Companies are just now starting to figure out remote work

As we move deeper into the pandemic, companies are realizing that the remote work habits that are de facto today will likely persist to become a major part of the way they work in the post-COVID world. Technology will play a big role in this new environment, but the way companies rebuild themselves around the technology may be even more important.

That was the topic of discussion at one round table during Fast Company‘s Impact Council annual meeting on June 30. The panel, moderated by Fast Company technology editor Harry McCracken, included Box CEO Aaron Levie, Visible CEO Miguel Quiroga, Threshold Ventures partner Heidi Roizen, Infoblox CEO Jesper Andersen, Pfizer chief digital and technology officer Lidia Fonseca, Emerald One CEO Laverne Council, and Vince Campisi of Raytheon Technologies.

When the pandemic began, much of the focus was on the technologies that we suddenly needed to enable working from home. Teleconferencing companies like Zoom were suddenly a big part of life. But while tele-work was thrust upon us suddenly about six months ago, technology is just now starting to evolve to support this new business environment.

As it happened, the conversation took place on the 50th anniversary of the first videoconference. As Fast Company‘s McCracken pointed out, videoconferencing really isn’t that much different than it was back in 1970.

Visible’s Quiroga says the technology is going to have evolve to carry the additional burden that everyday remote work may place on it. Some of the core technologies needed for this already exist, but are only now being productized in ways that are build for a work-from-home world.

“So fast-forward to the type of human connection you’re going to need to actually make this type of experience truly, truly meaningful,” he said. “That’s going to mean stuff like periphery movement, body language, then 3D audio, those kinds of things.” Quiroga said it might also involve telepresence experiences within virtual reality and augmented reality frameworks. Visible, which is owned by Verizon, is the first all-digital phone service in the U.S.

As new companies acclimate to remote work, and as new collaboration tech emerges, workflows and management habits will have to change, too.

“Something needs to look different about the 21st century in that interplay with technology and how we work,” Box’s Levie said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a pure technology breakthrough as much as using the tools that we have [and] them getting hopefully 10 times better.”

Levie says it may be more important for companies to restructure the way systems of collaboration and accountability work.

Emerald One’s Council expanded upon the point. “People have to think about how they manage, not just using the technology, but how they truly lead and how they engage people,” she said.

Council said company leaders need to be very aware of the high potential for disconnection among employees. “Many of the leaders have leveraged proximity, versus really thinking about how they lead, how they engage, how they create a culture, and how they maintain a culture,” she said. Council pointed out that with the pandemic and remote work, many leaders are having to take a fresh look at how they really engage with people and build trust within their organizations.

In the real world, company leaders’ perspectives on this radically new way of working are all over the board, said Threshold Ventures’s Roizen. She oversees six companies directly, and her firm communicates with 50 more through partnerships.

“I’m just curious as to how everyone is seeing this massive change to effectively work from home in terms of how you’re managing it as leaders,” Roizen said. “Are you leaning into it or are you leaning away from it? Are you empowering your employees to bring forth what they want to do? Are you still skeptical about it?”

“The range . . . is everything from ‘we’re selling our office—we’re not going back to work,’ to ‘oh my God, I need to get my employees back in the office because I can’t control them effectively and nobody wants to come back to work.’”

Fonseca of Pfizer, which is currently sprinting to formulate and test a COVID-19 vaccine, has come to a belief that a paradigm shift in business has already taken place, and it’s just a matter of not falling behind.

“I do think we need to think about a ‘virtual first’ kind of mentality,” Fonseca said, pointing out that many—though not all—company functions will remain virtual in the future.

“It’s almost similar to when mobile first came and we had to say, ‘Let’s take a mobile first [approach] for those things that are going to be native to mobile,’” she said. “I think there’s a similar need here [to] think about what is native to virtual, and then what’s still going to be physical.”

Box’s Levie said that while companies have some hard work to do to adjust, this new mixed-mode work mindset can bring built-in dividends.

“Probably any individual at Box right now is at a 60% productivity level, because of all of the distractions [and] all the other things that they’re doing,” Levie said. “But our output as a company, we’re probably shipping more software than we ever have, and we’re able to reach more customers than we ever have.”

Why? “Because we’ve gotten rid of all of the unnecessary meetings and all of the unnecessary bureaucracy in the system,” he said. “Because a Slack channel can have a hundred people contributing ideas, or a video call can have way more people being included. That starts to change the shape of your organization’s productivity.”

Infoblox’s Andersen said he’s seeing some of that acceleration happening within his company, and that while it’s certainly good for the bottom line it raises questions about how to keep everything in sync.

“What does this new organizational structure, and operationalizing this ability, look like as we move forward? How do you balance the need for innovation and extreme speed with also a need for doing things in an aligned fashion?” he said.

“We have all these great technologies, whether it’s white boarding on Zoom or using Slack,” Andersen said. “It’s a question of how to use those and how to align around them.”

Over the next few years—even after we have a viable vaccine—many companies will go through a multi-year process of working out the right mix of virtual and in-person business functions. Keeping some business functions, like sales calls or recruiting, happening in person may just be good business. But as several of the panelists mentioned, humans are innately social beings. We need in-person connections. Hopefully, companies will continue to factor that in, and resist the urge to think of employees as connected productivity machines that no longer need to waste time commuting.

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