Digital transformation: How remote work helps or hurts change efforts

Anyone else finally pay the $2.99 for the meditation app instead of using the free version? We are all certainly up to here (imagine my hand a few inches above my nose) with sheltering in place. Who would have thought, 2020 would bring such a life altering change.

From our perspective, we in technology and at our company, have always been experts at remote work and working with remote teams across different time zones – this is the essence of what we do. We work with innovative, high growth software companies who are mostly in North America or Europe, who engage our talented designers, UI/UX, software and cloud architects and engineers in India and South America. Remote work and remote teams is at the core of what we do; but even for us this pandemic has brought us new levels to explore.

I talked to a few leaders at innovative technology companies in my network to compare experiences and not surprisingly there is good and bad that is reported of the impact of remote work on digital transformation. What is more interesting to me is what great companies can do in every situation to address the challenges or enhance the benefits of what remote work does to a digital transformation effort. 

The new normal?

Digital Transformation and remote working are both not new concepts, but they do represent the new normal. Many of the leaders I spoke to reported that remote work was not new to them, this of course represents the bias of the type of companies in my network – software product companies to whom digital transformation or remote work is not new. 

Laurent Barocas, the Chief Revenue Officer, of Trakx.io, a French startup supported by Consensys, shares that, “With our CEO, me, board members in London, UK, our CTO in Portugal, our COO in Paris, and investors in New York, USA – remote teams were what we started out with. Consequently, during COVID crisis, we feel like we were well prepared to handle this extraordinary situation. We already used best practice in terms of collaborative tools and processes that are essential to drive commitment, efficiency and create a strong company culture.”

This is not unusual, even with larger and more established software companies remote work was already the “old” normal; but sometimes they have to help their customers into this normal.

I talked to Stacey Charbin, Chief Marketing Officer, of Centric Software, which builds the world’s leading PLM software for the fashion and retail brands, she said, “Covid hasn’t brought a lot of changes in the way we work at Centric since 80% of us worldwide worked remotely before Covid and many of our implementations were done remotely as well. Today 100% of our implementations are done remotely. Some of our customers who have been forced into remote-working have found it reassuring to learn that this is how Centric has been functioning before.” For context, Centric Software is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, but has a VP of Innovation in Seattle, and Stacey herself and a lot of the marketing team is based in Quebec, Canada, and they have team members all over the globe.

Tamika McCuistion, CEO of Qore8 a PLM add-on that provides automated solutions needed for intelligent digital asset creation, management and collaboration by facilitating the secure sharing and usage of assets across teams and partners, in Dallas, Texas has always run a remote team spanning Texas, Minneapolis, Canada and Pakistan and yet her team is very close and has built up a lot of trust. She says they did it through “being real” with each other and cloud infrastructure like AWS to enable effective remote work.

Advantages to remote work

Talent: One of the biggest advantages of remote work is finding the right people at the right time for the right need. It allows companies like Trakx.io to hire talents wherever they’re located  – not only is the founding and executive team spread out, but their development and support team is across the globe in Ukraine, Philippines, US, France, and UK. They have developed systems and processes to onboard them smoothly and look at it as a strategic competitive advantage.

Vinayak Joglekar, the CTO of Synerzip puts it well when he says, “Remote working has opened up new opportunities to build teams using the best available talent wherever it’s available- physical location isn’t a constraint anymore.” 

What this means for digital transformation efforts is that the search for talent is no longer circumscribed by the talent pool of your city or region. Now both companies and professionals can choose the best situation for themselves. Even a few years ago, clients in smaller cities would share with me their challenge of finding the right talent and the challenge of keeping them. While in technology, remote work has always been an available and much used option, now more than ever, this strategic option has become table stakes in the important game of digital transformation.

Cost Savings: So while best in class companies always knew that talent was available all over the world, the normal strategy was to open up an office in Kiev, Guadalajara, Pune, Bangalore, or Beijing. But today companies like Trakx.io see enormous savings from not having to build out infrastructure in high rent cities like London. Even before the Covid crisis hit, the team leveraged co-working places for important meetings and team building exercises, while leveraging the benefits of working from home to enable productivity while saving them expensive dollars on leases.

Stacey says, “During this pandemic we all have realized that many travels were not “essential” per se and that a lot could have been achieved remotely.” Of course this has impacted the travel industry dramatically, however the environment has been a big winner as well. We have observed similar impacts at Synerzip. A sales leader at a [describe company] reports that he has made more sales this year by being able to talk to prospects in Florida, Minnesota, and Illinois all in the same day.

Additionally, the labor arbitrage of the cost of living differences between one part of the world vs another is still a very real thing. If a highly talented architect can be added to your team for $75,000 in India, $150,000 in Mexico, vs paying the same talent $250,000 in the Bay Area, that is a value proposition that is hard to turn away. However, this arbitrage will go away at some point, and the core of the need to find talent wherever they are will be the driving force vs the labor arbitrage argument. This is certainly one point I find myself leaning less and less on as a driver for remote work.

People are able to better utilize their time as they save the commute time. Flexibility and freedom of working from anywhere results in better productivity and better work life balance 

Work-Life balance: There is both convenience and comfort in working from home.  The line between work and personal life has blurred even more with kids attending virtual classes and shops having reduced working hours, this means we have to step away from our computers during the day sometimes even several times.  Stacey shares that: “Working hours have become more flexible and technology like mobile apps, 3D and AI have become essential when in need to check a sample, approve a quote, a fabric in the middle of the grocery store.” 

From Stacey: “Funnily enough, even though we haven’t seen our team mates or customers in months, this shared experience has brought us closer together as human beings.” 

How true!

Challenges of remote work

Work-Life Balance: As much as we would like to believe that people enjoy better work-life balance it’s actually quite difficult to achieve the fine balance as your home is now your workplace and before we know it our work seeps in everywhere. Nidhi advocates with each line manager at Synerzip, “…time management and expectation setting is the key here”. The line between work and personal life has blurred even more with kids attending virtual classes and shops having reduced working hours. 

Social Animals: We humans are social beings and as much as the technology has made it easy and enabled us to have our loved ones just a click away it still cannot replace the satisfaction that a social evening with friends and family brings over a shared drink or a meal; and the lack of in person contact is starting to weigh on everyone.

Digital haves/have-nots: Companies with a low level of digitization were highly impacted by the forced remote working on top of the closures of their stores. This is true for schools and government agencies as well. These are all organizations that support our way of life. Remote work does not come naturally to them, it is our responsibility to help these organizations up the curve.

Getting things done: Coordinating collaboration can be a challenge, and getting recognition for the work product can be tough. Even with the great tools available, it is not always easy to have a whiteboarding or brainstorming discussion with a fellow team member.

How do you kick it up a notch

So, understanding the challenges and advantages, how do you help your team mitigate the challenges or kick it up a notch to enhance the advantages?

Set strong and clear culture and expectations: Companies like Trakx.io promote a “get it done” culture in their onboarding, through flexible working hours, usage of video calls, and have the results to show for it – good product and customer traction, and great employee satisfaction.

Start 2 years ago: At 501Ops, CEO Peter Swanson observes that a lot of the benefits are being realized through trust relationships that have been built carefully, “…since we have worked together for years we were able to do a  seamless transition to increase to Covid-levels of remote collaboration. It has strengthened our communication and product delivery.”

[Corollary: (Since we don’t have a time machine) start building good, kind, productive relationships today]

Check ins: Standard check-ins with the team to review what is working and what isn’t work. It also allows for recognition of work effort. Blocking of time each day to connect on urgent priorities.  

Have an “office”: On a practical level, help your employees have an “office” at home, that is well defined and conducive to doing focused work, avoiding usual distractions from children, pets and well meaning spouses.

Reach out for help: Companies with low digital IQ have accelerated their digital transformation by acquiring solutions like Centric PLM to empower their teams with remote collaboration tools. 

Technology is your friend: Use chat tools like Slack, Google Chat etc to easily ping a fellow team member to check if they are available for a quick conversation via video call.

Actually, people are your friends: To counter this lack of real interaction relationships with the teams and also with customers have changed.  From Stacey: “We are taking more time to ask about how everyone is feeling, doing, coping.  With customers and Centric associates all over the world, many calls will start with sharing personal experiences and local situations.  Something we didn’t do as much before. “Distant socializing” as psychologist Jamil Zaki called it has become part of our professional routine.”

So how are you doing? Please feel free to reach out.

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