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How coronavirus is changing our workplaces

Radosław Bułat, CEO - Applover,

Nobody expected it. We didn’t think that on such a large scale and so quickly one virus, invisible to the naked eye, would change our lives, habits, and daily rituals. Our world in March 2020 doesn’t resemble anything it was two months ago. Coronavirus surprised everyone and affected business in most markets, and will affect many more. For several years we have heard voices about the coming financial crisis, but the direction from which it came and how rapidly it happened still causes many shock and disbelief. Indices of major stock exchanges, such as NASDAQ, are falling even by 9% in one day. Investors are panicking. Many make haste decisions, often because of emotions that are the most dangerous advisor in such a situation. And now we came to the point where we are struggling with a crisis, forcing us to make changes for which we weren’t prepared. As people, companies, or organizations.

Can we work in these new conditions? Are we prepared to switch to 100% remote work with our existing business processes, both internal and external? I’d like to believe so, but the data shows something completely different.

Services in crisis vs. remote work

Services constitute the largest part of the global economy. Companies have constantly been improving their processes for over 20 years, automating many of them and digitizing entire enterprises. However, we still have a long way to go in the face of a coronavirus pandemic. We didn’t expect such a big slump in the economy, because we all operate online. We order services, work in many markets from various places around the world, use many cloud services and solutions that enable us to work outside the company headquarters. So why does our current situation look like that? Are we still not ready for remote work?

Who is the leader in remote work?

Many companies have been giving us an example of how to work not only from home but also allow their employees to unrestricted remote work wherever they want. Akamai, SAP, Salesforce, Toptal, and many others operate in this way.

In the current situation, to stop the dynamic spread of the virus, many companies have temporarily transitioned to remote work of entire organizations. While many of these companies have so far practiced partial work from home and had many processes prepared, you can’t talk about a common rule here. Let’s look at Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft or Twitter. These giants were ready and reacted very quickly to the growing threat caused by the coronavirus.

Amazon sent a message to its employees, recommending work from home until the end of March. Facebook reacted just as quickly by closing its Seattle office shortly after detecting the first case of COVID-19 in one of the employees. Microsoft asked employees from Puget Sound, Seattle, and California Bay to stay home until March 25, 2020. The company also has been encouraging to limit interaction, keep a distance of 6 feet (about 1.5 m) between each other, and shorten necessary meetings as soon as possible.

Amazon has over 45,000 employees in Seattle, Facebook in the same area — 5,000, Microsoft — close to 54,000. They made it. Besides, Mark Zuckerberg wrote in one of his posts that anyone looking for information about coronavirus on Facebook will be directed to the WHO website or a local health organization.

Who failed the digitization test during the coronavirus pandemic?

However, it is sad to look at industries that have been unsuccessful during a pandemic but could be, because they have many ready-made solutions and favorable technologies they can use. Among others, the education sector could hugely benefit from greater digitization. The education system still based on physical homework submitted for assessment should have come to an end a long time ago. However, unprepared establishments are only now looking for solutions — planning to transfer homework to students via Messenger and WhatsApp. Will such actions be effective at schools’ shutdown? It’s hard to say.

Chinese anti-lesson

The recent story of Chinese application DingTalk shows that good intentions, a well-created application may not always be successful. Alibaba’s app, which measures productivity, has been used until now mainly by employees and has often been described as Orwellian version of Slack. In recent weeks, producers have added many features to enable students to use it for remote learning as well. Live-stream allowed lessons for up to 300 students at the same time. The option to carry out tests and evaluate work has been added. Over 50 million students have been using it since the COVID-19 epidemic broke out in Wuhan, and schools were closed in China. However, student creativity has found a vent in bombing of the app in digital app stores with 1-star reviews for DingTalk. Young people complained that the application destroyed their extended (Chinese Lunar Year) free time by allowing teachers to control their students remotely. According to one of them, teachers require daily login to the application and assign them a lot of homework. The idea of ​​leaving low ratings for the application itself resulted from the fact that stores (App Store, Google Store) unlist applications that have overwhelmingly negative reviews. Unfortunately, the students’ goal was not achieved. DingTalk created a video directed to students asking them to stop giving negative reviews. The app has also begun to receive very positive reviews from employees and teachers. A cautionary story. 😉

The education system should have been digitized a long time ago. The use of simple solutions that are widely available to consumers meets most of the needs of teachers and students. The inclusion of a simple video that can be created with a few touches of the screen, sending it to students to diversify learning and show more ways to acquire knowledge, should have long ago entered the curriculum.

Remote work in the world

We have known for years that remote work serves companies and employees. The number of studies that have been carried out in this area is constantly increasing. In the United States alone in 2018, 5.2% of people worked completely remotely. 2/3 employees would like to work from home. 36% would choose this option instead of a raise. And a survey of 1,500 technology professionals has revealed that 37% of them would decide to cut down their salary if they could work from home! These numbers definitely give food for thought and show in which direction the market should go.

Employers often fear the reduced productivity of their teams when working outside the office, but these arguments have been refuted. A study five years ago showed a 13% increase in productivity when working from home. The reasons stated were the reduced number of breaks and sick leave. Not only work from home, but work from anywhere in the world is gaining more and more votes. By giving employees more freedom, limiting negative practices such as micromanagement, we allow people to grow and release their potential. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility and with it even greater employee involvement in what they do. This is confirmed by the State of Remote Work 2019 report prepared by Owl Labs. According to it, mobile workers with a 13% higher probability won’t want to change jobs for the next 5 years. This is definitely something worth investing in!

Remote work — an opportunity for business development

Remote work stands not only for the benefits associated with the involvement of employees, their lower rotation, but also great potential for business development. It’s an opportunity to redefine what cooperation between a company and an employee is. How your team works depends more on them, and how you present them with priorities and goals can help them find the best solutions. The goals must be common, set and specified. Thanks to this your team’s motivation to implement them will not decrease because they will know what they’re striving for. If people work together, aiming for one goal, they share responsibility for the project.

Remote work is also an opportunity for other ways of accounting for work, not necessarily for hours worked, but for results. The times when you have to sit in the office to finish the required 8 hours full time are over. This also gives more and more opportunities for businesses that can optimize their costs. You don’t need to maintain an office, equipment, buy coffee, and take care of fruit Thursdays. Just invest in tools that facilitate online work, and there are more and more of them of high quality.

What are the risks of remote work and how to counteract them?

Many companies and their managers are afraid of switching to remote work with their teams. Their fears are sometimes image-related — such as the fact that the company does not need a physical office, so it has no place to invite clients to a meeting. But on the other hand, if we’re afraid that the office makes our company more credible, maybe we should re-evaluate some issues, especially in the technology industry.

Among other fears mentioned by managers is the lack of trust in a team that will work from the beach and relax, not work. However, I believe that clear communication with the team will prevent this. All we have to do is present our goals clearly, discuss with the team the steps and tasks that are necessary to achieve them. In the United States, organizations that have opened up to remote work enjoy an average of $11,000 in savings a year per employee, thanks to lower operating costs and increased productivity.

Managers also fear that they won’t be able to contact remote workers in emergencies. On the contrary, however, because remote employees are more open to cooperation and work 100% independently, while still being part of a larger team. It has been noticed that the virtual cooperation model increases the quality of communication and trust between teams. What’s more, many managers, after introducing appropriate rules during remote work, noticed with surprise that their remote teams are even more accessible than when working in the office!

There are also social aspects related to work from home. While this is a good solution for introverts, extroverted people may feel out of touch after some time. Normally, you can encourage people to work from a cafe, but during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s better to stay at home. So how do you deal with the need for socialization? Organize calls, hangouts, and video conferences! It’s worth making an appointment with colleagues for a 15-minute call to ask one question. This won’t only allow us to ensure contact, exchange necessary information but also simply to bond the team. Among the recommendations, during extended work from home, as at present during a pandemic, you can also encourage employees to integrate online and arrange non-work related video conferences, they can even eat lunch together at a specific time, or have an e-beer after the finished project.

Will work in the future take place in the virtual world?

I think that remote work as a standard for even more sectors and industries is the direction we are heading to. Not only economic conditions or pandemics will force us to do so, but also a number of benefits that I wrote about above.

Already today, a significant part of the IT, creative, marketing and customer service sectors work remotely. In addition, we see more and more services offered online, it’s not only psychological and dietary consultation, but also individual yoga classes. More and more medical services are entering the online world — LuxMed and Medicover, private medical healthcare organizations in Poland, offering online consultations with physicians, the introduction of e-prescriptions in Poland.

In addition, our professional future will benefit even more from the effects of globalization and the possibility of employing talents from around the world. Do you work from Poland for a US client? Go ahead and hire a team from the UK and Canada, and support it with Polish specialists. This is a greater exchange of experiences and good practices. Already today, it often looks like that for IT outsourcing projects. At Applover, we pay great attention to enabling specialists tailored specifically for your project. Thanks to this, both the client and our developers, who often work remotely, can create applications for a wide range of brands from around the world.

Remote work is also an important factor when choosing employment for Millennials and Generation Z entering the market. They stop treating remote work as a benefit, but rather as a norm that the employer must agree to and allow. So if we want to develop our business, we must adapt the best remote work practices today. My partners and I noticed this during the recruitment process at Applover. If we didn’t have this information in the job offer, then during the job interview with a potential employee, the topic appeared and was very important. Candidates have always asked about the particulars related to working from home, so I’m satisfied that each time we could meet these expectations, offering the opportunity to work remotely.

Tools that will facilitate remote work

Companies are starting to outdo each other in offering tools that enable and facilitate remote work. We have at our disposal the entire Google Suite, Microsoft Suite, Trello, Jira, Slack, Zoom, Skype, and many, many more. All of them mean that remote work is within the reach of almost everyone in the world, from large corporations to small businesses.

What tools should you choose? Preferably those that won’t make your employees act like Chinese students reacted to DingTalk. 😉 Take your time to figure out what is absolutely needed and then implement it.

Tools can make your work easier, but if you overdo them, they won’t have a positive impact on remote work reception or team productivity. It’s worth deciding on such tools with which our team is already familiar. We, at Applover, use Slack both while working in the office and remotely, same with all other services we’re using, so everyone uses the same set of tools. Our goal should always be working efficiently instead of focusing on additional tools.

It’s always worth asking yourself:

  • Are we using the right tools?
  • How can we work more efficiently?
  • How can we make it easier for our employees to work remotely?

Maybe it’s not the tools, but something else, that makes remote work not effective. Let’s remember that technology isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but a means to an end. A specific tool is to enable us to work, and in order for it to work, we must efficiently pass information and communicate with the team. Transparency, as well as attention to people and their needs, should guide us when working remotely.

How to implement remote work in the organization and do it effectively, quickly and within a short deadline?

In the current crisis, I was very pleased with the messages of CEO and Managers from various technology companies in Poland, who wrote that due to the coronavirus pandemic they’re closing the offices and will work 100% remotely. But what I liked the most about these posts on LinkedIn was their confidence in knowing how to do it and if anyone needs it, they’ll be happy to help you switch to full remote work. It’s very uplifting among competing companies.

Currently, it’s recommended to switch to remote work for at least 14 days, as this is the quarantine period associated with the Coronavirus. To make it easier for yourself and your organizations, it’s worth following a few simple rules.

  1. Determine the start and the end of the period during which your team will work remotely. For ease of use, you can enter this information in the company calendar, or add an annotation on Slack at the employee profile (we do this at Applover and it helps us a lot).
  2. Make sure every employee has internet access in the place they plan to work in. If not, determine possible solutions (change of location or purchase of mobile internet).
  3. Ask each team member to check that they have all the necessary remote work access to the documents, software, tools and make sure everyone has a working computer and/or other devices that they need to perform their tasks.
  4. Make sure you know which communication channels the team will use when working remotely. Ensure you have extra contact information to each person in case of an emergency.
  5. Discuss with your team what hours you will be working. They don’t have to be strict hours, but e.g. that everyone will always be available at specific times, e.g. between 10 am and 3 pm.
  6. Set a schedule for meetings for remote work and what tool you will use for calls and video conferences.
  7. Set priorities with the team and individual tasks that need to be done. Thanks to this, you will not only avoid misunderstandings, but you will give employees the opportunity to report any problems.
  8. Assure employees that they can count on your support and assistance during remote work and in its organization be it they need it.

Business during a pandemic — can something good come out of it?

Apart from the dynamic global situation related to the development of the coronavirus epidemic, forced remote work today may affect our effectiveness in the future. If we can learn how to work remotely globally, I believe that business and individuals will not only benefit from it but that we will come to the point where it will affect an even greater and more effective exchange of experiences and talents. This, in turn, can translate into developing new technologies and the emergence of innovations that will change our world for the better. And while #BetterSafeThanSorry, let’s avoid panic and trust that it will only get better. I hope that our work will be even more effective as we go through the current crisis.

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