When the history of the COVID-19 pandemic is memorialized in the museums of the future, it will be important to have an exhibit on some other relics of the past, changed permanently by a global pandemic — the coffee mugs, workstations, and conference rooms of the business office.
These implements became artifacts of sorts, in March 2020, when employees across the globe lifted their laptops off their office desks for what was thought to be a short interruption — and ended up never returning.
Hybrid work schedules are here to stay
Even today, according to Statista, more than 44 percent of workers in the U.S. remain fully remote — and many of those are fairly intent on remaining a permanent member of the sweatpants club. In fact, according to McKinsey, up to 25 percent of employees in advanced economies likely will remain remote at least three days per week on a permanent basis.
“In essence, a great experiment happened when we all left the office on a Friday, and never came back — weeks turned into months, turned into a year and a half and counting,” said Sean Duffy, Vice President of Product Strategy at SaaS company Igloo Software.
Collaboration tools in the remote work environment
Duffy’s company has studied the impact of the pandemic on remote work, and in particular, the tools that facilitate collaboration. Though many organizations had already begun a remote-centric digital transformation prior to the pandemic, the majority of businesses retained an office-focused model — and were caught flatfooted when the pandemic forced sudden and dramatic changes.
“Companies really weren’t prepared for the dynamic of having everyone remote — not just from a technological standpoint, but culturally as well,” said Duffy.
The sudden change led to the deployment of a disparate set of tools that were dumped onto the personal and company-issued laptops of homebound employees — and though programs and apps like Zoom, Slack, and Teams were a boon for business continuity, companies soon learned the limitations of these programs, particularly around internal teamwork and collaboration.
Challenges for customer-facing industries
At the same time, frontline workers, and those in retail, hospitality, and manufacturing, were challenged by COVID-oriented standards and rules that were changing daily. They desperately needed consistent, time-sensitive information to ensure their health and safety, as well as that of their customers.
“It got to the point where people working the front counter were having to get trained every shift on the new rules, and there often was no single, centralized source of information that was providing data that was reliable,” said Duffy. “For office workers and front-line workers alike, the head-scratching moment in all this was, how do we bring this all together, in a cohesive way?”
Solutions to solve the remote work challenge
Duffy’s company, Igloo, had already launched a platform that would serve as the authoritative answer. Its main product resides at the intersection of the digital workplace and the corporate culture — a one-stop-shop for dynamic and up-to-date company information, along with technologies that integrate all of a company’s productivity and communications platforms into one cohesive interface.
Igloo answers a fundamental challenge of corporations still trying to extricate themselves from the triage measures they implemented during COVID — how do I ensure true, sustainable business continuity when my employees are working in several physical locations and geographies?
Duffy said Igloo addresses and solves four inherent challenges for companies that are trying to achieve maximum digital efficiency in this landscape:
Understanding the internal brand
When people talk about brand, they are often considering external stakeholders. But there’s an internal brand as well — a cadence, spirit, culture, and glue that binds the workforce. Often, these intangibles are lost in a fully remote environment, where technology presents a very two-dimensional view of the company.
“It’s difficult to rally your organization around this internal personality, when everyone is in their home, in the basement, while also trying to homeschool their kids,” Duffy said.
Igloo solves this challenge by bringing the company’s brand — rather than that of Microsoft or Zoom — front and center, while offering up productivity, collaboration, and cultural tools in a single, seamless interface. And, since workers are not bound to a desktop or laptop, Igloo places high value on extending the reach of its digital workplace to mobile devices through their Digital Workplace and branded mobile applications. This means that employees can enjoy the same level of connectivity and collaboration, no matter where they choose to work.
Any answer to the collaboration conundrum will have to include channels that are truly two-way in nature. Given this reality, the old-style Intranet simply isn’t up to the challenge. “It was designed as a top-down communications tool — a way to have HR information, articles, and files post relevant content for the workforce,” said Duffy — who recalls only ever using the intranet at a previous employer to check his benefits or when he had an IT issue.
“There was no voice of the employee reflected as part of the experience,” added Duffy. Without giving employees a means to respond to or interact with information, engagement will drop, and people will invariably miss important information. Even Zoom can fall short in this regard — if you’ve ever been on a call with more than a handful of your colleagues, you know that it’s virtually impossible to stand out from the herd.
Few off-the-shelf technology solutions can answer every company’s unique needs. At Igloo, getting close to that ideal is critical if a collaboration platform is to achieve wide adoption — the key to making true efficiency gains.
“We look across the 40-plus applications that employees use on a week-to-week basis and determine how we bring the information in those tools together in a logical, contextual manner,” said Duffy.
As an example, Duffy referenced a typical situation of two employees working on a joint project. They are likely talking in Slack, sharing files in Box or Dropbox, and having to give status updates in yet another application.
“We could do that across five or six different channels, but then it becomes very cumbersome for anyone to have a cohesive, 360-degree view of the project,” Duffy said. Igloo solves that by developing an interface where files, chat, and updates all live side-by-side, in a symbiotic on-screen relationship — a sort of “glue” that adheres the information from multiple repositories into one place.
Clicking “End Call” or tapping the X on a productivity app immediately severs the connectivity that occurs between remote employees. An “always-on” platform — particularly one that attempts to replicate the atmosphere of the physical office — can have a remarkable impact on fellowship, said Duffy.
“We want to give employees the motivation to come to the digital workplace, whether on desktop or mobile devices, because we want them to be able to connect, not just on a project level or a team level, but also at a social level,” Duffy said.
Igloo does that by creating the ability to leverage the platform for social rooms, including ones around a company’s charitable causes, diversity initiatives or those strictly for fun and fellowship, like online games and team-building exercises.
This will be particularly important, given that the employment landscape of the future will likely be hybrid — with employees working both on and off-site, even during the same week.
“We have to make sure that those people remain plugged in — no matter where they are — and have access to the people, processes, and information they need to do their job, and perhaps even more importantly, to feel like they are an important part of their company’s culture,” Duffy said.
Coaxing employees to come back to the office after a paradigm-shifting event like COVID-19 might be difficult. That’s why compelling them to participate in the company’s culture regardless of their chosen geography, using purpose-built tools that match the times, represents the smoothest pathway to re-engagement.
Are you looking to align your hybrid workforce, and to prepare them for the next generation of connected work? Igloo presents a complimentary Gartner report, “The Future of Work Requires Executive Leaders to Embrace Radical Flexibility,” that we believe will help you ease the transition on your terms.
Gartner, Reignite Employee Engagement in the Remote Hybrid Organization, Rob O’Donohue,
14 December 2020.