We as a nation are adjusting the way we live, interact, and work. As schools close and companies cancel in-office work hours and institute a virtual culture, it will lay bare how prepared we are to manage a digital life on a new level. Many managers are woefully misinformed about how ready their teams and systems are to pivot to assume the full lift of working and learning from home. As a manager in the learning and design field for Data Society, a premier machine learning education and consulting start-up in Washington, DC, I have been on the front line helping government agencies, students, teams, and instructors move to a strictly online medium.
The minutiae of logistics involved in making sure clients and students have access not only to systems they would need but also laptops and access credentials/licenses that they are issued by their employers has been a nonstop job since last week. Many employees may be asked to use personal devices with questionable security protocols to access their work. It has exposed how ready some companies are to handle major disruptive events.
Already, IT departments in the DC area, ranging from government offices and elite level academic institutions, have been forced into a reckoning this week that they don’t have nearly enough working laptops for authorized work-from-home access for their number of employees. Employers must make sure everyone has access to the same apps and technology, usually cloud-based integrated tools such as Google Drive, Teams, Dropbox, or Slack — to collaborate and meet online. They are doing this often without protocols or written directives.
Government agencies have been forced to quickly rewrite service contracts with contractors that allow them to deviate from the SOW and provide virtual-only products. Employees themselves are now re-signing working agreements with the Office of Personnel Management as new guidance has them working from home, some for the first time. Streaming and live conference services are seeing increased subscriptions as companies realize that they have to teach employees how to work from home while using as much face time as possible. The federal government, which had recently scaled back telework options due to concerns that employees were less productive at home, is now engaging in a quick about-face. The State Department, the DOD, and other government agencies have even fewer options on the table, as certain security systems cannot be accessed remotely, but they too still have to operationalize and plan for some work product and manhours to be delivered from home.
This could be a time of recalibration and team building if the right tools are in place. Learning and development have been moving online for years and could be a great option to inspire employees and get them to upskill without lost working hours. If a business or agency is already prepared to do this, this telework time need not mean stagnation, but the program access and the preparedness for online engagement have to be approached as a crucial tool, not an afterthought.
As business moves to a work-from-home environment, employees may need to be taught how to successfully navigate work virtually, while still being productive and accountable. Leadership will also need to brush up on good guidance and protocol. One email in the morning won’t lead the team, and the loss of hallway conversations and quick coffees with coworkers also means who some of the best creative guidance and counsel from your workers will now have to be deliberate and crafted. Many leadership and consulting groups are happy to guide this new work-life with online webinars and tips.
When this is done, will we be so quick to give up this important flexible work-life integration? The offering no longer seems like just a nice hiring perk, but in fact, a crucial pillar of a robust disaster preparedness strategy. Will we now ask employees who have grown used to working from home to return to a strict office routine? Will we cave to coming into the office anyway when we have a cough or a mild cold, or will the now-tested work-from-home option be an easy choice? When the crisis is over, for our working life at least, will we put into place the flexibility, the policy, and the technology we need to keep our government and businesses running?