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Distributed workforces: How the pandemic’s drive to remote work unlocks untapped potential for better employee engagement

By Atos staff

Over the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside multifaceted disruptions, have upended established work trends. These times are expected to leave an indelible impact on the future of work and workplace relations. But in this new normal, how does enterprise leadership formulate sustainable employee engagement? The health crisis, accelerating one of the most prominent business transformations in decades, presents exceptional opportunities for organizations to tailor viable responses to persisting HR challenges and build further on the positives of the distributed operation models through proactive experience governance.

In the face of a pandemic, the institutions worldwide have been agile in re-posturing their workplace policies, with telecommuting pivoting from discretionary to a fundamental truth of enterprise cultures. The acceptance of the trend has been reflected by a recent study by Gartner that evaluated the views of top executives in the finance, HR, legal and compliance verticals. It reports that 82% of the businesses are planning to extend work-from-home (WFH) status for their employees beyond the pandemic, while 47% are contemplating retaining it as a permanent tool for workforce orchestrations. Also, an overwhelming 92% of the employers are ready to offer remote working to employees, who are skeptical about workplace inductions in the wake of COVID-19. The shift has contributed to fostering improved industrial relations and employee perceptions, with 80% of the professionals acknowledging the management’s concerns for their health and safety and 78% ratifying the response of their employers to the situation.

While the companies did a commendable job defending primary employee interests, telecommuting has been a standard reaction to ensure operational continuity within the realms of stringent social distancing norms. As 80% of the employees still feel that the situation is materially affecting their performances and work-life balances, a cookie-cutter approach to WFH may belie the underlying variations in perceptions, capabilities and motivations that define the dynamics of employee engagement.

Two of the most prominent voices in the digital workspace services domain examine the imperative of the organizations to stay invested in employee experience management as a conscious business strategy for success. How can technology serve not only as an enabler but as a prime basis for promoting employee engagement by driving personalized functional access beyond the institutional boundaries?

Reimagining employee engagement to accommodate socio-cultural and proficiency preferences

The pandemic found organizations in a world with varying degrees of digital readiness. While some already have their cloud-enabled platforms and digital workplace initiatives to expedite their transformations in place, others have been reactive to the change. But irrespective of their position on the adoption curve, businesses have started to realize the entanglement of employee engagement with value, propelling Experience Level Agreements (XLA), based on sentiment analysis to gain traction alongside Service Level Agreement (SLA) as a means for influencing operational outcomes. With the bulk of the workforce on remote, their performance is no longer contingent solely on optimal device and service outputs. It is now a sum of how the team members perceive and consume the available tools, how they replicate the traditional interactions like boardroom meetings and team sessions within a domestic environment. It’s also about how employees continue to resonate with the enterprise objectives and causes while on remote, with the realities of home lives, psychological conditioning and personal characteristics.

According to Mike McGarvey, Vice President, Digital Workplace Chief Innovation Officer, Atos North America, the XLA conversation needs to reposition from conservative, institution-centric evaluations to respect the peculiarities of home settings and wellbeing considerations. “Gauging of team members’ productivity needs to depart from unidimensional measures like degrees of participation and prompt responses to communications to inspect how they interface with the systems from home to drive desired results. To better understand the needs of employees, it involves unorthodox scales and means like service availability, staff pulse surveys and net promoter scores for transactional CSATs. It’s not just about tracking but innovating to enrich functional experiences consistently,” he says. Indeed, the flexibility and the ensuing work-life balances are the keys to mustering the right outcomes.

Embedding employee engagement as part of the distributed workforce culture

While video calling applications have been prominent, the COVID-19 situation has witnessed their unprecedented adoptions for bridging communication gaps. However, McGarvey shares that a creative reimagination of video and messaging features can contribute meaningfully in fostering employee engagement and retain the feeling of fellowship even in WFH scenarios. He cites the example of post-business virtual happy hours, which serve as a social platform for extending on-going conversations, with possibilities of incubating radical ideas outside the formal frameworks.

John Laherty, Senior Research Analyst, NelsonHall agrees. “Using virtual means for employee interactions is not only a viable strategy for driving large-scale institution-wide engagements but also helps in mitigating the risk of digital fatigue among the workforce,” he says. However, McGarvey opines that organizations will have to look beyond just video chats and digital whiteboards to replicate the in-person moments for the virtual domain, in the long term. He says, “how to share ideas and concepts with the stakeholders, how to sustain the momentum in ultra-collaborative verticals like DevOps, how to make inclusive innovation possible; are some of the questions the business leaderships are likely to face while designing post-COVID19 workspace ecosystems.”

Sustaining the thrust toward adopting more collaboration-focused products and cybersecurity

In the face of a rapid onset of COVID-19 and social isolation measures, the response of the application vendors has at best been reactive. Third-party integration functionalities are available with market-leading products to append necessary features to cater to collaboration on an ad-hoc basis. But the new normal has fueled the precedence for co-authoring packages geared toward accentuating employee engagement and supporting task loads in distributed environments. Laherty says that businesses will soon have on-premise and cloud-ready products at their disposal with dedicated features for off-campus engagements, moving away from the present embedded approach. McGarvey agrees. Citing the example of a leading collaboration platform, he says, “their psychologists found that prolonged exposure to the speaker’s background in a domestic setting can distract the audience. The inference led to an additional feature that allows the blurring of the backgrounds and merging of the communication windows, building an auditorium-like experience for the participants.”

However, since a substantial chunk of the proprietary information is now expected to reside beyond the organizational premises, endpoint security becomes more critical than ever. Modern device management (MDM) adoption laggards are expected to witness a spike in support issues as a wide variety of systems now ping into the enterprise network. Redundant and near-obsolete techniques for resource distribution and oversight can adversely affect user experience and raise imminent security concerns, otherwise absent for organizations that have embraced MDM practices in time.

It justifies McGarvey’s portrayal of MDM as a choice enabler, allowing employees to pitch in with heterogeneous personal IT assets that they’re comfortable working with, while empowering the organizations to maintain homogeneous security controls around them, constructing unrestricted workspace experiences. Further, it is also a tool to improve talent acquisition. He says, “new generation recruits are inclined toward flexible IT policies, encouraging user-specific device choices that prioritize outputs over standardizations.” Laherty echoes the view and considers cross-platform UX consistency and availability fundamental to employee productivity and retention. Trends set by leading recruiters suggest that in the upcoming days enterprise investments guided by data-driven models will be focused on technologies and policies that seek to accommodate hyper-customized working practices, weaving different user behaviors and improvised workspaces into the company’s distributed vision.

Partnering with the right service integrators to implement experience-centric IT support

Service integrators and support interventionists are central to the feasibility of experience-based productivity models. They play a pivotal role in arriving at business outcomes by defining and driving XLAs based on industry, sub-industry, client and user personas. From standard, reactive support interventions for IT assets, the roles of service integrators have evolved into proactively managing UX from an employee wellbeing perspective. To do so, they leverage their diverse skill sets and virtual decision-assist agents like AI and machine earning (ML), with incremental progress toward NoOps conditions. The situation is ripe for the service integrators to interface with their clients better and execute coordinated pilots to understand the impacts of automated support models, allowing end-users the highest degree of functional convenience with measurable benefits across the organization.

Such models need to be tied closer to relevance through a robust feedback loop. McGarvey says, “building proactive systems and improving the overall experience depends on pinpointing the root causes to guide our interventions. For user experience to be holistic and enabling, the system nodes and terminals deserve as much site reliability attention as our infrastructure and application servers.” Treating end-user convenience as an asset through the dynamic discovery of unreported/underreported issues and their remediation before they can have fleet-wide bearings directly convert to improved XLA performances. Also, rooting out user dissatisfaction and disengagement has obvious positive implications for the company’s bottom line and attracting better talent.

Tailoring adaptation strategies that are unique to business missions and workforce profiles

Digital dexterity is relative, and we often witness adaptational variance within the same industry. While nimble institutions with first-mover advantages and technological preparedness will surely stay ahead of the curve in expediting their journey toward holistic UX in a remote working environment, companies can be optimistic about reimagining their corporate culture and technology posture to deliver comprehensive and empowering UX for their workforces, especially knowledge workers, administrators and backend staffs. Laherty says, “while companies operating in the manufacturing sector and those with a large field force will have to maintain a substantial physical presence, there has been an increasing propensity among businesses to shed on-premise legacy application burdens by embracing innovative cloud deployment strategies and new approaches to managing task loads, in the face of the COVID-19 situation. The vendors and service integrators need to help these companies unearth different end-user personas, job roles, and platform profiles within their organizations, for driving personalized service developments.” While an unexpected and unfortunate position to be in, McGarvey considers the COVID-19 situation as a giant leap forward in digital adoption, which will nurture distributed work practices in industries.

The issue of workforce disengagement has underscored key enterprise processes for years, lacking its fair share of leadership focus and adequate resolution. Distributed operational models, induced by COVID-19 have posed a crisis of engagement, as most of the employee wellbeing programs were driven onsite, threatening to impact workforce cohesion and core business results. In this situation, service integrators offer UX-centric projection of IT capabilities as a respite to improve employee engagement by shifting the focus from exclusively operational needs to include workforce differentials and wellbeing into the equation.