Last month, a Gallup poll revealed that 57% of workers surveyed between March 30 and April 2 had employers that were offering them flex time or remote work from home. Of those surveyed, a minority of 41% said they would prefer to return to a physical workplace after the COVID-19 crisis passes. Working from home seems to agree with most people, but not everyone performs jobs that can be worked from home.
The future of work, and what workers will expect from employers, is also on the minds of chief information officers. Which areas of responsibility in IT can work remotely and which can’t? How do you deal with the potential fallout from folks in areas of responsibility who are deemed essential in the physical workplace and can’t work remotely while others do? How do you orchestrate IT teamwork and projects if everyone is working remotely? How do you measure productivity, and does working remotely work for everyone?
These are just a few of the questions that will be asked over the coming months.
Jobs that can be done remotely in IT
Software development is one area that has been a success for IT as a remote work function. Many contract programmers work remotely, and it isn't a stretch to envision on-staff application developers working this way.
Software infrastructure engineers and network technicians also are candidates for remote work, since much of their work can be done independently and via online software.
IT positions that require greater physical presence include business and systems analysts, who are constantly interacting with users; managers, who must be available for onsite meetings with other management and employees; database personnel, who are constantly being consulted and called into meetings; and data center operations personnel, who look after the physical IT environment.
Dealing with potential fallout
When work dynamics change (such as moving to a remote work environment), there are bound to be staff reactions.
Several years ago, I was managing in a company when we decided to compensate some operational jobs with sales roles at base salary plus incentive. Other jobs in the back office that didn't involve sales remained at base salary only.
We immediately experienced fallout from the back-office personnel, who felt that they were being treated unfairly because they were in a similar salary grade as the others but did not have the opportunity to earn incentives.
We explained to them that other operations personnel who would now be eligible for sales incentives if they sold were also taking on new sales roles as part of their jobs, since they were customer-facing. We also encouraged any back-office person who wanted to apply for one of these redefined operational roles that could also involve sales to do so.
While this explanation probably didn't solve every gripe, the new move was much better accepted after we had made a thorough explanation to staff about what we were doing and why we were doing it.
If IT directors and CIOs make similar decisions that determine who works remotely and who doesn't, the IT staff needs to be clear on the rationale behind making some jobs remote and other jobs not. If staff members have questions, they should feel free to ask these questions and get their issues resolved. Transparency won't resolve every grievance from those who have jobs that can't be performed remotely, but it certainly helps.
Project management and coordination is challenging enough when everyone works onsite. It gets more complicated when project work is done remotely.
New project management software has responded to this. It now offers real-time, anywhere collaboration and project updates. But experienced project managers will attest that there is nothing that replaces in-person communication.
Consequently, which work can be done remotely will vary depend upon the project. In some cases, such as when a project is entirely outsourced, it might be effective to run the project remotely. In other cases, such as highly complex projects that involve continuous end user engagement, an on-premises approach for the project team will be best. Between these two extremes, there is a middle ground where some project work can be done remotely, and other tasks and roles must be performed in-house.
The approach to remote work for each project should be determined as part of the project plan.
In the case of IT project work, each task is laid out with an expected deliverable and an expected timeframe. It’s easy to track these tasks to see if they are well performed and come in on time, whether the work is done remotely or on-prem.
A more difficult task for IT is tracking time and quality for daily operations work.
For this, on-prem benchmarks for tasks accomplished and quality of work should first be established. These benchmarks should be based on the level of quality and the amount of time it took to complete each task when it was performed on-prem. These on-prem work standards can then be used as metrics to measure the performance of remote employees. Setting the work standards provides remote employees with performance guidelines, and it also helps managers measure remote work performance.
When remote work doesn't work
When remote work initiatives first began rolling out 20 years ago, I recall a telecom sales manager telling me that six months after he'd deployed his sales force to the field where they all worked out of home offices, he discovered a new problem: He was losing cohesion in his salesforce.
“Employees wanted to come in for monthly meetings,” he said. “It was important from a team morale standpoint for them to interact with each other, and for all of us to remind each other what the overall corporate goals and sales targets were.”
The solution at that time was to create monthly on-prem staff meetings where everyone got together.
A similar phenomenon could affect IT workforces that take up residence in home offices to perform remote work.
There could be breakdowns in IT project cohesion without the benefit of on-prem “water cooler” conversations and meetings that foster lively information exchanges. In other cases, there could be some employees who don't perform as well in a home office as they would in the company office.
IT managers are likely to find that their decisions on what IT can be done remotely will be based on not only what they could outsource, but also whom.
Putting it all together
COVID-19 will have a lasting effect on how IT does work. The challenge for IT managers is that they don't yet know what the total effect will be.
“What we are going to encounter is an evolution into a series of different “new normals” as we navigate through the COVID-19 crisis,” said one technology CEO that I recently visited with. “Technology companies and IT departments will have to continuously adjust as conditions and “new normals” change. No one yet knows the final “resting place” of this evolution and when a more permanent “normal” will be achieved.”
In the meantime, CIOs and IT managers can learn from the remote work measures that they have put in place during the COVID-19 crisis with varying degrees of success. It’s a great place to start in the evolution of best work practices.
For more coverage on IT's response to the COVID-19 crisis, start here:
Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information ... View Full Bio