How to Plan Your Return to the Office Post-COVID-19

Written by: Kevin Peters

Due to the prolonged nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations are extending their work from home policies to accommodate at least a couple more months. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, recently announced that Twitter employees would be able to work from home “forever.” However, Twitter is one of the few companies uniquely positioned to respond quickly and to be able to support a distributed workforce in perpetuity. Most organizations are already beginning to look at the ways that they can prepare for their workforce to return to the office.

Whether you anticipate a future Twitter-like complete digital workplace or some sort of hybrid mix resembling your pre-COVID arrangements, there is a lot to think about and plan for.  This post provides an overview of what to expect and prepare for as you return to the office. Let’s start by looking at some statistics which corroborate and set the scene for the various challenges that face companies aspiring to go the full Twitter route.

Current state and trends for telecommuting and remote work amid COVID-19 

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According to a recent study conducted by Nemertes Research, a whopping 90.6% of companies have employees working fully remote because of the pandemic- an increase in 63.2% pre-COVID-19. Almost overnight, companies had to send hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of employees to home offices, depending on their size. On average, they transitioned from 34.6% to 71.8% of employees working from home full-time, and from 21.8% to 50.5% of employees working from home part-time.

What’s important to note is that many of these companies are doing so with a surprisingly low impact on daily functions. The data from Nemertes research hints at a “new normal” post-COVID-19, which we will get into in a bit. But the trend to work-from-home or to engage in some level of remote work is in the books. Here are some reasons identified in the research for the “new normal”:

  1. Better employee quality of life (59%)
  2. Better for the environment (42.7%)
  3. Reduce employee turnovers rates (32.8%)
  4. More productive employees (28%) and more hours worked remotely (26.3%)
  5. Cost savings (24.9%)

Challenges with a Return to “Semi-Normal”

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Depending on the research studied, we can expect somewhere between  20% to 41% of employees to continue to work remotely post-COVID-19. This statistic is not surprising, given both the technical and non-technical challenges companies face going forward. Compiling various research sources, the top 5 issues with which organizations will need to contend in this new normal are as follows:

  1. Managing remote teams (53.5%)
  2. Hardware & Infrastructure (53%)
  3. Security (52.5%)
  4. App, tool access & training (31.3%)
  5. Video and Sound quality (29.2%)

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We’ll discuss all of the above challenges (and some top-line best practice solutions) in the remainder of this post, and hit mostly on the #1 challenge/issue the conclusion of the post.  Perhaps the most disturbing of all the challenges is security.  We say this since 40% of all organizations will be making cuts in their cybersecurity budgets, given the financial impacts of COVID-19.  And yet, research clearly shows that over half (51%) in this US knowledge worker workforce is not proficient or adequately trained in the cyber-risks associated with long-term remote working.

Understanding the COVID-19 Impact on UC

Return to work

Using data compiled from our millions of PowerSuite customers, Unify Square internal data shows massive increases in service use across all UC modalities: 1. Video growth (496%), 2. Audio growth (424%), and 3. App sharing growth (411%).

The numbers here indicate a high bandwidth utilization, which could potentially impact your access points, routers, switches, and firewalls. It’s essential to keep in mind that as you plan on bringing your workforce back to the office, a majority of your workforce might continue to work from home, with people scheduling more work from home days than in the past. Therefore, these numbers will be relatively stable over the next few months, or even longer.

In addition, this increase in usage is not without impact. Our data shows poor call volume increases across all platforms as follows:

  • Skype for Business: ~3.5X increase
    Pre-COVID-19 = .8% PCP, Current 2.33%
  • Microsoft Teams: ~2.4X increase
    Pre-COVID-19 = 2.78% PCP, Current 6.65%
  • VPN-based Calling (all platforms): ~ 5x increase
    Pre-COVID-19 = 2.26% PCP, Current= 11.33%

Even though people tend to be more tolerant of call quality issues in work from home scenarios in the short-term, as WFH becomes a norm, these numbers will pose a problem in the long-term. Therefore, it’s critical to be mindful of this in your planning.

Work From Home Support Model in the post-pandemic digital workplace

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The above statistics make a convincing case and provide a glimpse of the “new normal” for organizations. In this new setting, IT has less control over the last mile (home internet connection, access points at home, for example) and last-foot (headsets, speakers) to ensure an excellent end-user experience.

So how do we prepare for it? Given the challenges of remote work, there are a number of different key immediate steps that IT should be focusing on how to support distributed workers.

Create best practices guides and communicate to users 

The increasing number of calls & meetings lead to more app sharing, video, and audio issues. Coupled with the fact that IT has less control over the last mile and last-foot items such as the end-user home internet connection, access points, and headsets, it’s essential to have a Best Practices Guide in place and communicate them to your end-users. Training end-users to carry out simple troubleshooting, such as having a wired connection, can make a huge difference.

Work with large carriers to bundle WFH Internet Packages

Some carriers can provide you with a WFH (work-from-home) solution with a higher class of service. Opting for those solutions might be a little more expensive but is a cost-effective and time-saving adjustment for a WFH support model. As you work with your carrier to plan out WFH packages, make sure you include proper end-user support.

Provide users with Ethernet Cables, PowerLine Ethernet Adapters, and Wireless Support 

Most end-user problems can be traced back to home Wi-Fi connections with issues such as packet loss and jitter. The easiest fix is usually to dropship ethernet cables and PowerLine adapters to the user. Troubleshooting with ready Wi-Fi support, if needed, is also a must.

Provide a standard WFH kit 

Your efforts in creating a WFH package or drop shipping cables will be in vain if your end-user is utilizing bad headsets or low-quality cameras. So, providing end-users with a WFH kit is a crucial part of building out a WFH support model. The savings (from real estate and other standard costs (and increasingly legacy in-office costs), can be applied to help fund this WFH Kit.

Technical transformation planning and management

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IT plays a significant role in supporting this inevitable shift to the “semi-normal” remote work culture. Implementing an updated, and in many cases, a net new set of policies to promote a good user experience is crucial. Here’s a list of the top IT adjustments which most organizations should consider:

Disabling certain features 

Guidance about specific features and their hardware and connectivity requirements is critical for end-users to be proactive in managing their experience. For example, the Zoom Video Group Calling feature can have specific bandwidth requirements that users should be able to set for an optimum experience, given their needs.

Supporting multiple UC platforms

Multiple platform use is becoming more common as digital workplace collaboration apps are flooding the space. Multiple platform use can lead to end-user bad experience and confusion. Common issues while using multiple platforms include problems with HID controls (mute button, volume control, etc.), presence reconciliation, call being dropped due to multiple platforms sending inbound calls and messages. These are only a few of the numerous multiple-platform use realities.IT should be cognizant about all issues and proactively administer and support multiple-platform use.

Diligent deployment practices

Given how easy it is to get UC and Collaboration app platforms up and running IT can sometimes be complacent with the quick deployment of workplace collaboration platforms, especially during trying times of COVID-19. However, continued deployment efforts to manage the lifecycle of teams are necessary for end-user adoption and usage success. One of the best ways to ensure adoption is to find your Champions and empower them to help others.

Managing guests and guest access policies 

Having guests on teams can be inherently risky. But it’s unlikely that you can turn it off entirely for teams. First, it’s essential for IT first to understand the requirements and risks associated with guest access. Second, IT should enable teams with reports, insights, and controls to manage guest access.

Non-Technical Considerations for Distributed Work

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Up to this point, all our discussions in this post have focused on the more technical side of the UC and WSC equation. However, moving into a post-pandemic new normal will also require a large number of adjustments and transitions in the more non-technical aspects of the workplace. Most organizations should be looking at implementing some set of the following.

In-office configurations

In the past decade, most offices have embraced more flexible, non-traditional collaborative workspaces such as shared open spaces. However, due to coronavirus restrictions that will be in effect, these spaces may need a redesign for the foreseeable future. Going back to well-spaced cubicles and banning “hot desking” can take care of the social distancing requirements. Larger organizations can create “department shifts” to minimize the total number of employees at the office on a given day.

Fewer chairs in common areas, a strict cleaning regimen, hand sanitizers in the hallway, conference room limits are other ways to enforce public health guidelines at work. If not implemented appropriately, some of these changes might carry hefty fines according to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) of the Department of Labor in the United States. Other countries have either adopted a similar return to work safety guidelines or are in the process of doing so. Finally, companies might need to plan for non-work-related technology investments. Some examples include voice command for elevators, social distance surveillance cameras, and employee monitoring apps.

Policies, Per Diems, Work Hours and Office Technology

As the workplace dynamics shift, new policies are needed to ensure and enforce safety and stay productive and motivated. For example, worker per diem to support WFH tech requirements, child care, or a move from a typical 9 to 5 to deadline-based work hours.

Managing Remote/Distributed Teams: What It Takes

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Eventually, the most critical change that organizations will have to contend with is managing a highly remote and more aggressively distributed workforce. However, many of today’s managers are highly inexperienced and unprepared for this aspect of the shift. In the past decade, we have managed to attain distributed teams and remote workforce, but it was still experimental.

Turning this experimentation into a norm will require a different set of skills and analytics to achieve the desired outcome. Some things to consider:

Mindset and Culture 

We touched on this topic very slightly in an earlier segment, but it’s important to emphasize that the semi-normal post-COVID-19 is more about a mindset than technology or infrastructure. For example, thinking about remote work as a workplace norm rather than anomaly so that everyone feels encouraged. Many remote workers feel insecure thinking that remote work is not “real work”.

Productivity vs. Creativity

The stats tell us that productivity goes up with a remote work policy and distributed teams. However, other critical considerations are Creativity and Innovation. Organizational behavior experts will argue that proximity creates empathy and improves collaboration and efficiency. Isolated work means a loss of familiar routines that might lead to loneliness and boredom. Organizations need to offer best practices guidelines to encourage creativity and innovation in this new setting of isolation.

Managing Remote/Distributed Teams: Best Practices

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How to ensure your organization is leading the needed mindset and culture change within? In addition, what insights do you need to drive innovation and creativity in addition to productivity? Here are some best practices to ensure you’re on the right track.

  1. Build social/emotional intelligence muscle as a manager
  2. Depending on the nature of work, create new KPIs like Happiness index vs. No. of tasks completed to infuse creativity
  3. Overcommunicate: virtual happy hours, praise and regular check-ins online
  4. Promote shorter meetings
  5. Avoid loose deadlines
  6. Encourage schedule blocks for breaks or personal growth
  7. Respect time zones in a distributed team environment

Partner-Assist in the New Normal

Experts and industry pundits will tell you this workplace dynamics shift to a “new normal” is inevitable post-COVID-19. They will also tell you it’s likely not going to be a switch but rather a dial-in. We have explored/highlighted a few reasons why it will need to be a gradual transition. As you prepare the culture and enable the infrastructure support model, maintain a data-driven approach to measure and monitor success.

Proper planning, analytics, and expert consultation in the space, like that provided by Unify Square’s PowerSuite software and consulting services, can significantly help with a successful transition to the new normal.

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