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Remote work at enterprise scale - overcoming the productivity obstacles

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed March 16, 2020
Despite what we are facing, working remotely is viable. But to make it work for larger companies, the problem of enterprise scale must be overcome. Here's my rundown of expert tips and resources.

team steps

In my last post, The remote work surge is short-term, I officially re-launched my crusade against the office-culture-purists who've kept remote work in check.

But let's face it - that crusade must be set aside. There's a much bigger short-term issue: enterprises that never attempted remote work at scale are now compelled to do so. People might be scared, but they need to work. Feeling productive doesn't fix everything, but it can keep us connected.

By now, everyone who's ever donned a pair of bunny slippers and logged into a VPN has issued their "top tips on working from home." Don't worry - you're not getting another bland list here. My last piece already covered my favorite contrarian tips, including my critique of remote video evangelists.

There's a problem with these lists. They gloss over the issue today's employers must overcome: enterprise scale. When I think about enterprise scale, the words that come to mind are: governance, performance, security, visibility, measurement, effective collaboration across time zones, and accountability.

No, those probably aren't the fun parts of remote work. But if you can't check them off your list, your remote teams won't be productive - and they could be vulnerable to opportunistic hackers also.

Remote work at scale - curve balls ahead

In a Constellation Research webinar, "A Guide to Remote Work During COVID-19" (replay link), Dion Hinchcliffe raised an example I hadn't considered: even in Silicon Valley, where broadband is top grade, he's heard from folks running into issues when two members of the household are attempting simultaneous video conferences.

We just had a diginomica team member contend with a similar problem, via an wifi-expectant family and a broadband speed failure. That's beyond the scope of corporate IT troubleshooting.

Vendors are stepping up to make resources available to scrambling telecommuters. Under the banner of Zoho Remotely, Zoho has made a core of useful productivity apps available for free until July 1. Free access is limited to ten Zoho users for a new Zoho sign up; existing Zoho customers can ramp up as many employees as they need for free - as explained here. Meanwhile, TechSmith has made its useful SnagIt screen recording tool available free through June 30, as well as its video review software.

In Coronavirus is exploding the remote workforce - here's how IT should prepare, diginomica contributor Kurt Marko laid out the IT issues in play:

Unfortunately for today's emergency work from home (WFH) policies, the underlying hardware, software and support infrastructure are only designed to accommodate a small subset of the employee population.

That scale-up can't happen overnight. Obstacles cited by Marko include:

  • VPN Capacity
  • VoIP capacity and remote number extension
  • VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) or services
  • Remote security and client support staff

Solving scale issues amidst a crisis is far from ideal. Marko offers advice on mitigating that, including: thorough testing of remote infrastructure, a dedicated WFH help team, and, looking ahead, a shift of "commodified services" like email to SaaS.

ZDNet has twenty years of remote worker management. In Managing telecommuters due to coronavirus COVID-19? Here are 8 management tips, they share some project-tested tips. As they put it: "communicate well and often." I especially liked these two:

  • Quantify and watch your KPIs - "Managing a remote team means you need to be more focused on your deliverables and performance metrics. If you're not quantifying work, then it's hard to hit your objectives remotely."

Ahh, but there is a delicate balance here:

  • Don't micromanage - "With a remote workforce you're forced to let go of any micromanagement tendencies. You simply can't track your people as well. That reality is good for both the manager and the workforce, but many supervisors won't see it that way at first."

I don't agree that remote work inherently reduces micro-management. It's possible to track and ping the living heck out of your team members. I once had a client who obsessively tracked his salespeople's call log activity in their extranet. I pushed him to back off - after all, salespeople should still be measured by performance. Give me a deal closer who takes a two-hour lunch over an extranet junkie.

Security and tools matter, but they don't add up to culture

The corporate security issues invoked by a rapid work-from-home push is a post unto itself. A good start comes via DarkReading's COVID-19 Drives Rush to Remote Work. Is Your Security Team Ready? Kelly Sheridan brings out several key points:

  • Documentation and structure for reporting security issues is job one
  • Multi-factor identification, while not foolproof, is a must
  • Legacy apps are typically more vulnerable; consider a virtual desktop for those
  • Invest in threat detection upgrades: "Behavioral analytics tools for detecting suspicious activity should be optimized for admins and those who handle critical data."

Right before publication, I interviewed Paylocity CEO Steve Beauchamp for his views on remote at enterprise scale. About half of Paylocity's 3,500 employees work remotely on a permanent basis already; add in the flexible work arrangements, and 2/3 of Paylocity's employees are in some type of remote situation. One overriding point that came out in his advice was:

Who do they call when they need help?

That includes: how do you get your boss' attention when you need it? In a remote setting, that's not always simple. When you have an expectant customer on the phone, you better know how to get what you need - and fast. Beauchamp and I talked about the governance/security gotchas you might not expect. Example: how do you regulate what gets printed on a home office printer? What about file download protocols?

On the culture side, Beauchamp is a big believer that you can cultivate a terrific culture, even amongst remote employees. It does take some creativity and structure; I'll return to that in a future post.

In his webinar, Hinchcliffe packed in a bunch of info - so check the replay or the slides. I agreed with Hinchcliffe's point that investing in proper tools can be invaluable:

remote work tools
(Constellation Research)

Slide via Constellation Research's Guide to to Remote Work for COVID-19

Hinchcliffe noted some nifty apps that can improve remote working. On this slide, I thought the group mural/whiteboard and the simulated virtual office, where you can visit each other and share meeting rooms, stood out:

remote work - software tools
(Constellation Research)

Slide via Constellation Research's Guide to to Remote Work for COVID-19

For some companies, this is not going to be easy. Cultural and data privacy obstacles loom largest. As I'm going to press, a new piece on how Apple's culture of secrecy will hinder their remote work came out. An Ars Technica piece noted that High-stakes security setups are making remote work impossible.

Ars Technica's examples, which include power grid and intelligence agency workers, are hard to refute. Other adaptations besides working strictly from home will be needed. But the Redditors who commented pointed out that many workers who were told they could never work from home for various reasons are now hearing a different tune from their employers - as it should be.

Enterprise scale is the hardest obstacle to working at home. But if we want to have anything that resembles a decent economic recovery on the other side of this, we've got to find a way.

Fortunately, there are a proliferation of tools coming out to aid in all of this. The latest example:

And if children are part of the mix, companies like this are making virtual scholastic learning available from home too.

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