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AdAge: Let's Get Serious About Managing The Remote Workforce
May 20, 2020
T. Alex Blum

This post was originally published in AdAge on May 7, 2020

Contributed by T. Alex Blum

Now that the full scope of this coronavirus crisis is clear, brands are pivoting to focus on how to stay in business, what messaging is relevant and what they can actually produce within the limitations of these circumstances. Regrettably, we have already seen layoffs, cancellations, and retrenchment. Most likely, there will be more to come. But, on a positive note, we are also seeing brands taking stock of the situation and starting to figure out how to move forward.

As we all scramble to keep our heads above water, and brands and their creative partners figure out how to get work produced, it’s also important to think about what we can learn from this disruption and what kind of changes need to be made to function effectively under drastically changed circumstances.

OPTIMIZING THE REMOTE WORKFORCE

Aside from the the challenges, not to mention the stress of it all, we don’t have to look too far to see a common denominator here, a common theme. And it is a sea change in the nature of work.

We are looking at a case study on a massive scale on the management of remote work, with a subset of learnings on managing a remote production process. Many people are predicting this situation will further accelerate the adoption of remote work as the norm going forward. Let’s make sure we don’t miss the opportunity to learn the lessons now that will serve us as we adapt to the “new normal” once this crisis starts to dissipate. This is the ideal time to analyze the effectiveness of working remotely.

First of all, let’s stop characterizing remote work as a “privilege.” Almost all of the information we see about working remotely is employee or contractor focused, with a lot of discussion about work/life balance, personal productivity and other personal issues which frame “working from home” as a benefit.

Let’s face it. Companies need to get serious about managing the remote workforce in terms of how it works best for the organization. It needs to be considered from an effectiveness point of view and detailed findings need to be aggregated so that organizational guidelines and parameters can be created to codify the best ways to get the most value out of a vast universe of workers with disparate capabilities supporting different parts of a production process.

There is good and bad news here.

For instance, Zoom, the video conferencing app, is getting a lot of newsprint as one of the “big winners” in this situation, and its business is exploding. But there has been downside over security and privacy concerns. Chances are, the other conferencing apps need to be looked at as well. Who knew?

Maybe it’s time that companies looked to create, or license, versions of these apps that function on an intranet, or a closed network they create themselves; with clearly defined permissions so that people who are not authorized are unable to join, and outside contractors and suppliers need special log-ins, just like the internet at corporate offices with good security. The app could be installed upfront in company-supplied laptops so that it can’t be hacked, shared or modified. This could be an opportunity to put something in place that actually should have happened a long time ago.

And let’s consider some simple considerations for every company:

• Does anyone doubt that video calls are more productive than conference calls? It’s pretty obvious that being on camera, interacting with each other, keeps people honest and paying attention. In a remote work environment, make video a requirement.

• Spend the money required to make sure that everyone has the technology they need.

• Identify the specific meetings that are markedly more effective when they are done in person, and schedule them accordingly.

• Identify specific teams that need to interact in person, and how often.

• Determine when person-to-person interaction is missed the most and figure out why.

• Explore social interaction in the digital sphere within the organization—anecdotal evidence shows that it works.

MANAGING REMOTE PRODUCTION

In the area of remote production, animation, graphics and visual effects companies have been big winners so far, as their process has largely already been shown to adapt well to remote work. For instance, Wesley ter Haar, co-founder of the digital agency and global production company Media Monks, observed recently on a webinar that processes and meetings the company had always assumed needed to be done live, have unexpectedly turned out to work quite successfully remotely. How long would it have taken to learn that if it hadn’t been done out of necessity?

On the downside, agency creatives in particular have been insisting for years that it was essential that they sit in the room with editors, animators and special-effects artists to work collaboratively. Chances are that argument simply won’t survive the experience of the next few months, since many clients have suspected for years that ponying up big dollars for travel expenses for agency personnel was a waste of money.

STREAMING VS. VIDEOCONFERENCING

On the events and corporate meetings side, streaming capability is already showing value as a means of communicating with large numbers of people at a much higher quality than standard videoconferencing apps. Think of the travel costs that will be saved as QSRs (quick-service restaurants) learn to stream operator meetings, or auto companies stream dealer meetings. Add to that the PR value to the corporation of healing the environment by reducing air travel. Of course, the big losers here could be airlines, hotels and conference centers.

Some of it will come back, but inevitably a lot of that travel business will be lost. It is just too hard to justify massive expenses when you can quantify the savings from a workable solution that has already been tested. It doesn’t take a lot for change to happen when no one has to take a chance or risk their job on the outcome.

Look at the degree to which drones have replaced helicopters in shooting commercials and films, and at a massive savings in cost and safety and very little loss of quality. See also the replacement of film with digital cinematography.

Massive dislocation in industry creates change, and once you turn the corner, you don’t go back.

There are negative and positive takeaways from all of this. Some things will change dramatically, some habits that we all thought were important may go away, and new things will be (and are already being) revealed.

Let’s get organized and make good use of the opportunity we are being given to learn from a tsunami of change.

Resistance, as the prophet said, is useless.