As the fear of the spread of COVID-19 increases rapidly, our predictions, more companies will quickly adapt remote working environments that seem to be happening. In some cases, it is happening quicker and at a larger scale than even I anticipated.
Every company with a remote working set of tools like Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Zoom, etc., is offering their tools for free for some time to help companies easily start implementing and support remote working. What has stood out to me as I have had some conversations with friends at companies big and small who are embracing remote work was how many companies were either not prepared or structured for remote work. I don’t know why, but in my mind, I figured most companies at least had some form of support for remote work/collaboration, and that is not the case.
I view this as not only remote work’s moment but also a significant opportunity to learn and create even better tools for remote work. From my own experience working remotely, the biggest gap in the experience is when you try to work remotely on something in real-time. Meaning a team is distributed but all working together at the same time. This is the use case where I think we will see the most holes in current team-based solutions in the market today.
Video meetings work well for a group or team to get together and plan, get caught up, brainstorm, etc. It is not great for a group to make progress on a project or its team-based tasks. Other tools like chat or collaborative documents, when individuals make progress on their own but not as great for a group to work together. I’m not saying it is not possible, I’m simply saying it is not the same as sitting next to someone and executing a project, task, or troubleshooting a problem, etc.
We at Creative Strategies have been researching collaboration for years now. In a study, we did late in 2018, we found that less than 25% of workers (in tech companies) are working remotely in real-time on projects with team members. Even though it is now 2020, I doubt that the number has changed much. Similarly, less than 30% of workers (in tech) were working remotely regularly. This data emphasizes my point that most companies are just not set up for this, both in tools and in culture.
While I think it is great companies like Microsoft, Google, Zoom, and Cisco will see more of their tools get used, it will also shine a bright light in many of the gaps in these offerings that may frustrate workers who will now put these tools to the ultimate test. Remote working, and using the tools to support remote work, is not something you just wake up one day and start doing. You have to change some of your thinking, workflows, discipline, etc., and this will be a major wake up call for many organizations.
That being said, the silver lining will be the lessons learned by these big companies, investors, and even ambitious young founders, who will see the gaps in existing tools, and we will, hopefully, start to see these tools evolve and get even better.
Interestingly, even within companies who already support work, this will be a moment where they will observe new learnings and challenges as well. Even companies like Microsoft and Google, who offer a competitive suite of collaboration tools, will have more of their workforce use their own tools, eat their own dog food is the term, and provide the company with essential learning and feedback.
I was alerted to this blog post by a Microsoft employee who is based in Shanghai and thought it made some interesting points. Similarly, many work from home experts are publishing articles on the challenges and best tips for working at home or remotely. This is the best time to learn and adapt and be open-minded for many workers and their companies.
This has implications beyond just the desk-based workforce as well. We see an increase in telemedicine as people are fearful of going to the hospital. We see schools cancel in-person classes and go fully remote learning. Interestingly, I’m starting to work with my daughter’s private school on a remote learning plan as a worst-case scenario. This is also turning into an exercise for future preparedness for when something like this inevitably happens again.
Interestingly, by starting to work on remote/video-based learning, the positive side effect is students will have the opportunity to still participate in classes even if they have to miss school. One thing that is very clear in higher-education is students will come to class unless they are dying or have a fever because of fear of falling behind. This only helps spur the spread of illness and video/remote learning opportunities will allow students to participate still and not fall behind.
While the concern is real over COVID-19, I view this as a massive opportunity for us to work now to put solutions in place and be better prepared for when something worse inevitably hits the population. This includes the governments being better prepared, institutions, communities, healthcare and more. We should view this as a wake-up call and seize the opportunity, in all respects, to not be caught off guard in the future.