The ability of enterprises to adjust to the new world of work has many questioning whether they will ever go back to the way things were.
The distributed teams model of working went from an option some businesses were choosing to a necessity for all enterprises in only a few months due to the unprecedented spread of COVID-19.
Companies like Amazon, Intuit, Twitter, and more are realizing that with workplace tools like Slack, monday.com and others, they can get their work done almost as effectively, with some added benefits ranging from employee satisfaction to cost savings.
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Organizations of all sizes now have no choice but to operate with teams working outside of office spaces, and now a number of companies are considering whether to ever bring people back. Twitter announced on Tuesday that it is planning to allow some of its employees to work from home forever, even after quarantines and shelter-in-place orders are lifted.
Gigster CEO Chris Keene said the company has long worked with enterprises to get tech projects built on demand remotely. But at times they have struggled to get people on board with the idea of hiring talent that may work exclusively outside of central offices.
"For our customers, everything has changed. A few months ago we were trying to explain to people that it was possible to have distributed teams. One of our biggest challenges was that we would go talk to a company and they would say they needed their workers all located in specific offices," Keene said.
"There was this tug of war around whether it made sense or whether it could be done to build complicated and innovative software products, the products that you want to differentiate you in the marketplace, with distributed teams. Overnight, that dialogue is over. Everybody now understands that you can really do this."
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While everyone has had to adjust to the new realities and dangers of the virus at large, a number of companies are struggling less than they thought they would, Keene added. With so many emerging collaboration tools working better than expected, many of the past objections to distributed teams are falling to the wayside.
Matt Burns, startup ecosystem lead at monday.com, said the company has seen a 37% increase in signups, and while remote work has been a phenomenon that has been extremely slow to take hold in the US, managers and executives are beginning to realize that teams can be just as effective when they're not in the office.
Mike Paylor, vice president of product and engineering at Upwork, noted that collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Slack have become essential to making it easier for everyone to engage, communicate, and collaborate.
In addition to the coronavirus forcing people to work remotely while sheltering in place, it has required enterprises to think differently about team structures, autonomy, and decision-making, he said. Not only are many companies working this way for the first time, but they're engaged in business during economic uncertainty, which makes it that much more important to improve communication pathways and decision-making speed.
"The relatively slower pace of change pre-pandemic allowed companies to keep existing processes and structures and I believe we'll see some evolution to empower distributed teams, not just enable working from home," Paylor said.
"While the gradual reopening of states and countries may enable some industries to return to normal, I don't believe it will look the same as before. Over the last few weeks, we've heard from our customers that they are experiencing the productivity and innovation benefits of remote talent and we suspect that we'll likely see more individuals opting for a flexible working arrangement in the future. I don't think the reopening should change this much—we need to adapt to a new normal."
And indeed, companies like Slack are realizing that the high level of usage may never really recede now that companies have had to rely on it heavily for weeks or months.
Christina Kosmowski, vice president of global customer success at Slack, said connected users increased from 10 million on March 10, 2020 to 12.5 million on March 25, 2020, and during weekdays, the cumulative number of minutes of active use of Slack by all users globally now exceeds one billion.
Both Gigster and Upwork have seen similar upticks in usage and adoption as location suddenly becomes immaterial to productivity.
But it isn't all sunshine and flowers. Keene noted that many of the things employers used to do in person are tougher virtually, including assessing employee hard and soft skills or growth potential, adjusting talent acquisition models and managing project risks.
All of these become more difficult when working remotely particularly because for so long, they have been handled in-person.
"Things that you would do in an informal way if everyone was in an office need to be done a bit more formally. Understanding the hard skills that people have, like I'm a Java programmer, but also the soft skills, like is this person creative, a good communicator and a good team player, gets much harder when you can't see people and you can't get all of those physical, verbal and non-verbal cues," Keene said.
"Software projects are also really expensive and they fail a lot more frequently than people would like to admit. What companies need to realize is that a lot of the ways that you manage risk and possibility of failure within the office is around the water cooler and through back channel communications. And these risk factors get magnified when you reduce the amount of face-to-face communication and reduce that informal network."
Kosmowski also noted that the distributed teams model can be hard for some who find it difficult to get away from work and separate their lives like they used to. She said Slack intentionally created features like "Do Not Disturb" and the custom status tool in an effort to help people designate a little time to get away.
Paylor added that it is also important for an enterprise's culture to transcend the traditional office and many companies are taking steps to keep the culture alive and well via widely used collaboration tools.
But in the same vein, Paylor said the biggest benefits of a distributed team is decentralized decision-making and autonomy, adding that the coronavirus crisis has forced many companies to consider how to enable a remote workforce to truly be autonomous.
"With more companies moving to a distributed team format, they will be able to attract the best talent, regardless of location. Companies will improve employee retention rates as work-life balance remains an important factor in accepting an offer. Productivity across sectors will improve as employees no longer have long commute times," Burns from monday.com said.
The reopening effort
Larry Gadea, founder and CEO of workplace technology company Envoy, said remote work is still being embraced even in places that have begun to reopen.
Gadea added that an Envoy customer in Shenzhen, China reopened its office two weeks ago and made it completely optional for employees to return. Just 20% of employees who were eligible to return came back to the office, but that number is steadily growing.
"In Silicon Valley, we'll see more companies implement policies that allow for an optional return to the office, which will continue to enable remote work. While some people may be able complete their job remotely, it doesn't necessarily mean they will want to or believe they can accomplish their job to the best of their abilities from the confines of their home," he said.
"In countries that have managed the COVID response exceptionally well, like New Zealand, we're seeing accelerated demand for the product alongside an accelerated return to employees checking in to their offices."
Even the companies helping enterprises with distributed teams are having to embrace their own model fully, with Slack, Gigster and Upwork all committing to remote work at some level.
Keene from Gigster said some states and countries may do a slow reopening, but he wanted more organizations to look at it as less of a binary situation, open or shut, and more as a gradual process.
"I don't think everybody is going to want to go back to a long commute every day again if they can possibly help it. There's a lot of jobs where you can't avoid that, but in the tech world, I don't think there will be anybody commuting five days a week anymore," Keene said.
"Nobody has the crystal ball to know exactly how this is going to roll out so what's important is, rather than looking at this as a binary thing: open or shut; I think we should look at it more as a gradual thing. We're all going to be distributed but the question is how distributed? How many of us are going to be distributed?"
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