by Nori Gale
What Will Work Look Like Post-COVID?
When life is humming along, it’s common to under-appreciate how good you feel. It’s not until you encounter an unpredictable problem, change, or crisis, that you recognize the pleasant state of things as they were before—a state of being which is now no longer accessible. As we enter the fifth month of COVID-19, it seems inevitable that our patterns and behaviors will never be exactly as they were before. So many aspects of our lives have been reshaped to prevent the spread of the virus: the way we socialize, how we entertain ourselves, how we communicate with one another, and how we do our jobs.
Developing a new way of seeing our lives can provide us with a sense of calm and hope, and can reinvigorate us and prepare us to adapt to all the changes we’re facing now.
There have been silver linings to what we’ve experienced over the last several months. When governments across the nation ordered us to shelter in place, many companies quickly moved their employees to work from home. This model can benefit both workers and employers: 80% of remote workers report experiencing less job stress, and 65% of remote workers surveyed said they were more productive in their home office. It makes sense that 74% of CFOs reported that post-COVID they intend to at least partially shift their companies to remote work.
How to Prepare Your Company to Work from Home
As we evolve towards this new work model, there are ways to prepare technologically and philosophically to increase efficiencies.
WEX had a traditional office setting with over 5,000 people out of 5,500 commuting to a WEX office every day. In response to the emerging pandemic at the end of February 2020, we decided employees would transition to work from home. Within a two-week time frame, WEX implemented new technologies, developed policies, learned best practices, and successfully moved 99% of its global employees to a work from home model. We’d like to share what we learned.
How To Build the Best Work From Home Company: Six Steps
Step 1 - Build a Transition Team
The first step to building an effective, successful work-from-home company is to gather a cross-functional team of experts to lead the charge. WEX’s Lori Norman, Director of Organizational Resilience, led our transition team. She remarked: “The advancement of our enterprise technology infrastructure and implementation of collaboration tools as well as proactive crisis response planning certainly enabled us to execute our business continuity plans and move the entire global workforce to a remote environment. But it was the collaboration and dedication of the pandemic response team that made the process as effective and efficient as it was. The size and complexity of a global response of this nature was daunting. It was the leadership and collaboration of the Organizational Resilience, HR, Legal, Operations, Facilities, Technology, and Corporate Communications leaders represented on the Pandemic Response Team along with support and coordination from the broader global team that made this a successful response.”
Preparation and teamwork are key for a smooth transition. Our transition team was a great example of WEXer collaboration at work. Their exhaustive efforts made the shift to work-from-home nearly seamless for the employees and for the company as a whole.
Build a Transition Playbook
Your transition team can work together to develop a playbook for your move to a remote workforce. The playbook should lay out detailed plans which anticipate the struggles that could potentially arise in dealing with information technology, human resources, communications, leadership interaction, facilities planning, and any potential legal ramifications.
Step 2 - Invest in Modern Technology Solutions
Here at WEX, our technology team has an overarching philosophy about equipment: give people great technology to be the most successful in their jobs. Transitioning your workforce to work from home, that investment in technology will bear fruit. Barry Driscoll, Senior Vice President, Global Technology Services, leads the team with this strategy: “My goal is to provide the modern tools and services employees want and need to feel good about working at WEX. Over the last several years, we have implemented many solutions to help achieve this goal including BYOD and Guest WiFi, more PC choices (including Macs), Single Sign On (Okta), extensive VPN capacity, vastly increased internet access, mobile device apps, and tools such as Google, Workday, and Coupa. When I joined the Technology Group one of the tenets I brought to bear is, a big part of why we’re here is to make employees more productive. And I refer to that as a ‘quality of life at work’ model. In other words, give people the technology they want and in turn, they will be the most productive they can be.”
Driscoll advises that you give people easy access to technology, and provide them with the most human and user-friendly tools on the market. You will experience better productivity from a work at home workforce if you use this as a guiding principle.
Best Practices for PC Efficiency
When building the most effective work-from-home class of employees, make it a primary goal that every computer be a modern laptop with adequate hardware resources. Laptops vs desktops give you maximum mobility options. When your PC equipment is within its useful life (3-4 years), it enables enhanced worker productivity and, simultaneously, reduces use of technology resources supporting older equipment. A PC within its useful life is also more likely to engage well with your security systems.
Dual Monitors for the Work From Home Office
You should prioritize giving workers larger screens along with their laptops. Within days of our decision to transition to a remote model, WEX provided all employees with a second monitor to complement the laptop screen. Providing employees with a second monitor is an investment that will reap significant benefits. The New York Times reports that dual monitors have been proven to increase productivity by 20-30%.
What About Contact Center Staff and Their Technology Needs?
WEX set up our customer service agents with two screens in addition to their laptop. It’s important for your contact center staff to be able to spread out across two large screens because they often need to toggle between a variety of platforms and documents. At WEX, we created home setups for our contact center folks that replicated their in-office experience.
Are Headphones a Necessity for Your At-Home Work Station?
A headset is often helpful in a home office. Many built-in PC speakers and microphones do not work well for online meetings and the distraction of household sounds can lead to a decrease in productivity. WEX purchased about 1,000 headsets when we moved to a remote workforce.
Step 3 - Perform a Technology Readiness Assessment
Consider the employee-centric technology you’re using. Invest in tools better suited for a remote workforce. Look into software that will increase information security, improve your virtual private network (VPN) capabilities, increase your softphone capacity, and ramp up your collaboration capabilities. Consider how cloud computing services can enable your workforce.
Choose a Single Platform for Collaboration For Your Workforce
When considering a remote employee base, inevitably you will have to consider how people will collaborate. Google Suite or Microsoft 365 are the two most prevalent collaboration solutions available today. With either tool, you have one portal where everyone in the company gathers for email, document sharing, instant messaging, whiteboard brainstorming, video conference calls, and more.
As Driscoll points out, “Choosing Google versus Microsoft is akin to having a religious argument. It’s not so much a technology question. The technology will work, either way, you just need to all be on the same platform.” WEX chose to standardize on G-Suite in 2018. The Google tools have enabled a major improvement in our global collaboration capabilities, especially as we have moved to a work from home model. Ultimately, choose one collaboration tool and migrate your whole company to it for the most effective work from home experience.
Information Security When Facing an Increase in Cyber Crime
Consider new risks of exposure to cybercriminals. Phishing attacks jumped by 40% during the first several months of the pandemic. This increase in cybercrime included 2,500 internet virus infections from malicious emails exploiting COVID-19 themes. The New York Times reports an increase, since stay-at-home orders were initiated, in Russian cyber criminals engaging in ransomware activity focused specifically on the remote workforce in our country: “Russian hackers have exploited the sudden change in American work habits to inject code into corporate networks with a speed and breadth not previously witnessed.”
Companies can avoid these kinds of disruptions by implementing a robust security system on employee equipment.
As Driscoll describes it, “WEX continuously evaluates, adjusts, and improves our InfoSec environment to reflect the changing risks. When we moved our staff to work from home, we added security capabilities at the endpoints of PCs and Mobile devices so that we did not rely as much on the WEX building/network perimeter. This includes malware protection, firewalls, encryption, and Data Loss Prevention (DLP).”
Use of VPN for Remote Employees Increases Data Security
The use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is an effective way to provide security for remote worker data. WEX revamped our global network over the last several years, and moved from a hub and spoke private network model to an internet-based model. This allowed us to increase the total internet capacity of the company tenfold. We also implemented VPN capacity across the globe so that our workers, who live in countries including Australia, and the UK, could work remotely, without compromising the company’s security.
Ensure Your VPN System Has Enough Capacity to Allow Everyone On At Once
When WEX made the transition earlier this year to 99% work-from-home, we anticipated an uptick in employee use of VPN. We increased capacity to allow for our total employee base to have access at once. We use a global edge firewall technology that has VPN capability and unlimited licenses, which made this move fairly straightforward.
In parallel with upgrading that backend technology, WEX had also moved many of our applications to a direct cloud model, which meant less stress on our VPN and often better application performance for employees. As Driscoll describes it, “WEX has worked to enable employees to access needed tools over the internet as opposed to always tunneling back to the mothership. Our security is really now focused on the end device as the primary point of security. Counting on people being in a physical building with physical security on a WEX-owned network, those days are long gone. VPN is now primarily used for those few services which are still on-premise.” So while VPN is a great tool for ensuring remote worker security, if your company moves to an all-cloud model, VPN becomes less of a need.
Softphones Can Help Employee Productivity When Working Remotely
Softphones allow employees to have an office phone experience on their PC. At WEX, we had 1,800 people request softphones when we migrated to remote work. We had all the technology ready to go pre-COVID, it was just a matter of getting people configured. WEX has an underlying telephony platform pretty broadly standardized across the company. Softphones are another example of a tool that may make employees feel more supported when working from home, and lead to greater productivity.
The Cloud Can Create Powerful Efficiencies For Your Remote Workforce
Moving to cloud computing will improve employee productivity in a variety of ways, from streamlining communications, to reducing downtime, to facilitating collaboration. As Driscoll explains it, “If your company believes all access to the internet must come through the mothership, you’re handcuffing yourself to the capacity of the company as opposed to the capacity of the internet. The capacity of the internet is virtually unlimited. Here at WEX, we’re leveraging the heck out of that capacity by saying employees don’t even need to connect to an office. All of our work can be accomplished in the cloud.”
WEX moved to a high-capacity, internet-based network called a software-defined network (SDN) and away from a traditional private network, which is more costly and stood as a barrier to moving to a cloud-based operation.
A move to the cloud does require a laser focus on security, so when planning for this shift, bear in mind that there are infosec issues to tackle before going completely cloud-based.
Step 4 - Build a Strong Internal Technology Team
Of the many potential problems that can arise from a company-wide remote work requirement, technological difficulties can become one of the most common impediments to productivity. To ensure that technology problems do not present a serious issue for your company, you should hire an in-house team of technology experts. By investing in a full-time technology team, you are ensuring a more responsive and, ultimately, more cost-effective group. Inc Magazine puts it succinctly: “Adopting an external processing system means working with people who don't understand your goals or business the way that you do...By investing in an in-house team, you can build and adapt your system according to the needs of the business while remaining focused on your goals and bottom line. Your employees understand your business inside and out and, if you've done things right, are truly invested in the company's success.” This becomes even more relevant with a remote workforce.
As Driscoll shares, “Bringing our technology support team in-house was critical to improving service levels and responsiveness to the frequent changes in our business requirements. With the pandemic crisis, having an in-house team allowed us to rapidly respond to the work-from-home transition. We could quickly reallocate resources and nimbly implement technology changes needed to support the global workforce. Bringing our technology support team in-house also saved WEX money.”
Step 5 - Provide Guidance for Employees on How to Work From Home
According to the Harvard Business Review, “Otherwise high-performing employees may experience declines in job performance and engagement when they begin working remotely, especially in the absence of preparation and training.” WEX’s transition team included members of our HR organization and a training plan was included in our playbook to help employees adapt to this new way of working.
Some ideas WEX generated and implemented which had a positive impact were: creating a “Work from Home Toolkit” for employees, producing an intranet Google Site with tutorials to help employees make the transition, and producing a pushed email newsletter from HR leadership including tips on how to be productive while working from home.
As our Chief Human Resources Officer, Melanie Tinto describes the process, “It was important to us here at WEX to support our employees on a daily basis during the transition to working from home. We knew our employees were experiencing a broad range of challenges and we wanted to be there for them in every way possible. Our number one priority was the safety and security of WEXers, and through these newsletters, we gave guidance on how to care for themselves during this trying time. Our daily connection with them over email became a way for us to check in, and it also provided an opening for anyone who needed help to reach out to us in response. It reminded our 5,500 employees that we care about them and that we’re here for them.”
Step 6 - Collaborate: It’s the Key to Work from Home Success
It’s important that you build tools and practices for your employees to be able to collaborate. Participants in a recent Forbes study who were engaged in collaborative work stuck to their task 64% longer than those who worked on the project alone. Those who collaborated also experienced higher engagement levels, lower fatigue levels, and a higher success rate. The key to your move to a remote workforce is developing new ways to collaborate.
At WEX, we tripled the use of Google Meet since moving to work-from-home, so we're doing roughly 15,000 video conference meetings a week. Encouraging real-time collaboration has been a focus.
Management Plays a Role: Encourage Use of Remote Work Tools Like Video Cameras on Conference Calls
The use of video on conference calls will have a positive impact on your employees when working from home. The efficacy of conference calls can vary dramatically based on the use of video versus only audio during calls. One recent study showed that use of video has an impact on worker well-being and productivity: 89% of respondents agreed that video conferencing reduces time to complete projects or tasks, 89% of users said video conferencing helps them feel connected while 90% of respondents say video makes it easier to get their point across.
As Driscoll explains, “The percentage of people using cameras at WEX has increased dramatically since management started to encourage it on team calls. Now 80-90% of people on conference calls are using a camera, which is a much better experience.”
There will be occasions where management can play a role in helping shape behavior to ensure the highest employee engagement when working from home. Encouraging the use of video during calls is a great example of how WEX management helped increase desired behavior.
Working From Home: During COVID and Beyond
Driscoll discusses the future of remote work this way, “My assumption for WEX, and for the broader world, is that there's going to be a lot more people working remotely when all is said and done: not everyone is going to come back to working in the office. I think COVID was a huge proof point that many organizations and many people and many functions can be just as productive, if not more productive, working from home. It's not 100%: there's going to be certain organizations or certain types of jobs or certain types of people for whom this model just doesn't work. In the long run, I fully suspect that there's going to be a lot fewer people primarily working in office buildings.”
The remote work option has long been bandied about and for decades the debate has been kept alive: are people more productive and happier working from home? COVID has pushed us to embrace it, and it may be here to stay. Creating a transition team, making sure your technology is ready for the change, communicating regularly, and promoting collaboration will all be keys to successfully creating an effective and engaged remote workforce.
The New York Times
Harvard Business Review