Senior leadership at companies across the world worry about the impact the pandemic has had on productivity.
History shows work-from-home programs were often fraught with issues, resulting in some organizations bringing their workforce back to the office after seeing unsatisfactory output from employees.
Although, to the surprise of many, productivity levels increased. A 2020 Work-From-Home IT Impact Study by Sectigo and Wakefield Research shows almost half (49%) of IT professionals witnessed productivity go up. With that, 35 percent reported productivity levels stayed the same.
The news about productivity levels remaining high during the pandemic might’ve come as a relief to some business leaders. However, another concern has emerged: Burnout.
According to some estimates, most remote workers exhibit symptoms linked with burnout, like elevated stress and anxiety. Data released by online employment company Monster shows 69 percent of employees already feel burnout creeping in.
The survey also shows people are taking less time off and working longer hours. Add to that the constant stress of a historic recession and pandemic, the chances for burnout remain high, especially as a largely remote workforce begins what could be a long transition back to the workplace.
“The question now facing many organizations is not how to manage a remote workforce, but how to manage a more complex, hybrid workforce,” said Elisabeth Joyce, vice president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice, in a news release. Gartner reports 82 percent of business leaders intend to allow employees to work remotely at least some of the time.
For IT professionals, the rapid transition to remote work was just the start. Now begins the process of sustaining those efforts and creating a hybrid workforce outfitted for productivity and high engagement.
To achieve these outcomes, IT leadership must focus on these three actions:
Combat Isolation and Burnout with Better Communication
For some, it comes as welcome news that many organizations have begun their transition back to the workplace. And yet, many will remain at home.
Isolation, persistent stress and burnout continue to rise as the pandemic matures, and IT and business leaders cannot take this lightly.
The impact of burnout amounts to upward of $190 billion in health-care spending annually in the U.S. alone. Eric Garton, coauthor of Time, Talent and Energy, writes in the Harvard Business Review, “The true cost to business can be far greater, thanks to low productivity across organizations, high turnover, and the loss of the most capable talent.”
Thankfully, there is a remedy. Clear, consistent communication helps prevent burnout.
As some begin to filter into the workplace more frequently, it’s important to ensure the office can meet the needs of a hybrid workforce, with a renewed emphasis on communication and connectivity.
The first step for IT leaders is to assess their current office infrastructure to determine if meeting rooms and other collaboration spaces will enable employees to connect with those still at home.
It’s important to first understand how employees will use these spaces as they return to the office. What applications are used most and how people interact with the space will tell IT how best to support in-office users. IT must consider how remote workers connect as well, including clients, contractors and other third parties.
You’ll need to determine the following:
- How does my organization collaborate? Using mobile apps, remote workers can join meetings on iOS and Android devices just as easily as on their laptops. The applications and devices used to connect and how they’re supported should be on IT’s radar.
- Will collaboration applications need to interoperate? Some of the leading collaboration platforms, like Cisco Webex, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, developed ways to integrate their applications. A clear majority of organizations depend on two or more of these applications to collaborate, making it an important factor to consider when enabling communication for a hybrid workforce.
- Am I following technical best practices? During the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for organizations to lean on Zoom, Teams or Webex to broadcast from one to many. However, challenges surfaced with this model quickly. Constant interruptions and distractions due to unmuted participants made it clear these applications aren’t meant for broadcasting. In place of a virtual meeting room, some must consider a streaming solution.
The hybrid model is rapidly becoming the new norm for most organizations. And it’s not only for the short term. Building the infrastructure at the workplace to accommodate this new hybrid model will make it easier for employees to communicate with one another, regardless of their location, device or platform. By enabling better communication, IT will help employees stave off symptoms of burnout and apathy, resulting in sustainable productivity.
Redefine 'Business as Usual’ and Visualize the Next-Generation Office
As organizations transitioned to a remote workforce they ran into challenges, according to the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM). Its research shows 71 percent of organizations had a difficult time adapting to this new form of “business as usual.”
"COVID-19-related stress is having a dramatic impact on employee productivity," said Ashley Miller, SHRM-SCP, workplace innovation manager at SHRM, in this article. "Meanwhile, feelings of burnout and unproductivity have increased. Communication, support, trust and recognition must be priorities in this new normal to maintain high engagement and morale."
The early stages of the pandemic demanded IT to “flip the switch” and turn on services like the following:
- Video conferencing software
- Multifactor Authentication
- Virtual Private Network
- Device Management
- Service Monitoring
Taking steps to introduce services and applications like those listed helped keep employees connected, even when not together. That’s how companies like Microsoft started out too, making sure all employees had “the tools, resources, and solutions to be as productive, creative, and secure as possible,” writes Nathalie D’Hers, who is part of Microsoft’s Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO) team.
As people return to their workplaces, it’s important to understand how those applications and solutions tie into the rest of your technical infrastructure, in particular meeting and conference rooms.
Integrate Collaboration Technology into Meeting Rooms
Applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams became second nature for remote workers, who spent hours on end in chats and meetings. But now as people transition to in-person work, it’s time to assess how fit the workplace is for group collaboration.
- How will meeting rooms facilitate group work safely?
- Are video conferencing platforms integrated into meeting rooms?
- Can employees launch meetings in a touch-free way?
Find out how your employees use meeting rooms during this time with a survey or focus group. After that, determine the gaps in hardware or software, and take steps to integrate needed technology into meeting rooms to promote productivity.
Outfit Your Employees for Collaboration — Wherever They Are
A PwC CFO Pulse Survey showed 46 percent of respondents expected productivity loss due to employees not having the right tools available to them.
Internet connectivity poses an issue for 31 percent of survey respondents, but many other factors are at play when discussing remote work, including mobile devices, access to business portals or material, and collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams.
If employees don’t have access to the tools needed to smoothly transition to and from the office, it will hinder productivity levels. Work with different user groups to survey what tools they need and prefer to use to complete their work. Then, align those expectations with technical solutions.
Assess Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities in AV Equipment — and Personnel
Some cybersecurity risks increased almost seven-fold as the pandemic required people to work remotely, according to research by McKinsey. Fraud, spear-phishing, and other tactics used by hackers targeted various organizations and the public early on, soliciting donations and exposing personal data. But leaked information isn't the only blow to businesses.
In the U.S., the average data breech costs businesses $8.64 million, a staggering figure that’s climbed steadily since 2013. Undoubtedly, productivity takes a hit when hackers infiltrate an organization and cause unforeseen damage. Instead of supporting the organization’s core work, IT must shift its attention to address the immediate issues.
To support healthy productivity levels for a hybrid workforce, IT must assess its current infrastructure and address potential vulnerabilities, including audiovisual technology that connects to the network like digital signage used to communicate with in-office employees. An assessment could show gaps in infrastructure that formerly didn’t exist prior to COVID-19, which if remedied will shield your organization from unexpected attacks that will hinder productivity and add to an already stressful time.
For the fortunate organizations who invested more heavily in cybersecurity initiatives prior to COVID-19, they saw an easier transition to remote work. Not all were so fortunate.
At the very beginning, IT professionals had their hands full with connecting the workforce — securing licenses, sending employees home with devices, and more. The urgency of the situation coupled with stretched bandwidth meant cybersecurity initiatives stalled. Once the initial push to connect remote workers passed, mindful organizations continued operations on fortifying cybersecurity efforts.
To prevent attacks, and by extension dips in productivity, it's expected that CISOs will increase cybersecurity spending to combat new and existing threats during the next 12 months. Key investments will be made in areas that support remote workers and third parties, like remote access, next-generation identity and access controls, perimeter security, and more.
For CIOs and CISOs, it’s critical to invest the time and resources into securing your newly minted hybrid workforce long term.
This will take form in many ways:
- Combatting shadow IT applications
- Securing devices and machines for remote workers
- Monitoring processes and equipment for vulnerabilities
- Providing ongoing training to technical and non-technical staff
- Communicating with remote workers about encryption and security while using personal networks
Productivity Won’t Suffer with the Right Strategies in Place
Organizations across industries continue to adapt to the times. Gallup reported social distancing has doubled as the pandemic progresses and leadership continues to improve its communication with direct reports and the organization at large.
As new processes emerge and existing policies evolve, the new normal for most will be a hybrid workforce, with employees spending at least part of each work week at home. To maintain and improve productivity for a remote and hybrid workforce, it’s critical to focus on communication, cybersecurity, and technical infrastructure.