Workforce Management

What COVID-19 Has Revealed About Working Remotely

Use these three insights to improve remote work in the wake of the pandemic.
Lauren MuskettApril 30, 2020
What COVID-19 Has Revealed About Working Remotely

Large organizations around the world have pivoted to remote work amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And to a remarkable extent, many have continued to carry out much of their business operations. Especially compared to the macro-environment in which some industries and smaller businesses that interact directly with their customers are struggling more with the work-from-home shift.

Recently, we checked in with the CFOs of 113 large North American companies. In terms of revenue, nearly three-quarters say their companies are at 80% capacity or higher. And about two-thirds of the CFOs say no more than 10% of their workforce is working at less than half capacity.

Deloitte made the pivot as well. For the roughly 11,000 professionals in our audit and assurance business, remote work suddenly became a consistent reality. The COVID-19 crisis in the United States broke just as year-end audits were wrapping up and first-quarter filers were about to begin. But we did it largely due to more than a decade of investments in our organization’s digital transformation. Through the current crisis, we realized three important insights that may help other businesses navigate the brave new world of scaled digital working.

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

How Startup CFO Grew Food Company 50% YoY

This case study of JonnyPops’ success highlights the unusual financial and operational strategies that enabled rapid expansion into a crowded and highly competitive frozen treat market. 

Insight #1: Focus on What Matters

It’s much easier to deal with remote work when the entire organization has effective and well-practiced project management, processes, and technology capabilities. As a discipline, project management aims for clarity, collaboration, transparency, and foresight. When done well, this serves to soothe anxiety and provide consistency to rally teams and clients to have confidence and connectivity that are critical in a crisis. To enable this in a digital setting, we have turned to the following.

Use the cloud. Cloud computing offers a virtual workspace for colleagues around the world. Professionals can share ideas, track progress, and work on a single source of accurate data asynchronously at their own schedule or in real-time, together. Combined with effective investment in digital knowledge management capabilities, a cloud strategy provides a secure, accessible source of information, thereby setting the stage for muted disruption of work and comfort in the enablement of fact-based decision making.

Instill agile principles. Agile is a way of working that focuses on people over process, with emphasis on iterative planning and incremental delivery of work. With roots in software development, agile aims to meet business objectives and deliver value early and often. By focusing on incremental changes and proactive communication, short daily “stand-up” meetings keep everyone on the same page.

Agile principles applied to team meetings can keep team members engaged and confident in what they need to do with continuance of the organization’s culture implicitly. Stand-up meetings are short meetings (thus no virtual chairs required) where the agenda is simply reporting on what was accomplished yesterday, what will be accomplished today, and what might impede progress.

Focus on time management. Remote work gave us a new appreciation of the water-cooler conversations we had in the office. Chance meetings, hallway hellos, lunchroom gatherings, and impromptu one-on-ones are now gone. A great deal often got done in these one-minute interactions throughout the day. With physical distance, our teams had to become deliberate with their meetings, which can quickly become overwhelming. We learned to carefully guard meeting times, protect both personal breaks and work timeslots, and optimize agendas for maximum return on effort in an environment where many work boundaries have been eliminated.

Leverage analytics and digital risk assessments. Finance projects, individual tasks, and even internal audits are vulnerable to challenges like cost overruns, missed deadlines, and failure to meet business or quality requirements. Remote work can easily amplify these risks, so it is imperative to make a point of projects and judgments through fact-based data analysis.

Key to this is having a culture where understanding which activities are most important and have the greatest impact are factored into the daily standup prioritization. Also, analytic analyzers, outputs, and visualizations, combined with automated and smart project management dashboarding, can help make this challenge seamless. The results can help reduce the burden on team members and fewer asks of others to get the job done.

Insight #2: Make Work Portable Across Time and Space

As physical workplaces shuttered, many organizations rushed to stand up virtual workspaces, messaging applications, video conferencing, and other collaboration tools. Companies enhanced security and workplace policies to accommodate offsite work. But, as many organizations discovered, technology isn’t just about providing the infrastructure for remote work. It is really about enabling the very future of work itself.

Emphasize digitization. Although some of the information required to complete an audit has been converted to digital format, organizations remain in various stages of their own digital journey. We still come across manual work products when looking for evidence of the completion of internal controls or process support in finance. The fact is, paper documents remain common in many organizations. It may take a purposeful push to digitize in order to achieve the repeatability, scalability, and consistency necessary for operating effectively in a remote environment.

Revisit the toolbox. Sometimes when we look through our toolboxes for a weekend project, we can be surprised by what tools we have. The same can often be said about a team’s digital toolbox. As companies transition from crisis response to recovery, it is a good time to revisit their applications and overall suite of capabilities, because the components of the transition to digital work might literally already be at your fingertips.

Preparing workflow and control documentation with a “digital reviewer” mindset may add significant improvements to the cost of compliance while improving quality. Evidencing the substance of review-type controls in digital notes, using digital tick marks effectively, and applying a fresh mindset to processes not only can result in teams spending less time and reducing their burden, but can open opportunities for enhanced workflow and robotic process automation, or even blockchain use-cases. And with proper planning and training, this exercise can accelerate an organization’s finance transformation and be the impetus to a real cognitization program.

Don’t forget the data. Over time, we have made material investments in audit technologies to reduce the burden on our clients, and the impact is substantive and rich. But a key learning is that from the start, teams should develop a data strategy covering architecture, security, strict rules for consistency, and planned use cases. Data should be protected and constantly evaluated for insights and continuous quality improvements.

Move basic digital hygiene from the center to the field. In the age of remote work, systems and networks require ongoing testing for security, connectivity, and other critical capabilities. But, now more than ever, it is a responsibility that extends beyond the IT organization to include the broader workforce. With much of the entire workforce homebound, it is critical to have a playbook for professionals to conduct remote work, reminders of functionality, good cyber practices, and tools to be effective and safe. To make this effective, it is necessary to provide continuous learning beyond the pandemic, including making asks of professionals to test their home environment and conduct scenario planning exercises.

Insight #3: Look to the Human Side of Digital Remote Work

Processes can be optimized for virtual work, and functionality can be platformed to create a dynamic, work-from-anywhere experience for professionals and clients. But what about the human side? Remote working tends to challenge long-held perceptions about what it takes to be productive, valuable, and inclusive. Organizations can ease the transition by emphasizing the following.

Respect boundaries. At Deloitte, many years, dollars, and proverbial beads of sweat went into digitizing our audit experience and making it possible to be highly productive. The flip side is that the fast pace and always-on connectivity enabled by our digitization can quickly become the intensity norm. Against this always-on backdrop, individuals need room to pause, reflect, think, and focus to get their own work done with balance. Professionals also need to be reminded that they can disengage, which should be encouraged for long-term well-being.

Words matter. In a digital world, words exist longer than when just spoken into the air. Thus, the method of communication matters. Sensitive or confidential information may require a highly secure channel. And for remote teams, tone and inflection may be important to convey feeling that can be lost in text, email, or chatrooms.

Provide clear leadership. From the top down, a relationship of trust, respect, open communication, transparency, and clearly defined expectations is imperative to the success of remote work. When times are uncertain, fact-based straight-talk from leadership about the reality of what’s happening and what it means to the individual, the business, and the community can ground professionals by removing some of the stress of uncertainty. Consistency and frequency are grounding north stars.

Promote well-being. Telework can be lonely work even with endless video calls, leading to feelings of disconnection from coworkers and challenges to maintain culture. Employers can help with resources for maintaining a work-life balance and help with setting up an appropriate home office while providing all-hands discussions about well-being, mental health, meditation, and even home-based exercise. Meanwhile, team members can help one another by proactively checking in, making time for casual conversation, and having friendly competitions to exercise and partake in other activities that promote well-being.

Resilience in Volatile Times

The digital transformation journey isn’t over — it will never be, as digital transformation by definition is change. Opportunities are ever-evolving and the risk of unpredictable events will remain. But a steadfast commitment to a culture of courage for a workforce to confidently manage the unexpected with a full toolbox can help steady the course of business, even when the outlook is beset by uncertainty.

Jon Raphael is managing partner of innovation and client service delivery for the audit and assurance practice of Deloitte & Touche. This publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services.