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How to Enable Your Remote Workforce Under Increased External Pressures

With governments around the world mandating employees quarantine at home, companies have launched the largest remote workforce enablement experiment in the world. The move is driven equally by a desire to maintain business continuity, protect workers, and proactively address regional requirements that are changing every day.

For some companies the move has been relatively seamless, due to their dispersed, digital workforce, while for others it has been a trial by fire, as they seek to enable workers rapidly and protect staff whose roles demand a continued physical presence.

Vertiv began the remote workforce enablement journey in 2018. In an interview, human resources (HR) leaders Felix Bailer, Erin Dowd, and Kris Lui shared insights and best practices from this journey, which accelerated dramatically in 2020 due to the global pandemic.

Bailer shares that Vertiv’s journey wasn’t driven only by business continuity motivations in 2018, but the desire to provide a better work-life experience that would create business flexibility, drive employee productivity, and help retain workers in a competitive industry.

Informally, workers within Global Business Services (GBS) were given the option to work from home one to four days a month in all geographies and functions, while those whose jobs required an on-site presence were allowed stagger shifts to better meet their personal needs. That experience came in handy when the market situation required Lui to accelerate the pace in Vertiv’s Asia-Pacific region in February.

The following are lessons learned that could help in your own remote workforce enablement efforts.

Get business input on remote working. If your company is going remote for the first time or is scaling a remote workforce initiative, Dowd recommends getting cross-functional input, even if it is done at speed. At Vertiv, HR business partners led this effort, conducting workshops, surveys, and business need reviews. Key factors to consider are business and customer requirements, key roles, the nature of work to be performed, regional cultures and processes, digital tools required, business continuity, security, and more.

Move swiftly amidst changing conditions. Vertiv had piloted working from home in the company’s Manilla office, but the global health crisis struck before the model was deployed more fully in the region. Lui’s Asia-Pacific HR team members led the effort to introduce employees to remote working, starting in the north Asia sub-region during the Chinese New Year. Her team’s work involved monitoring governmental mandates, locating staff, making sure they were safe, ensuring they had the needed technology, and determining if facilities had robust sanitation equipment and procedures. After getting government’s approval, the team also needed to get staff ready for a phased return to work.

Fortunately, Vertiv was deemed an essential business around the globe, including in the China, India and North American markets. After about a month working remotely, 99 percent of staff in China have been able to return to the office but are still wearing masks and using multiple sanitation procedures to keep the work environment safe for colleagues. To restart operations, a business continuity team, including the north Asia sub-regional president and cross-functional leaders, met every day to plan mission-critical work.

Communicate to employees with empathy. With recent events, change has been enormous. New developments have unfolded daily, forcing companies and workers to adapt. Vertiv leadership communicated early and often, to ensure that team members knew leaders were concerned about their safety and well-being. Lui said leaders were empathetic and transparent about process changes. They worked hard to unify teams and refocus them on the work that needed to be done. “Stay calm. Don’t panic,” Lui said. “When you take care of your people, your people take care of the business. Show that you care about employees and how you can work together to serve customers.”

Develop an employee value proposition. Remote workforce enablement may be driven by crisis now, but is an important tool to help attract, develop, and retain employees for the long term. Vertiv views working from home as an important recruitment and retention tool. According to Bailer, when the option rolled out in the Manila region, productivity soared by 15 percent and attrition dropped by a third.  

Consider personas as you enable workers. Creating personas for employee groups can help speed enablement, as groups are equipped with representative tools and service. Common personas are executives (who typically have different needs that require enhanced visibility and accessibility in a remote environment), road warriors (who are now home-based), IT staff (who need secure access to key systems and applications), and customer-facing support staff, among others.

Create a remote workforce enablement toolkit. Standardizing enablement processes, such as onboarding, technology packages, and services can help speed enablement. Virtualized desktops enable one-to-many deployment that save IT teams time and effort. To move fast, Vertiv let staff take their equipment home and accelerated its collaborative software deployment plan to equip everyone with the same productivity tools.

Evolve your talent model. Many companies have adopted cloud services, such as online backup, disaster recovery, and desktop as a service (DaaS) to create business continuity. Take the same approach with your staff. At Vertiv, nearly every member of the Global Business Services (GBS) team has a backup who is cross trained on his or her role. Employees are provided with different rotational assignments. And when a leader departs, the company aims to recruit from within. This practice strengthens business continuity a number of ways, while also increasing staff morale and motivation. “We have moved from buying talent to developing talent,” Bailer says.

Consider change management. Any major change to work practices will have its share of resisters. That may include your management team, which is accustomed to face-to-face contact with staff and customers. Develop a full-fledged change management and communications plan that considers the why, what, and how of remote work. Share new processes, controls, and desired outcomes; and report back on how incidents are resolved or how processes are improved. Vertiv’s GBS uses a communication and collaboration platform to link mid-level managers and internal customers for brainstorming, creating daily priorities, sharing a daily scorecard for IT, and reporting back. Leaders feel heard — and get to see how work continues at pace — increasing buy-in.

Plan for disruption. As workers adopt new tools and practices, there will be challenges. Managers, IT staff, and savvy team members can help solve technology issues. Create new tip sheets; share security best practices; increase service desk staff and hours; and communicate when issues, such as connectivity challenges, will be resolved.

Treat workers equally. Most companies have staff who have presence-based roles, such as manufacturing line workers and managers, physical security teams, and delivery staff, who can’t be virtualized. Create a one-company value proposition by caring about their safety and communicating what you are doing to protect all workers. Consider deep-cleaning facilities and vehicles, providing staggered or additional shifts, spacing staff out on production lines, monitoring temperatures, providing generous sick leave, and erring on the side of caution. In Singapore, Vertiv alternated work days with an A and B team of similar roles, having one group working Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the other working Tuesday and Thursday to decrease the number of workers on site. This created backup, ensuring business continuity in the event anyone on the team were to get infected. 

Consider the whole person. Employees are having a challenging time balancing work and family. Conference calls with children’s voices and dogs barking are a part of the new normal. Show grace as staff are adjusting. Vertiv managers are checking in through one-on-one meetings with team members and sometimes wearing silly costumes on video conferences to help break the tension. Other companies have set up virtual coffee and cocktail hours to build camaraderie. “People are very tense right now, so infuse some humor into your communication to keep work fun and help reduce stress levels,” Lui advised.

Provide flexibility. At some point in the future when the crisis abates, companies will need to revisit remote workforce enablement. New processes will be well-established, but it’s likely that employees will have a variety of wishes, which will need to be aligned against business needs.

At Vertiv, we expect that our staff will likely choose to balance on-premise and remote work, as 63 percent have recently indicated they don’t want to work from home on a full-time basis. 

One of our basic needs as human beings is to be socially connected to others for a sense of belonging. When we re-imagine the future of work, we’ll need to balance between achieving business results through a remote workforce and maintaining a culture of connectivity and inclusion.

“The point of this year is to rethink how we support workers,” Bailer says. “It’s not just about IT. It’s about creating the whole ecosystem of remote enablement. Companies should have built-in flexibility as mass remote working may become a long-term model.”

Dowd agreed. “Some of the work we are doing now may not return to normal. There has been a paradigm shift in which work is no longer a place, but rather a way of being. It is something we do regardless of our location. In part, our job will be to ensure employees continue to embrace this concept and maintain the level of interaction and responsiveness that the company requires.”

My last important point is that when we teach people to work from home, it is about “work” not a place.  Helping employees to get into the mindset that customers and other employees require interaction, they deserve responsiveness and serviceability; we strive to help employees adapt to the concept that “work is what I do, not where I am”.

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