The New Playbook – Lessons in Remote Learning

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Thanks to David Fritz (CEO, Acme Cryogenics) and Ashley Madray (Gas Innovation, CEO) for their contributions.

On a worldwide scale, more people than ever are engaged in remote work. According to Global Workplace Analytics, this type of work has expanded 10 times faster than other areas of the workforce over the last decade.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this migration away from the traditional workplace, many companies have not quickly returned to pre-pandemic working arrangements. Partly because safety concerns have not been eliminated, but also companies have observed employee productivity being maintained or improved with remote working models for a variety of tasks and roles.

In a recent Boston Consulting Group (BCG) survey of remote workers across a variety of B2B operations, more than half to as much as 75% of the respondents said they have been able to maintain or improve their productivity during this time-frame. Although these results are being achieved in many cases, employers still have concerns especially around collaborative tasks (including exchanges with co-workers, working in teams, and interacting with clients) which seems to be harder in this ‘new normal’.

Consequently, this article will take a deep dive on this topic and first cover some background on the growth of remote working, lessons learned during the pandemic, and share some best practices and considerations as you develop your own ‘playbook’ for how/where/when to incorporate increased levels of remote working in your operations.

Background

Contrary to popular belief, the concept of ‘working from home’ (WFH) was born well before downtown offices and commuting even existed. WFH was normal prior to the Industrial Revolution, where everyone worked out of their homes including skilled blacksmiths, carpenters, and leather workers for example, each with shops at their residence and selling their goods from there. With the Industrial Revolution came the need for automation and the creation of factories, which ultimately required employees to complete their work at designated ‘office spaces’.

Fast-forward after World War II, and with the world economy strengthening, there was the rise in corporate headquarters, larger office spaces, and the birth of the eight-hour workday. With this continued global economic expansion came advancements in computers, technology, cloud-based applications, and many other solutions that paved the way for modern day remote working. Now, in many cases, remote employees work all hours of the day and can stay in touch with their co-workers from all over the world thanks to the internet. And that is just one reason why remote work continues to be so popular.

Just prior to the start of the pandemic, Forbes magazine shared an analysis of 11,000 home-based or remote workers, which had a couple of interesting revelations – one was that in recent years, the scope of remote work was already expanding from IT programmers to marketing, design, customer support, and even management. So clearly, WFH was slowly growing across a variety of job roles and industries prior to the pandemic.

Specific to the industrial gas industry, WFH is not new and as a matter of fact, it has been utilized over and over for decades. Segments of the industry that have customer service and logistics teams operating on a 24/7 basis, have been utilizing WFH models for planning/operating through inclement weather events or in crisis situations. In doing so, the Tier one and regional players have had to develop guidelines or even policy on how WFH would work in those situations.

Lessons learned

Every company in almost every industry worldwide has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, in ways they never imagined. Some companies unfortunately did not survive, but those that did learned several lessons with respect to the necessity and opportunity of remote working:

Technology infrastructure – The speed with which companies were able to pivot and move staff to WFH was directly proportional to the ‘robustness’ of the company’s IT infrastructure. Those that had the necessary IT hardware (laptops, smartphones), software (cloud-based collaboration and operations tools) and work processes in place, completed the transition in hours to a few days.

Customer digitization – The companies that had digital channels in place with customers/ vendors were able to augment or even replace traditional customer interactions seamlessly.

Work process clarity – Companies who had a clear and documented understanding of roles and responsibilities, decision owners/rights, and the associated data/information flows, were able to minimize inefficiencies in execution.

One size does not fit all – Not all roles were easily transferable to a WFH model. Many were good fits, but some roles and the associated work tasks had to be restructured to address process inefficiencies.

Acme Cryogenics CEO David Fritz recalls,

In mid-March while on business travel as things were starting to shut down in other markets and geographies, I had to quickly authorize IT expenditures to enable key support team members to work from home. That decision enabled us to pivot the organization to a WFH model in less than a week, ahead of the forthcoming mandated shutdown.

David Fritz. Acme Cryogenics CEO

In Texas, where the headquarters for Gas Innovations is based, CEO Ashley Madray recounts that,

The pandemic had a later effect on our business from a staffing and working remote standpoint. Being an essential business, we initially focused on restructuring operations to enhance personnel safety while maintaining consistent production. Later in the summer and into the fall, we shifted approximately 20-25% of our staffing in the logistics and support areas to a WFH status.

Ashley Madray, Gas Innovations CEO

When you look at trends in the industrial gas and broader chemical industry, companies have adjusted to how to work remotely, how they sell products, and how they interact with customers. And on the flip side, customers are expecting a more simplified ordering process (especially in a contact-less environment), and expect better digital experiences and e-commerce solutions, such as live chat, that limit in-person interaction.

Even as the industry has been slow to move sales online, chemical sales will likely gain a further foothold in e-commerce in 2021. Nearly 30% of chemical executives in a recent Deloitte poll indicated that more than 20% of total US chemical sales will be driven by business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce in 2021. Many companies are increasingly using digital tools and offering self-service capabilities like leading consumer e-commerce platforms.

Best practices/considerations

Over the last year, major CEOs have been on both sides of the fence regarding whether remote working is hurting or aiding business productivity. In a recent Fast Company article, “Citi’s CEO, Michael Corbat, stated that he thinks productivity may suffer with long-term remote work. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg anticipates as much as half of Facebook’s employees will transition to working remotely over the next 5-10 years, while Netflix’s Reed Hastings believes working from home is a pure negative.

These strong opinions make sense, because each companies’ WFH experience has been different, with some better/worse than others. More importantly, it comes down to your company’s business model, the culture you are trying to maintain and ultimately the question, is the employee productivity improving with this organizational structure? Recent surveys seem to say ‘yes’ but the true answer is ‘it depends’.

As an example, Mercer surveyed 800 employers and 94% said that productivity was unaffected – or even improved – compared to its pre-pandemic levels. But it is not that simple, because quality matters – and leaders from across many industries have agonized about the other intangible factors affecting remote teams.

With that said, clearly there are some considerations and best practices that have emerged from both companies who have pivoted during the pandemic and have partially returned to a new normal, as well as from companies who have been operating in a fully remote fashion prior to the pandemic and have flourished. Key considerations include:

Strategy – As with any strategic initiative, the executive team’s involvement is critical to its success. It starts with the business strategy and a clear understanding of where the company is headed, and the C-Suite refreshing the strategy with elements that need to be adjusted to enable the company to be more responsive/agile in the new reality. Depending on the business model, it may require developing/expanding remote working capabilities that enable the organization to better meet customer expectations, improve margins and enhance the company culture.

WFH policy – Depending on adjustments to the business strategy, the development of a formal policy may be needed to help define for the organization what WFH means, its value and where it fits best – and how it is implemented, sustained, and integrated with the existing organization. It is critical for the leadership and the line managers to be aligned on this policy, otherwise, a sub-optimal implementation could adversely affect organizational efficiency. As an example, best practice companies consider multiple versions of ‘remote’. WFH models can be structured so that employees split their time between home and the workplace, on alternate weeks and on a rotating schedule.

Work process and support – The biggest mistake in implementing a WFH strategy, is that organizations do not completely consider which processes/roles need to be restructured and/or how they may need to be supported differently to ensure success. It cannot (and should not) be implemented the same as being in the office full-time. Consider the nature of the work, the need for interaction (for live supervision or brainstorming, for instance), and so on. The most successful remote teams often require restructuring and support and create role-specific work guides for topics such as Remote Project Management, Remote People Management, and Remote Product Design.

Be intentional – In an office, you can walk over to someone’s desk or tap their shoulder for the information you need. This ‘instant contact effect’ often leads to the breakdown of process and documentation, especially when resources are no longer co-located. As a result, partially or fully remote teams must be intentional about how to communicate and document processes, and everyone should have access to the same information which will reduce potential back-and-forth and drawn-out communications. Depending on the task/project size, complexity, and time zone coverage, you may need to leverage Asynchronous Communication solutions to aid efficiency.

Staffing/resourcing – When/if you are ready to fill fully-remote roles, hire carefully. With the demand for commute-free living and flexibility, remote roles often see hundreds of applicants from around the country and even the world. If not done well and differently from in-office roles, they have the potential to cripple an organization. Utilize much of the same candidate criteria but a few tweaks will be needed such as highlighting ‘trust’ as a critical core value.

Technology infrastructure – Investments may be required to position employees and ultimately the business for WFH success. In addition to the standard cloud-based infrastructure for efficient communications, collaboration, and work process execution, consider replicating the casual interactions that happen naturally in the office (the impromptu team lunch, informal hallway chat, or a quick strategy session by the coffee machine). Best practice companies such as Cisco bake these into their work processes and even offer Virtual Office-style apps to help facilitate the interactions.

Cybersecurity and internal data security – Within the technology space, this topic deserves to be mentioned separately. As you consider transitioning some staff to WFH, and their networks are less secure than the home office, the risk of external cyber threats is increased, which means that organizations will need to increase their cybersecurity resources and coverage. This need will grow as more employees work in a hybrid environment. Additionally, the limited supervision of remote workers, even for critical tasks, heightens the company’s vulnerability to data security issues internally. To reduce data security risk, companies will need to ensure that they restrict access to sensitive information to select employees, institute data access expiration, implement multi-step (and multi-person) approval processes for any information sharing, and limit access to sensitive information to certain working hours. Only 30% of cyber security is technology. The other 70% is culture, behavior, and awareness.

There is a time and place for remote working, and there are roles/situations where it may not fit at all. More specifically, I have observed that roles having a significant amount of internal or external collaboration, are not good fits for remote working. In addition, we have noticed with new employees who have joined our company during the pandemic, and are new to the area, they have required additional support to ensure their connection to the company and their mental well being if a portion of their role is done remotely.

Ashley Madray, Gas Innovations

Meanwhile, Fritz states,

During the pandemic, and while some staff were moved to WFH, we increased our level of communication and update to the broader organization. It was daily at first, with a focus on pandemic-specific safety, and business updates, but then we gradually reduced
the frequency to 2-3 times a week, and now to monthly, but at the same time we expanded the agenda topics to include areas such as coaching/training to help the organization work more effectively.

David Fritz. Acme Cryogenics CEO

Next steps

When deciding what to do next with respect to WFH models for your organization, it will depend on your business strategy, product/services portfolio, company/employee culture and the needs/desires of your customers.

In BCG’s recent Workplace of the Future survey, companies expect approximately 40% of employees to utilize a remote working model in the future, and 37% of companies expect that more than 25% of employees will work in hybrid models that combine remote and onsite work. That survey is across multiple industries, but specific to industrial gases, the transition to WFH is expected to be a bit slower and muted in comparison – primarily driven by the industry’s capital intensity and focus on driving efficient manufacturing/operations and supply chain processes where co-location of resources is beneficial.

Nonetheless, this is clearly not a ‘one size fits all’ answer for the industry. It is expected there will be a broad spectrum of WFH models implemented depending on how globally distributed is one’s customers, supply chains and ultimately their organization. The greater your global distribution, it is likely that WFH models will be a greater enabler for your business.

So, where is your company on this spectrum, and are you ready to develop your own WFH playbook?



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