three women swimming in a pool photographed from above
PHOTO: Bruce Christianson

Plenty of articles shared tips and thoughts on how to best navigate that first move to remote work a few months ago. And clearly that move was easier for some than for others. If, like me, you work for a US software company based in Utah, whilst living and working from home in Ontario, Canada, remote work is simply the norm. However, if you work in a warehouse, or manufacturing, or retail, or another service industry where your main interface with technology is a Point Of Sale system, then all of the words written on the subject might be moot. 

Organizations rose to the challenge when the pandemic hastened our headlong rush into the future. But they're now looking to make the transition from crisis mode to whatever we're calling the next stage, and ideally capitalize on some of the efficiencies and lessons they've learned along the way.

Understand the Full Scope of Your Workforce

When organizations consider these next steps, they should keep in mind the full spectrum of workers they're supporting: from the fully online knowledge workers at the one end to those working in the physical world who use digital tools to enhance or manage that work on the other. An example of the latter is the retail workers mentioned above, who use a Point of Sale system, a stock management system, and maybe an app on their phone to organize their shifts and book time off. They are working in the physical world, but their work is made easier and more efficient by their minimal digital workplace.

Understanding where different groups of workers, divisions and teams are on the spectrum of digital to physical workplace allows us to consider potential approaches to transition to what's next. Understanding the different groups of users, their needs and their role-specific requirements might also help the organization in prioritizing what changes would benefit particular groups.

Related Article: Frontline Workers: The Untapped Knowledge Workers in Your Midst

Managing Next Steps in the Digital Workplace

My MBA instructor once said, “Management is just management. Take the frameworks and concepts and apply them as and where you need them.” It's true: When you're managing budgets, you use one set of techniques and frameworks, when you are managing people, you use different but equally appropriate ones.

His advice applies to the digital workplace, which after all is still a workplace. You'll need to manage unique and specific factors, but good management of technology, people and processes is still the norm, whether your technology is on premises or in the cloud; whether people are gathered in offices or working from home; whether your processes are centralized or highly distributed. So any organization considering next steps would do well to focus on three criteria:

  • People Management
  • Change Management
  • Technology Management

People Management

People are the greatest and most valuable asset of any enterprise. The amount of HR expertise you may have to call upon to help in this area might depend on the size of your organization, however I know my own HR department is small yet mighty!

Managers who had no previous experience managing a remote workforce are going to need help, especially if this is to become the standard way of working. However remote working was around well before the coronavirus, so a ton of literature and experience is available to help managers improve their management skills. It’s not an easy transition. I know I struggled with feelings of isolation after moving from a busy office environment to sitting at home alone everyday, so look to others who've navigated this transition before for their advice.

Related Article: Working Remotely: A Manager's Perspective

Change Management

Change management becomes extremely important here. When our worlds were turned upside down in March, there was very little time to ease people into their new mode of work.

Now the focus must be on not only supporting people who continue to cope with change, but facing the process, policy and procedure changes that may not have been dealt with earlier. Whatever steps you make at this point should be supported by proper change management techniques, to make sure employees are clear and on board with the changes. Luckily change management is a mature discipline that stands ready to provide the information, skills and experience to help us in our time of need. And no I am not being paid by the association of change managers.

Related Article: The Pandemic Popped These Closely Held Digital Workplace Beliefs

Technology Management

We've established there's a raft of HR and change management professionals available to help us, so we must be in good shape with technology management, right? A whole industry of highly trained and experienced IT professionals, consultancies and technology implementation partners is ready and willing to help, no?

While this is true, this part of the equation worries me more than the other management disciplines. Technology problems often contain an element that's beyond the control of your internal IT staff or service providers. Here are two examples from the early March to prove my point: A neighbor who works for a government agency was told to work from home. The only problem was she couldn't, because the agency didn't have the network infrastructure in place to fully support remote working. Similarly former colleagues of mine told me that as a "support function" they were only allowed to log into the VPN after 9pm, after the core customer facing workers logged off the network.

Both of these examples illustrate the unforeseen issues that can arise even in large organizations with big IT budgets. Business continuity plans hadn't predicted this kind of scenario and assumed the majority of the staff were equipped to work from home (laptop and phone being the minimal kit). All technology problems can of course be solved, nothing is new here either except perhaps the scale. One thing to note: organizations that had previously made wholesale moves to a cloud services model dealt with the initial shock far better, with their newly remote workers often able to securely log in to services without resorting to complex and flaky VPN software.

Related Article: Will We Ever Go Back to the Office Again?

It Always Comes Back to People, Process, Technology

As we thankfully move on from the initial crises mode of work to explore new long-term futures, a much heavier emphasis will come down on the digital workplace. Wherever your business lays on the digital to physical spectrum, treat it as you treat any complex initiative with a large IT component: Break it down into people, process and technology and add a big dollop of change management on top. Remember the digital workplace is the workplace, so management tools, techniques, frameworks and experienced practitioners are all out there to help you make the most of the situation and drive new business value from it.