A blog post by Irene Weir, Manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP.
To a growing percentage of workers, work is an activity, not a place. The unprecedented nature of COVID-19 has accelerated this trend and forced many companies to adopt a virtual, remote work model to keep business moving. Many organizations are looking to their leadership to build a virtual engagement framework that defines the future of work. But establishing an effective framework may also mean shedding conventions that can hinder success.
Virtual Engagement Framework
A holistic virtual engagement framework can help redefine how work is done, as well as ensure that workers understand their roles and responsibilities and have the support they need. With a virtual engagement framework, it’s possible for workers to be as, or even more, productive than they are with in-office work models.
There are five components to a virtual engagement framework:
- End-user computing
Employers must nurture talent while improving productivity, so a sound strategy is key to get leadership to agree on the direction and key decisions.
- Business drivers: It’s crucial to outline the case for virtual engagement—perhaps operational resilience or improved customer engagement. It’s also key to communicate the benefits—such as increased quality, autonomy, and performance—that talent will realize.
- Funding: Securing proper funding is also critical. Standing up virtual engagement may require increased funding in the short term, so any strategy should include that possibility. Funding might be secured more easily if it’s collectively advocated for across talent, technology, and tools. Remember, underfunded efforts often fail, but they can also cost more in the long run since doing it wrong means paying to fix it later.
- Measuring value: As The Phoenix Project articulates, there are four types of work: business projects, internal projects, operational change, and unplanned work. Unplanned work can stall everything else, which affects the delivery of projects, the deployment of changes, and almost always takes the organization away from meeting goals. Help reduce unplanned work by: visualizing all work to be done (see the section titled, “End-User Computing,” for more), mapping all the actions that should be taken to bring value to the business, eliminating non-value added efforts or work all together, constructing immediate feedback loops, leaving team capacity for the team to solve the problem permanently, and completing tasks rather than increasing the work in progress.
When workers work remotely, working norms change, but those changes can be overlooked. For example, workers need to feel engaged, but that engagement can happen outside the office. So, management must adjust how work is done to accommodate the evolving workforce.
- Setting the tone: Leaders in the office typically create the virtual environment that increases productivity as well as worker satisfaction. Work culture should be outcome-driven to empower and hold teams accountable for progress. One caveat: success in a virtual setting doesn’t equate with compulsory oversight; instead, it may require consistent pulse checks, feedback loops, and informal engagement to monitor team effectiveness and personal performance.
- Communication: Misalignment on communication is a leading reason virtual engagement models aren’t effective. So, it’s essential to choose the right tools for each scenario to minimize work interruptions and drive productivity. Close collaboration between Business, Technology, Information Security to select tools and deploy effectively is a comprehensive effort from training to ways of working. Once tools are selected, establish which channels to use for different needs (e.g., a 1:1 call to catch up, encrypted email for sensitive information or large status updates, chats for quick questions or decisions, and collaboration tools for working sessions).
- Keeping on track: Moving to remote working capabilities means establishing new routines, as well as understanding workers’ daily rhythms. Small, cross-functional teams with clear objectives and a common purpose can keep everyone on the same strategic course.
Talent is the fulcrum of remote work so it’s vital to fully involve workers in the process of creating a virtual engagement framework. Leadership should welcome ideas and details from across the workforce. For example, there might be specific needs or tools that centralized talent groups may not have considered that could amplify teams’ ability to do their jobs. Some key areas to consider are:
- Expectations: Leadership and workers can work together to structure expectations on working remotely, including work schedules (e.g., regular, ad hoc, unscheduled, non-consecutive days), duration of virtual engagement, and which roles are considered essential or mission critical.
- Eligibility: Many traditional occupations are being disrupted by automation, virtualization, or the gig economy. For example, chatbots are taking on increased volume of customer service questions, software engineers are collaborating albeit dispersed across the country, and consultants are picking up ‘gigs’ to increase exposure to different projects. Leadership and workforce representatives can work together to establish criteria for remote-working eligibility that align with business drivers. Start by breaking down job tasks that can be performed remotely. Then review previous performance experience and define the alternative workspace and equipment. These components serve as a foundation for a modernized model where talent has increased flexibility while being effectively supported.
- Work time: With virtual engagement, work time can be anytime. Therefore, it’s necessary to redefine core business hours across time zones and service-level agreements, as well as to establish appropriate response times for decisions, deliverables and/or requests for operational roles, so that talent is supported while still effectively meeting customer needs.
- Expenses: Virtual engagement can be seen as a mirror of the centralized office, so organizations must determine how expenses are allocated and charged for remote workers—including internet, office space, electricity, and other relevant costs (e.g., travel to alternate worksites).
- Engagement: Managers should be encouraged to have positive, non-work related interactions with workers. All employees need to feel appreciated and inspired, regardless of their physical location. Leaders set expectations on how and when teams engage with each other, and with leaders. Be mindful about access and availability to encourage productivity and well-being, however. Examples include conducting 15-minute check-ins with team members, encouraging video conferencing for working sessions, or establishing light-hearted themes for informal meetings to keep team members engaged.
Remote work no longer equals simply working from home. Now, work can be anywhere from a coffee shop to an airport. To enable and scale a secure remote working experience, there are three critical components for organizations to consider: software-defined networking in a wide area network (SD-WAN), client certificates, and virtual desktop infrastructure.
- Software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN): An SD-WAN architecture can improve network performance as demand patterns change. For example, SD-WAN split tunneling can segment different types of network data traffic. The branching prevents bottlenecks in the data center by deciding what traffic to keep in and what to keep out. Another key to scalability is stress testing the network to plan for volume demand changes and understand the organization’s remote networking capacity.
- Client certificates: Secure sign-on capability is a fundamental issue in remote work. Single sign-on (SSO) can be insecure, while multi-factor authentication (MFA) can be frustrating to workers. One potential compromise is the use of client certificates—a process in which IT generates a certificate that is unique to that user (client) and installed on their device. Client certificates are defined as multi-factor because they are installed on a password-protected device with a unique certificate. Yet, the authentication is treated as an SSO, because the user takes no action on the client certificate. And, if the user's device is stolen, the certificate can be revoked, and the device can no longer authenticate for remote access.
- Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI): Unlike the decentralized management model of a VPN, VDI manages devices on a central server. It can help rapidly recover desktops and images of devices if a user machine fails. Companies can allow users to access VDI from any device, since data stays in the data center. However, greater flexibility for end-users comes at the cost of design, planning, and preparation to implement. VDI often demands a surge in processing power, storage, and memory to scale with high performance compared to VPN. Further, some applications can require configurations and settings specific to individual companies, customers, and divisions. These use cases pose challenges for IT management. The key is to work across the organization to operate at a consistent level of security and access.
The final component of a virtual engagement framework is end-user computing. More than ever, workers rely on all sorts of technology. Access to multiple tools—especially those used for collaboration—is vital in keeping everyone on track, but it’s important to get the basics right. Providing access to collaboration tools, complemented with training, sets up the workforce for success.
- Upskilling: Current skills matter often less than the ability to learn new ones. Workers are responsible for becoming familiar with collaborative platforms. However, organizations also bear responsibility for providing education on tools. To encourage tool use, identify opportunities to utilize tools at your disposal so members can gain experience and discover new features.
- Project or backlog management tools: Making work—including knowledge, culture, workflows, and security—visible to the team creates a platform for continued engagement and collaboration. Team-wide access to management tools should be encouraged so teams can visualize the progression of work, track tasks, and create transparency.
- Collaboration tools: Tools to enable collaboration are also essential. Workers must be able to share files, chat in real-time, and collaborate virtually on projects. It’s also necessary to enable video and conference calls through the collaboration system for a comprehensive collaboration platform. A unified system helps teams keep track of documents, work in progress, conversations without having to technology switch constantly throughout the day.
- Video chat and messaging: Periodic face-to-face time is essential to maintain team cohesion. The ability to conduct video conferencing across any device helps teams become acclimated to operating in a virtual environment and helps enable more productive conversations between teams and with clients. However, using these tools requires team-wide coordination and focus to stay on track and topic.
- Calendars: Work can happen anytime as well as anywhere, so it’s key to update enterprise calendars to help workers to reflect true working hours. It’s also a good idea to encourage—and institutionalize respect for—dedicated focus time so that workers can be optimally effective.
The path forward
As with all change, unifying on the purpose and vision of virtual engagement drives a successful execution. Funding and technology underpin the virtual engagement framework. However, turning leaders across business, talent, security and technology into champions of virtual engagement often requires convincing them that productivity and performance will increase. Organizations that master virtual engagement will help transform the future of work by capturing diverse talent, enhancing productivity, and strategically reducing costs, while creating an organization that employees are more than happy to work for.