Business Continuity Series: Planning for Remote Work Environments


When it comes to enabling remote employees and high-performing teams, technology can oftentimes be the easy part. Employees at all levels of the organization — from executives to managers or frontline workers — must learn how to work collaboratively in a virtual setting. Mark Balbes, John Yorke and Sarah Mosier talk about enabling teams working in virtual offices while maintaining a sense of culture using customizable workshops that provide training for employees and executives on what it takes to be a productive remote worker.

Is your organization exploring permanent remote work? This article identifies some key considerations. Learn more.


Read the transcript below:

(Brian Feldt) Hi there. Brian Feldt of World Wide Technology here. And today we're happy to be talking to you about remote and agile working environments, which many of us watching probably have been thrust into, undoubtedly, during this COVID-19 pandemic. Before I introduce the speakers and panel here I'd like to just remind everybody that all of the resources, whether it's briefings, assessments, workshops, articles, videos, et cetera, are all available on our platform, wwt.com, for consumption. Feel free to go to the website, browse around, and really utilize those resources to help get your organization on the right track for Agile transformation. I'd like to go to the panel now. We're joined by Mark Balbes, senior director of Modern Software Enablement and Software Strategic Staffing here at World Wide Technology. Mark is also an award-winning author for his Agile Architect column for Application Development Trends magazine. We have John Yorke. John is director of World Wide Technology's Virtual Office Group, and frequent public speaker on topics such as remote work and Kanban principles. And Sarah Mosier, program manager here at World Wide Technology Application Services, who's led remote projects for several years for a variety of organizations, both domestic and international. To the group of you all, thank you guys for joining in what I'm sure is a very busy schedule these days.

- So as we dive in here, we talk a lot about enabling the remote employee. Individual people with technology and solutions that equip them to work better at home or remotely. But what we haven't necessarily talked a lot about in detail is really equipping and enabling these remote teams and high-performing teams. John, we'll start with you. You've had an interesting experience in transitioning a large number of workers to Agile work environments recently. And it seems to be a good success to date. I was hoping you could just walk us through that really quick. What made that possible?


(John Yorke) Sure. Yeah, we started back in 2018 looking into expanding our software division into the remote workforce. Primarily 'cause we were sort of reaching the point where we'd maxed out the pool of available candidates in the local area. And as a great place to work, we're always looking at ways that we can improve on the requests of employees, and we had a number of people that were asking to work in a remote environment. So we started exploring it back in 2018. And one of the principle constraints was that we wanted to be able to move teams remotely rather than individuals remotely, which was sort of a different construct. And we slowly migrated the teams. We got up to around about 100 people at the start of 2020 all over the US. And I can share a little map with you here. So this was us at the start of 2020. You can see that we've got a cluster around Saint Louis where our head office is, and a cluster around Denver where one of our existing offices were. But you can see that we've ended up recruiting people all over the US. It's a pretty widespread group, which was very exciting for us. It meant that we were getting access to talent from all over the place. But then, of course, early 2020 the virus situation got to the point where we were asked to move everybody to work at home, and we went from 100 people working at home to over 600 over the space of a weekend. And that was pretty exciting. But we were productive beginning of the following week. And it was incredible how well the practices and processes worked. It felt very rewarding to know that the plans we put in place for 100 people worked well at scale. So we were thrilled with that.

(Brian Feldt) Certainly it's easy to see the benefits, especially as more and more of us are doing this on a routine basis, the benefits of remote working. But as companies are opening the door to this remote working, it can probably be easy to overlook the fact that not every employee has the exact same situation in front of them. Some people may have multiple screens, some may not have a consistent Internet connection. You can imagine the multiple scenarios in which that would happen. I guess broadly, you categorize three types of working environments that we've seen in experience. Can you walk us through those?

(John Yorke) Sure, yeah. So we, I mean, it's very broad groups but we classified three different approaches to remote work. The first is an all-remote setup, which is the likes of GitHub and Stitch Fix. It's some of the big players, they use. Which is, everybody is totally remote. All communication is done in writing in an asynchronous manner. So that enables them to hire people in any time zone, anywhere in the world. You do your work, and when you finish doing your work you communicate in writing to do the handover to the next person. And so, for that there is a very heavy emphasis on clear written communication. And so that's very much an all-remote. It really builds into the desire for the freedom and the individual-centric way of working. And it's proven very successful for some groups. There's probably the most common scenario, which is where people work generally on their own, but they get together for meetings. And so they'll still be broadly in the same time zones, although you can cope with a little bit of deviation. But broadly in same groups. And they come together for set piece meetings and then they go off and they do their own work on their own times and are back for more meetings. And so those are what we could call sort of a hybrid setup. And then the third group are the group that we fall into, which is people that need real-time collaboration. So the notion of remote work isn't going off and working on your own. We were heavily into pair programming. We're all about full team collaboration. And when we say that, we really mean it. So we'll have teams that will be collaborating for a full eight hours a day. They're not going off on their own and doing things, they're working with other people all day long. And it's a much more intensive, real sort of time collaboration setup. And so for that you need what we refer to as a virtual office rather than a remote office, 'cause we're replicating an office scenario in a virtual space, where people come in at the start of the day and they work together with their peers all day long. And that's a completely different way of thinking to the all-remote setup. And just to sort of pick up on one of the other points you mentioned about the setup of screens and things, we've had to be able to do that. We've learned a few, what seem like trivial things like getting everyone to have the same resolution on their monitors. 'Cause when you're sharing monitors between people, if they don't line up it can cause all sorts of problems with seeing things on a different resolution screen. So there's all sorts of little quirks that we've discovered over the last 18 months or so.

(Brian Feldt) Sarah and Mark, I'm not ignoring you but I've got one more question for John. John, I was listening to a recent podcast that you were on, it was actually one of World Wide Technology's podcasts, software development podcast, talking about virtual offices. It was a great listen. If you're on the platform right now watching this video, you can just search virtual office and find that podcast. I don't wanna rehash everything that we had there, but I found one thing you said particularly interesting, which was that technology, in many cases, is the easy part and it's the social factor that is creating the challenge here. So, hope you could just expand on that a bit.

(John Yorke) Sure, yeah. I think with the increasing use of phones and iPads and the like, everyone's familiar with FaceTime and remote communication and the Internet. We know that the technology works. But that doesn't mean we know how to use the technology. And where we're used to meeting in person, you have certain social cues, you read body language, if someone's leaning forward on their seat you know that they're trying to speak, you can sort of tell if they sort of start speaking and hold back. In a room with other people, that's not a problem. As soon as you get into a remote environment, if someone makes a noise on a call it disrupts the flow. Leaning forward on your seat does nothing if people can't read that body language. So you have to learn new techniques for communicating. And I'll just give you a couple of the ones that we talked about. One of them is, if you're in a group of, even as small as this group, if you're wanting to inject into the conversation but you don't want to keep talking over each other, we do a technique where we'll hold up a finger to the camera. And that says, I would like to speak next. And then as Sarah's doing, if you want to speak next after that person, you hold up two fingers. And you sort of do a countdown. So when that person starts speaking, they'll drop their finger and you sort of update your queuing and you're able to keep the conversation flowing in a very neat way without any kind of need for a facilitator or someone heavy-handed to organize things. Although a facilitator is another good tip for remote meetings. The other thing that we sometimes use is I've got some cue cards. You may want to say something without interrupting the meeting. So if somebody's typing away and left their microphone on, you can hold up something just to give them a thing. Or if you don't have the printed cards, just using post-its. Somebody says something I agree with, I can hold up a post-it, or I disagree. I don't want to interrupt the flow, but I can register my vote or my input into the conversation. And so they're just a couple of the ways that we can make up for the lack of body language and still keep our remote meetings, our remote conversations flowing.

(Brian Feldt) And John, I think one of the built-in assumptions of those techniques that you're showing is that you can see everybody that's a part of those meetings.

(John Yorke) Absolutely. Although we are hoping that if these techniques become prevalent, we might see them show up in some of these tools. 'Cause there's no, the likes of WebEx allow you to raise a hand. It's not a great stretch of the imagination for them to enhance that feature with other emojis to express more sentiments than just, I want to speak.

(Brian Feldt) Another piece of that, too, is your audio. I've been through a lot of different headsets, and it wasn't until I got this big gaming headset that I realized it worked really well with my computer. And even though it's really big, but it's wireless and it has great abilities to go on mute and not mute. And it's comfortable. And finding out what works good for you and then pairing with someone who you work with to test those audio, test your camera, really does help. So it helps those meetings progress quicker when you do your work up front.

- Sarah, let's stick with you here. So we've seen physical offices progress over the years through different stages as teams have grown and become more effective. We've seen software teams shift from cubicles to co-located groups across functional teams. How can World Wide Technology help teams migrate to a remote environment without losing the principles that we've learned over the course of years and years and years? How can we help individuals be more effective in that remote setting?

(Sarah Mosier) We have really seen a 20 year office evolution through our progression of time with the office space. You know, initially people worked in offices, and they were individual contributors. And slowly, that transitioned to pods that were a set together of cubicles. And while they were working together, they still had their individual areas. And now we're really seeing and have evolved into this team environment. And we wanna make sure that that team environment is transitioned when you're virtual. We really wanna avoid regressing back to the non-productive ways, and really taking our lessons learned from previous years and applying them to the different concepts and practices towards virtual working. You know, the biggest thing here is to keep your productivity high and keep your collaboration high and keeping that sense of your culture and your organization. And all of this is through different perspectives of working in a virtual office. There's the perception from executives, there is the perceptive from managers or leaders as well as your front-line workers who are in the weeds doing the work. So there is that view from all different sides. And the positives that can come from this and how you can enable your teams to be highly productive and highly collaborative.

(Brian Feldt) Mark, John mentioned it a little bit earlier on here, but two years ago WWT started experimenting and looking into virtual offices for our own internal purposes. He gave a little bit of the detail there. But what was the inspiration behind doing that?

(Mark Balbes) So we've always been, in our history with our software development, big proponents of Agile. And one of the tenets of Agile is bringing smart people together, working in these highly-collaborative environments. Which for a long time, it meant physical co-location. Everybody's in the same room working together. And our experience with having people working remotely 15 years ago, up until maybe five years ago, was really around somebody had a sick kid and they had to stay home but they wanted to stay working, or in some cases there was, for whatever reason someone needed to stay home for several months at a time. And we've had several instances of that, and I've experienced this. With our highly collaborative teams and being co-located, those people that are off-site, even though they're eager and willing to engage, they just kinda get forgotten about. The team goes on, they have their impromptu conversations, they're doing all the great, rapid stuff that that's why we bring them together. And that remote person feels very isolated. I've actually seen people that had very legitimate reasons for staying home and working from home decide no, I really have to sacrifice my family to come back into the office because that's the only way that I can be effective as part of this team. So that was really our first experience. And then the second thing was, as we started growing and getting larger, we couldn't find all the talent and house all the talent in our Saint Louis office. And so, we started opening up offices in other cities and experimenting with how we could create teams that span the different cities. And so, we would have some folks in our Saint Louis office, we would have some folks in our Denver office, for example. And what we found was even with that, they would start forming their own mini-team in those offices, having their own conversations, and actually creating some tension between the teams because they're able to have these high-bandwidth, fast conversations with their teammates that are right next to them. And so, again, the other subteam would kinda get left out of the conversations, and so they would start going in their own direction. So our experience was that in order to be effective with people being remote, we really had to have everybody on an equal footing. Everybody had to be remote, everybody had to have the same tools. If somebody needs to get the team's attention, they're doing it the same way as everybody else. And that's really a part of the inspiration for creating that virtual office. And we did some experiments before actually creating the virtual office of just taking some of our teams just in one office, but still putting people in different areas and seeing how that would work.

(Brian Feldt) So Mark, obviously over the last several years we must have learned just an absolute ton about what it takes to not only survive but thrive in these types of atmospheres, which is especially pertinent now as most workforces is stuck at home. Talk a little bit more about what else we may have learned, what challenges we experienced, and some of the outcomes that came from the project overall.

(Mark Balbes) Yes, I'm glad you asked that. It is a totally unexpected question that I just happen to have a slide to share with you. So one of the great things about being a part of World Wide Technology is all of the resources that we have access to, and all of the tools that we have access to. And so, we have virtual sharing capabilities through WebEx and Slack and other tools that allow us, even within the office, to interact with each other, to interact with our customers. And so, we're able to connect individuals both with ourselves, with our customers. We have great training for those tools. So learning about the idiosyncrasies of WebEx and how to do that, and what's the best browser, things like that. As well as having support for those individuals in how to effectively use those tools. But there's really more than just the tools themselves. And that's where a lot of folks that are thinking about remote working, that's where they stop. They give their people the tools, they train them on the tools, but they really don't talk about how do you create these high-performing teams? And for us, with our Agile background, wanting to get those high-performing teams, that high level of collaboration, really the thoughts around how do we innovate, how do we retrospect on what we're doing and do those better, that's in our DNA. And so, standing up the virtual office or really anything that we do, we're constantly thinking about how do we improve how we do them, how do we train our people on how to do those things? Some of the things that John was talking about earlier are simple examples of that. But how do you hold a retrospective and be able to reflect on the work that you're doing, and make that better? And so, we're able to go beyond just the tools and actually use our knowledge to create these highly collaborative teams in the virtual space in the same way that we've done in the physical space.

(Brian Feldt) So following up to what Mark was saying, you know, I didn't realize it 'cause I've worked remote, as other people have as well within World Wide, and we've done this before. And for us it's almost second nature to be able to utilize and pick up and work anywhere. Doesn't matter if you're in the office, if you're at home, you could be in a coffee shop. And through everything going on in today's world, it really dawned on me that people really have to learn how to be a remote worker and how to be a productive remote team member as well. It's the little things that we kind of just do as part of our lifestyle and our culture within World Wide. And our secret sauce, as we like to say, that it just comes second nature to us. And being able to share that knowledge and that concept with others is huge. And we could really help people and help empower them to continually be a highly productive team member and a virtual employee.

- Sarah, at the time when we started doing the virtual office effort, that was a long-term strategic decision for us. And fast forward to today, that long-term plan has become a very immediate need, not just for World Wide, but for every organization that has teams that need to collaborate. With such large groups of employees being forced to work remotely, how are we taking some of the things that we've talked about, what we've learned, the challenges we've experienced, and then parlaying those into ways in which we can help customers enable their own remote teams.

(Sarah Mosier) You know, we really were able to identify some challenges or some problems around this, and that a lot of cultures or business and organizations could potentially have. The big one is preserving your identity and your culture while you're in a virtual office. And how can you keep that socialization up still even if you're not face to face? And you know, enhancing the culture so that we are able to support each other with collaboration, with a remote workforce, and keeping and forging these high-performing teams. So we started putting our heads together and tried to figure out how we could help others with this. And came up with just this simple mission of we wanna make sure that others are empowered and that we can help people be highly collaborative. And with the way things are now and with the new normal that we now see. We wanna be able to leverage our technical advancements with our unique qualities of a remote workforce, and learning from and planning for events like COVID-19. So you know, couple months ago if somebody would've came to John and said, you know, we're gonna go all remote or we're really wanting a virtual office, some people probably would've looked at that concept a little like, really? Is that really what you really want? But now, companies and businesses are starting to see that this is possible, and that this is something that you can definitely utilize and that you can build from. So we really, as part of our learnings and as part of what we are wanting to help others with, is we want to help establish that framework for how to become a highly-effective team, how to have remote collaboration. And in essence, exploring the art of the possible. Whether it's for an ad-hoc meeting, a planned interaction, how can you do things today that you didn't think you could do before? You know, we've all had, you know, socialization, so whether it's coffee breaks or happy hours, of course, face to face. Well now we're having them virtual because we're told we have to. And people are really starting to see that that is something that that means a lot to them. Because you don't just go to the water cooler or go to the coffee pot in the office any more. You have to physically try or virtually try to reach out and talk to people. And more and more groups are starting to really adapt to this, and seeing how this can be possible. So based off of this, we have really put three trainings together. The first one is a lot of the executive-level training, which is where you are leveraging your remote workforce for your increased profitability. Being able to see and utilize on a lot of the lower costs as well as seeing your employees' happiness increase, their mentality increase, and maintaining that mental stability along with benefiting the business as well. So there is that type of getting the buy-in from the senior leaders or the executive leaders on why this is needed and valid, and how this is something that could be continued, and the large cost savings that can be out there for companies. Whether it's a part-time remote worker or a full-time remote worker, there's a lot of money there you can cut from overhead that companies are able to easily and quickly benefit from. The second offering that we are looking at and being able to help others with in other teams, is managing remote workforce. It's not only the concept of being a remote employee, but how do you manage those remote employees? How do you manage your employees remotely without coming across as a micromanager? You're not seeing them physically every day. So validating and ensuring that you are able to hold them accountable for their outcomes as well as managing and having that employee and management collaboration or agreement on how the days and the weeks are going through, and ensuring that while you're not seeing each other constantly, you are still productive and you are still able to produce high outcomes. And then the third training we're thinking about and we're gonna be offering is how to become a highly-productive remote team member. So it's not only being your individual contributor, but it's within your other teams. Being able to reach out, collaborate, have that social side still even though you're not seeing each other face to face. And just the techniques that are being used that are seeing great success with. Whether it's your coffee breaks, your one on one checkins, ensuring how are you doing, asking people that. Especially right now with so many people who are at home and they're not able to leave their house and not having a lot of interactions, instilling that they are not alone and ensuring that everybody does feel part of that team. And how you can become highly productive and ensure happiness as well as positive outcomes through everything. We really are taking a lot of what, to us, might seem like is breathing because we're so used to doing it. But to others, they've never had to encounter this before. And trying to show how we can all do this together and showing them that the future can be different, and what we considered normal is now, we have a new normal from the previous.

(Brian Feldt) Open it back up to the panel here. And talk about a little bit of a future state. So I would imagine that more organizations would be amenable to accepting remote working. So I guess, get out your crystal ball here a little bit and talk about what the future holds for virtual offices. There we go, the one. John.

(John Yorke) So, yeah. I think that, I mean, right now I reckon it's around 3.5% of the US workforce is remote. I can imagine in the next five years that's gonna become 35%. This crisis has been sort of awful for a lot of people and a lot of businesses, but it has also put us in a situation that we may not have stepped into voluntarily. But now we've done it and we know what to expect, I think it will make people a lot more comfortable stepping into that, and they will be taking advantage of it. So I think we'll see a huge growth in remote work, remote tools, and I hope, remote collaboration. 'Cause I think that's the one area that I'd really like to see growth in is the real-time collaboration.

(Brian Feldt) Sarah, you had the two up?

(Sarah Mosier) Yeah. So I really predict that companies will continue to see their productivity rise. And they can see how they can benefit from having a remote workforce from an employee and a company view. There are benefits across the board, that there's so many we can't even list. And being able to see that this is possible. And the world was just given a taste and a test of what could happen. And we were all able to adapt. And we could adjust to that new normal. And because of the businesses are seeing and they're adapting as well, and what's considered normal or considered standard is now being redefined. And it is setting up companies so that they either have to jump onboard with this or they will be left behind. And this is where our expertise can assist companies with getting ahead of that, and ensuring that, for the digital age, that they are putting their best foot forward and ensuring success.

(Mark Balbes) You know, I really see multiple pressures happening. The first one being that we're in this crisis right now. And the virtual office and remote working, it's not just a good idea, it's what we have to do. And we're all learning about it. Once the COVID-19 crisis ends, I think that we will see the folks that are excited, we will see an uptick in use of the virtual office or just remote working. But I also think that we'll see some bit of a backlash, that there will be people that want to go back to the office, they will want to go back to what is normal. And that sense of stability, maybe, that we've gone back to normalcy. So we're gonna have to work harder to make sure that people do remember, hey, this did work. Because society has a short memory. And so, as much momentum as we have now it's really important for us to keep that momentum going once the current situation is resolved. So you make predictions, you might as well make big predictions, right? So here's my big prediction. And that's, we're already seeing cities like Los Angeles and photographs of smog-free cities, pollution-free cities, just from working remotely after a month or so. And we think that this is probably going to continue for some unknown amount of time. And so, the virtual office is obviously a good tool for doing that, and there's business reasons for doing that. But I think that not only are there good business reasons, good health reasons for being in the virtual office, I think that we're going to see this as a moral imperative, not just a business imperative. That contributing to the climate change and being able, with the virtual office, to help contribute to the solution to climate change will be seen as something that is morally imperative and definitely possible. And even now, we're seeing governments giving grants and incentives for keeping people working at home. We'll see more of that. We'll see companies adopting a stance of, from a moral perspective of building virtual offices.

(Sarah Mosier) You know, and following up, Mark. On a personal side, it helps myself and people like me who are working parents. And being able to not have to feel that stretch of, okay, I have to leave the office at this time to pick up a child to take 'em here so they can be here, and then thinking, well, I have to leave at a certain time to meet my personal obligations. But then you feel like you're almost stretching your work life or you're stretching your personal life, you have to choose. And being able to be home, and being successful and productive at home, and knowing that I can spend more time working or with my family, it's huge. And a lot of companies are really starting to see this. I mean, it really does have a positive uptick. I really agree with what you're saying about how, less people on the road, and the traffic. But the personal level for it, the happiness, the mental stability, is fantastic.

(Mark Balbes) Yeah Sarah, that was great. And I just wanna reiterate, you can find on the platform our courses. And we're really trying to target the three different audiences for our training. The executives who want to understand how they can enable the virtual office for a competitive advantage in all the multiple ways we've discussed. The managers who are trying to enable their highly-collaborative teams and really support them. And then our individual contributors, our workers on the front lines who are members of that team, and trying to understand what their place is in that team and how they can work effectively in this new virtual office environment.

(Brian Feldt) Well stated, for sure. To the three of you, thank you guys so much for taking the time out of what I know is a busy schedule. Thank you to all the viewers who have tuned in and taken an interest in not only this topic, but any other topic that we've had videos on as it relates to business continuity. I'd like to reiterate the fact that we do have all of these materials that we've reviewed on our platform, wwt.com, as well as other webinar videos that we've recorded as it relates to other areas of business continuity, whether it's remote working, network connectivity, even videos that are focused on telehealth. So I would encourage you guys to check that out as well. You can just perform a simple search on wwt.com to get there. So thank you guys again, and we'll talk soon.