Juggling home-schooling with back-to-back Zoom calls. Combating video fatigue while missing face-to-face contact with coworkers. Struggling to keep up with the demands of real-time communication. Aargh! The pandemic has pushed the workforce onto a steep learning curve since the beginning–and technology has been at the center of everything. How has it changed employee experience? While progress and adjustments have been made, how could it be further improved?
That was the topic at the heart of a From Day One webinar in December moderated by Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman. Some of the panelists spoke from years of experience working remotely, while others hailed from more traditional industries like construction and hardware. But all agreed that the swift and seismic shift in working conditions pointed out the need for immediate adaptations across the board, with technology proving at times to be both a help and a hindrance, prompting a search for balance that continues to be negotiated.
Dishman, at the beginning of the webinar, highlighted Salesforce research showing that employees working from home as a result of the pandemic had only a 1% reduction in productivity, while Microsoft research found that people were working more in the evenings and on weekends.
In light of these adjustments, the webinar speakers stressed that they’re highly conscious of avoiding employee burnout, maintaining a strong corporate culture, and helping their workforce adapt to new conditions and best practices–without further disrupting their personal lives.
Jamie Hillegass, director of talent, development and learning at the construction-supply company White Cap, described the particular challenges faced by her “very traditional industry” with many locations across the U.S. This included reinventing meetings for which people would fly into headquarters from all over the country to discuss important topics like succession planning. “These are things that we traditionally felt like you had to be in person to see each other,” Hillegass said. The transition to digital meetings involved “teaching the organization and the leaders who are becoming more familiar with Zoom and some other technologies how to do it,” she said. “To that point, in a three-hour session, how do you keep it motivating, and people engaged, without getting distracted or going off camera? Setting some of those rules and expectations for being on camera was a new thing for our organization.”
Familiarizing executives from the top down with new technology has been uncharted territory for many organizations, participants agreed, noting that the comfort level with different digital tools varied among generations. Christine Doucet, Ace Hardware’s director of employee engagement and head of the company’s charitable foundation, said: “We do a lot of communication with our store owners, and they’re not used to this technology. Not every audience is sitting in front of a computer all day.” Doucet said she started preparing them ahead of time, for example asking everyone to be on video. “I learned pretty quickly that with some audiences, like our hardware-store owners, many of which are baby boomers, I needed to spell it out, like, ‘This is the expectation, if you can. This is how it’s going to work.’”
Over-reliance on video calls, however, has been an equal challenge. Joey Levi, director of pre-sales for North America at LumApps, an employee communication and collaboration platform, has been working remotely for more than 20 years, but saw things change when more colleagues connected virtually in 2020. “I did a lot of personal Zoom meetings early on,” he said. “And then they all stopped because everyone got really exhausted by them.”
He later added: “On the sales side, it’s very difficult for both the prospects and customers and for salespeople, because you’re shifting into a new paradigm of trying to engage somebody. But you’re now boxed into a meeting in a video. You can’t go to dinner, you can’t do the normal things you would do, and it does definitely bring a challenge.” One of them is a lack of feedback. “When you’re dealing with people in sales, a lot of times they will go off camera,” at which point “you have no idea–are they paying attention to what you’re talking about? Do they get it?” One solution he suggested: “Getting people to start to be more conversational in their approach to presentation.”
Micha Mros, HR technology leader at insurance brokerage HUB International, echoed his sentiments. Like Levi, she and her team had historically worked together remotely, but “prior to COVID, we were on site with our clients,” she said. “So we got to meet them, see them, create that bond with them. And although we did use–and still do use–a variety of different software to communicate, we never really pushed people to turn their cameras on, you know, to engage in this way. And now we ask all of our consultants to make sure that their cameras are on.”
Technology has not yet provided a substitute for deeper, in-person discussions, Mros said. “We do things like discovery sessions with our clients, which typically would be on site for three or four days,” she said. “We found that it has been a difficult transition to get people to stay focused for four days on camera. So there have been some struggles.”
Fostering engagement with in-house employees has also emerged as a priority too, participants said. That means getting feedback from workers about their well-being, adjustments they’re making, and what works (and what doesn’t) in the new remote, more tech-heavy environment.
Laura Sewell, EVP of human resources in North America for Avanade, a digital-transformation consultancy formed by Microsoft and Accenture, said she’d seen more “reliance on video and recorded-video messages to really build that connection” because workers are seeking those ties in the absence of being together in person. “And I think the other shift that I have seen is leveraging technology to conduct what I call pulse checks with our employees in real time,” she said. “We’re aggregating results to HR quickly, enabling us to respond and adapt in real time to employee sentiment. That wasn’t something we were quite leveraging as much prior to the pandemic that we’re now doing weekly.”
Listening to employees and adapting accordingly has brought a decrease in formality and previously rigid schedules and structures. “We have introduced and launched what we call alternative ways of working, which enable people to work four 10-hour days [and] have a day off or afternoon,” said Sewell, the goal being to “create these flexible working schedules with some parameters around them.” Participating employees have agreed to anonymous surveys to gauge productivity, “so that we can get a better sense of whether this is working–or creating added pressures in your life, where you find that you’re working five 10-hour days instead of having that extra day off.”
The speakers agreed that the new reliance on technology and flexible working conditions are here to stay. “We have all learned that we can work remotely–that we can still engage with folks without being in the same room with them,” Mros said. “Personally, I’ve learned that maybe I don’t have to travel as much to visit with clients to get my work done, which would save them money and make me more productive. And I think that the way that we do business, because of this, will be forever changed,” she said.
“I wonder how many of my clients will never return to brick and mortar. How many folks will end up being permanently remote? And from talking to my clients, a lot of them with offices in large metropolitan areas really don’t have any plans on going back,” Mros said.
“If this had happened ten years ago,” added Levi, “this would be really difficult to work from home, because we wouldn’t have the ability to do this video stuff, et cetera. I also think that the trend for a lot of people before Covid was already that technology was driving them to work longer hours because it’s immediate. It’s in your phone. It’s in your hand. It’s constantly there. And so I think the benefit of knowing how that affects everybody in the organization means that the things we talked about are more about your life-work balance and making sure you understand if your employees are actually well and mentally well.”
He added: “People were getting used to working on the weekends and working at night and working in the morning and working during lunch. So I think the benefit for the employee is going to be more sensitivity.”
Sheila Flynn is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for the Associated Press, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Daily Mail and the Irish Times. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.