an exception rather than a rule, it’s important to balance the professional integrity and seamlessness of normal conduct with an acknowledgement that we are working in an imperfect time. We should celebrate the humanity that’s uniting us.”
“Many of us have pets and children and don’t have a door we can shut,” Loomis said. “That doesn’t make us less professionally capable. It only makes us more human. We can celebrate our humanity or we can choose to isolate. This is a chance to celebrate our humanity and get through it. “