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Strategies and Tools to Stay Productive During the COVID-19 Period

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The trend to remote working is experiencing a major upswing as companies move to digital channels and more people avoid physical meetings. Here are the key approaches and tools to get the most out of working from a distance.

While each of us certainly hopes that the coronavirus will not become a major public health event in his or her part of the world, the reality is that companies are already looking closely at every contingency plan to avoid serious business disruption.

Remote working or the practice of working outside the official office for long periods of time is becoming increasingly popular, made possible by a whole range of digital tools of virtually every kind, from web conferencing and email to mobile collaboration applications and virtual event platforms.

Based on my extensive experience with digital productivity and collaboration trends, I find that most organizations in the remote working arena are either still at a fairly early stage or have not yet engaged enough to invest in fully-fledged strategies and capabilities. As a result, regardless of who you are, there is usually considerable scope for improving the digital employee experience when working outside the office.

To help companies prepare for an increase in the number of field workers as the coronavirus spreads around the world, I have put together a fairly comprehensive quick guide below. This guide will help both those organizations that are just starting out and those that may already have existing programs for working in remote locations but wish to significantly improve their effectiveness to minimize the impact on their customers, employees and suppliers.

In both cases, the policies and instruments listed below will provide immediate and tangible improvements in the work experience at a distance and lead to improved outcomes downstream, such as higher productivity, greater commitment, better work-life balance and higher overall quality of work.

In general, if I had to choose between presenting a basic strategy or instrument or the best overall solution in the following, I will show the basic options but recommend the best practical approach that works better or achieves better overall results with reasonable effort. Just remember that the better approach may be more complex and time consuming to implement.

Professional Tip: Although the consumer tech world has known this for a long time, most companies still do not appreciate the importance of simplicity and ease of use. We tend to prefer the choice that ticks all technical boxes and/or is the most trustworthy/cost effective. However, if you want your investment in remote working to pay off, you should pay particular attention to whether the average employee can easily operate your solution, as digital access tools cover the full range of complexity and usability. Wherever possible, you place great emphasis on tools that are simple, straightforward and "just work". The risk of not doing so is that your costs for supporting remote working will simply be higher, with less spent on maintaining productivity as workers spend more time getting the solution up and running.


There are four levels of strategy when it comes to enabling remote working and they should generally be addressed in that order:

Strategy 1: Creating a secure and effective foundation for digital remote access

First and foremost, this means creating secure access to IT resources within the company and to the Internet itself, typically through an Internet provider and a virtual private network. This requires attention to every part of the connected technology stack, from the Internet access itself to providing secure means to reach and interact with corporate networks, data, communication channels and applications. This is also the effort required to manage and support the entire process.

  • Internet access. Do not assume that employees have adequate online access at home or elsewhere. Many will, but some won't have reliable or fast enough service or just a mobile device. Quickly conduct a survey or otherwise collect data from the workers involved in your remote working strategy and identify where the gaps are. For some workers, be prepared to invest in mobile hot spots and related data plans, and provide grants to set up home Internet access plans or upgrade existing access, which can be especially important for workers living in more rural areas.

One of the biggest blind spots is knowing how much bandwidth workers will need in order to be optimally productive, and a quick assessment of this fact at an early stage will pay off. Especially in the beginning, employees in remote locations often need to synchronize their files and data. For some industries, this could mean a lot of rich media and data that has to go back and forth regularly. How quickly this happens will determine the productivity of remote work. More importantly, the types of applications that are used regularly, particularly web and video conferencing, can also determine bandwidth requirements.

Finally, make sure that you have a clearly formulated distance working policy, together with a plan, a communication programme, a budget, training and support to ensure sufficient Internet access wherever the worker will be working remotely. The production of quick-start guides, such as those used for consumer technologies, is a great help in shortening the initial learning curve for new tools or technologies. Organizing power users to support new remote workers, answer questions and share techniques is also a great help. Normally, all of this is part of an overall remote work program, but it can be done separately depending on who is responsible for providing different services in your organization.

  • Equipment for remote working. When it comes to equipment, there are two main forks in the road. Either a) employees can use their own, which poses a greater security risk but is much cheaper and quicker to deploy if their equipment is up to the task, or b) a company can provide the equipment needed. Given that the prevalence of shadow IT (workers using unauthorized, unofficial applications to get their jobs done) is generally higher than most corporate IT departments are willing to admit - meaning that corporate data is already present on many personal devices anyway - I advise companies to seriously consider checking workers' existing computer hardware to see if they are capable, as it is the cheapest and fastest option for enabling a remote crash work program. Companies can rent, lease or purchase equipment as needed for those who do not have it or are not suitable.

What equipment is required? Probably a smartphone and a computer or tablet, as well as any hardware for Internet access. But your specific business needs dictate what is needed.

There are also a number of accessories that can significantly enhance the experience with a superior remote working strategy at minimal cost. These include:
  • A webcam for web conferencing if the employee's basic computer device does not have one. 720P is the minimum acceptable resolution for high quality results, but that's standard for most webcams today.
  • A high quality headset or headphones with microphone. Although employees almost always have headphones, you'll be surprised how many of them don't have microphones in their headphones that are sufficient for phone or web conferencing.
  • An "On the Air" sign. Employees who are at home or at shared locations run the risk of being disturbed by their surroundings during remote meetings. Cheap "On the Air" signs with remote controls can be purchased from Amazon and make a real difference to the overall quality of remote working during meetings and at any time. On the Air door hangers are also available for the budget conscious. The positive impact of using these signs to ensure smooth communication and collaboration is surprisingly high.
  • Secure remote access to corporate assets and online services. Typically, this is provided by a Virtual Private Network (VPN) solution that sits on the PC, laptop or mobile device and establishes an encrypted network connection that makes it secure for the employee to access IT resources within the organization and elsewhere on the Internet or other networks. VPN solutions come in many varieties, and some well-known vendors are not always the best. In this category in particular, fly-by-night solutions should be avoided for reasons of security, reliability and support. As mentioned above, ease of use is as important as reliability here, since almost every other part of the provided telecontrol solution uses the VPN as the core foundation for secure Internet access.
  • In general, the employee should never do any work for the organization without the VPN on his or her device(s) turned on. This includes online services on the Internet. The reason for this is that the VPN provides a higher level of security and protection between the remote worker and the service. In reality, your mileage will depend on when the employees can use a VPN, for reasons I will discuss in a moment. So your VPN usage policy must clearly state what employees are allowed to do with the VPN when it is turned on and off.
  • It is important to note that the VPN will be the most important link in your remote work chain. So make sure that your solution works on most target devices, that it works reliably (depending on where employees are actually located, there is a surprisingly wide range of effectiveness, which can become complex for global organizations using local Internet services, with many IP addresses being blocked for various reasons). Ensure that at the very least all service providers, devices, and locations to be used are tested, and make sure that performance is adequate. Some VPNs route traffic through centralized nodes around the world and are often congested during business hours. Also consider two-factor authentication (2FA) instead of just user IDs and passwords to significantly increase security. 2FA fobs (hardware devices that provide PINs to further authenticate users) are now cost-effective. Employees can also use their mobile devices as 2FA authenticators.
    The reality is that your IT department should have worked through a number of these issues and probably have a working remote access solution via VPN, including policy and support. However, if you are hiring a large number of employees and greatly increasing the number of remote workers, you need to ensure that your core remote access foundation is truly up to the task, including purchasing enough licenses for all designated employees. There are many nuances to ensuring a quality remote access experience, and even most organizations will not have fully deployed all of the above elements in a way that is simple enough, fast enough, and robust enough, especially with the various small details that really make up a quality remote working experience. Be willing to get involved to improve training and support, and make sure that the approach is not just about ticking boxes.

At last, a VPN is not necessarily the only solution for providing remote access, and often it is not enough, although it is probably the best known. One problem is that VPNs can ultimately be a difficult solution to implement and manage. There are several alternatives, but secure remote desktops can often do the job if you don't have the IT resources, skills, or budget to run a VPN wherever it's supposed to work. Solutions such as Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops or Blackberry Digital Workplace or the ever popular TeamViewer for smaller organizations offer high security solutions with maximum usability that require much less effort on the part of the organization, apart from initial deployment, rollout and training. Again, test everything up front, including usability, and make sure you do this by putting actual employees in front of your planned remote access solution(s) to see how well it actually works, or risk low adoption/effectiveness and high support costs.

Strategy 2: Provide access to productivity, industry-specific applications and communication/collaboration tools

Business today is all about teamwork, using shared knowledge assets such as documents, files, reports, spreadsheets, rich media, and both structured and unstructured data. Such resources are created and used with applications that include common office productivity suites such as Microsoft Office365 and Google G Suite, local content/document management systems, the corporate intranet, HR systems, CRM, ERP, and countless other systems.

An organization with an average of 100,000 employees has between 1,500 and 3,000 applications in all areas in which the company operates. This number of applications is decreasing surprisingly slowly. Even a 100-person organization will have at least 100-200 applications on which to rely, many of which will have to be used for remote work. Ensuring that all of these applications work well remotely can, as mentioned above, be partially solved with remote desktops. In general, you should strongly prefer cloud solutions for your work in remote locations, as installing native applications on compatible devices can be surprisingly difficult, while cloud solutions work with most popular browsers and, in particular, allow access to mobile applications.

Key Success Factor: Go one step further with remote collaboration

In general, you can rest assured that the use of business applications remotely is roughly the same as when the employee was in the office. This is in stark contrast to the other side of the equation: communication and collaboration tools.

Because of its inherently isolating nature, remote working relies much more on digital communication and, above all, on modern employee collaboration tools such as team chat (Slack, Microsoft Teams, Workplace by Facebook, etc.), corporate social networks (Igloo, LumApps, SAP Jam, etc.), unified communications/instant messaging solutions, and business cornerstones such as email, telephone and web conferencing/meeting tools such as GoToMeeting and Zoom.

Working at a distance itself can be quite a challenge for people who are either not used to it or where it does not fit in well personally. Therefore, it is usually worth the extra effort to make working at a distance easier and more committed for this cohort, as well as for everyone else. Since the coronavirus is likely to induce people who are not inclined to work remotely to do so, it is advisable to consider several "out-of-the-box" solutions that make working remotely more like working in an office or make it more intense. Some potential innovative solutions should be considered:

  • Sococo - This online workplace offers chat, voice and video, which provide an overlay for a virtual office, which I believe has proven to be particularly effective in making people feel as if they are still in an office. Employees can visit each other in virtual offices in their own and shared meeting rooms, working as if they were in a physical room.
  • Mural - Mural is a visual collaboration tool that provides workers with shared artifacts similar to a whiteboard, giving people more bandwidth and a more direct connection to their teamwork. Teams can organize themselves on an online canvas using lists, flowcharts, diagrams, frames, methods and drawings that help them stay aligned and well coordinated.
  • Status Hero - How is everyone doing and what are they doing? These are the questions that this tool answers by centralizing the status of employees so that a cohesive team picture automatically emerges. Status is determined by the app both by occasional queries of employees and by pulling activities from other systems. It then automatically transmits important events and objectives achieved, so that employees know what is happening with their colleagues and team-mates.
    The latest in digital collaboration, telepresence robots such as Double Robotics have been around for a few years now. Although they are somewhat expensive, they can help employees retain some of the benefits of physical office presence by allowing them to take turns virtually entering the office to visit or meet colleagues who are still there.

On the way to becoming more established in 2020 than ever before, augmented and virtual reality will become quite affordable, especially in the virtual reality arena with glasses like the Oculus Go (currently $149 for a complete device). I have used the Go in a business context and found it quite effective for all-round experiences that feel like an office. What is still missing is an effective and widely used meeting software for VR platforms, although applications like Rumii and MeetinVR are finally starting to change that.

But the technology is only one part of the telecontrol equation. The other part is the skills of the workers. These must also be developed on the employee side to take advantage of the powerful and sometimes amazing digital skills that can be made available today. Skills building software with the rapidly evolving category of digital adoption platforms can help to address this deficit to some extent, although structured learning can also be helpful.

Strategy 3: Development of remote control skills. The reality is that working from a distance is fundamentally different.

You lose the chatter in the corridor, camaraderie and happy experiences with other colleagues. Everyone is much less visible, and this has a negative effect on collaboration because it is simply more difficult to get in touch with colleagues, even with all the digital tools available.

Over the years, a sense of the key competences that remote workers in particular need in the digital space has developed.

Here are some of the skills that need to be taught first, as more and more employees work in remote locations:
  • Working Loud - In this process, popularized by the book of the same name, workers tell their stories using digital tools. This helps us to support each other, stay in touch, align, and collaborate in an agile process, while significantly increasing visibility and spreading tacit information across the network to work around the clock. I have identified this as one of the most important capabilities of modern digital collaboration, and it is especially important for remote workers to keep employees connected and engaged by giving back some of the positive aspects of a physical workplace through regular streams of conversations.
  • Work coordination - Many collaboration tools are fairly general and not suitable for ensuring that a business process is coordinated in a large, distributed team. The process of work coordination today uses a central hub based on specialized software tools (my latest list here) to efficiently ensure that marketing, sales, operations, and creative activities are tracked, analyzed, optimized, and brought to an effective conclusion. But it is the process of working in such a decentralized, yet highly coordinated way that represents a new way of working. Employees will develop the ability to identify opportunities to structure work in this way and will know how to create much better coordinated and digitally supported processes with the available tools and technologies.
  • Use the right type of cooperation. Now that we have literally dozens of types of tools for cooperation, workers who go to a remote location and are given a large toolbox of options are all too often either paralysed by the analysis or use a less effective option for a particular situation than they should. For example, email is often the worst tool for collaboration, but often the first tool to access. Or an employee might use Slack for a situation that is more appropriate for a mass collaboration platform, such as a corporate social network or work coordination tool. The point of action for empowering remote workers is to proactively provide them with a cheat sheet that tells them what tools they can best use for different tasks and, most importantly, why, so that they can apply the knowledge in situations where there is no guidance.

Strategy 4: Cultivate a work culture and mindset that is remotely focused.

It goes beyond the individual and helps prepare the broader organization to create an environment that is more effective for working from a distance. Especially since digital tools are so important in enabling remote working, it is important to understand how much they change the art of the possible, not only in terms of individual digital skills and habits, but also how these digital tools change and enhance the culture of the organization itself. Or, more precisely, what is digitally possible and how organizations naturally think and work is something that develops together.

  • However, when a rapid change occurs, such as the switch to remote working in a short period of time due to the corona virus, the cultural change needs an acceleration process, or technology can be far ahead of what the organization is ready for. Here are some of the cultural and mental changes made possible by the more open and participatory nature of digital tools, especially in a remote working environment:
  • Open participation and involvement. Digital processes and business activities in the latest generation of digital tools are far more inclusive, more of what I call a "anyone can participate" model. This is crucial when workers feel disconnected from the home office and are not sure where they belong. However, not everyone is prepared for those involved to appear digitally and not just watch, but actually participate. Open source software and crowdsourcing have become mainstream and have shown that this model not only works, but is also amazingly powerful. Yet organizations are not always ready for this kind of hierarchy breaking. The proponents of distance working should prepare the ground and bring these ideas into the organization to be ready for the kinds of powerful new forms of work that make distance workers work overtime. These include mass cooperation, self-organization in the event of problems/exceptions/opportunities and influencing the network on a large scale. It is also highly advisable to create a distance working community or digital innovation group within one of the organization's cooperation platforms to conduct this conversation. Bring senior leaders on board and participate in an essentially digital transformation of the workplace by using communities of change agents and digital support groups.
  • Digital learning and awareness raising. Employees must be given extra time to study and learn the tools and skills of distance working. In cultural terms, the expectation should be raised that learning will be much more continuous and frequent in the future. Support this cultural message regularly with educational offers, new tools and relevant content about distance working. Some organisations also have a distance work support team that deals with distance workers, provides help on request and, through analysis, finds staff who need help and advice. The creation and demonstration of a supportive environment for learning to work remotely must be a primary short-term goal and a medium-term investment. This includes raising awareness or dedicating time to organising their lives, ideas and knowledge about new operational realities associated with working remotely.
  • Management of the network. It is now easier and more effective to manage an organisation as a manager (any type of manager, such as executive, technical expert, process owner, etc.) in digital channels and to contact it than any other way. While personal leadership will continue to be important, it will be overshadowed by what is possible today with modern digital channels. Leaders can exert great influence and visibility within an organisation and establish sound, culture and communication on a broad scale with great efficiency to drive the organisation's goals forward. In a landmark report, the Executive Committee noted that the network leader is one of the most important new skills that modern leaders need to acquire, but also the one that is least taught or supported. Teaching this is key not only to making remote work successful for remote leaders, but also to creating the more advanced digital culture that properly enables and supports remote work and the new opportunities it brings.


As I recently stated in my analysis of why the digital employee experience is so challenging today, you can't change the technologies people use without also helping them change their skills and habits. While many companies will be tempted to pave the way for remote working by simply replicating what was in the office at home or in the local collaborative studio, this would be a mistake and a missed opportunity for many companies.

Since the corona virus could make us far more isolated - at least temporarily - than most of us have ever been at work, we probably have an important opportunity instead to create a compelling new digital remote working environment that is far more engaged, participatory and full of human connections, contexts and contacts than we have ever had before. I urge you to try out innovative new tools, acquire important news skills, digitally transform your culture and prepare for anything beyond the corona virus and the current distractions it causes us. Let's use our new remote working to start building a truly better and more effective organization.

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