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What CIOs think about workplace relationships during COVID-19


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When COVID-19 lockdowns forced many businesses to move their workforces out of the office, the rapid change challenged long-held notions about remote work. Many managers were pleasantly surprised by the high levels of productivity and low levels of business disruption they saw when employees began working from home. But this transformation to the nature of work brings new challenges.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, the focus was simply keeping the lights on for many businesses not set up for remote work. Whether it was obtaining laptops or appropriate network bandwidth, secure remote filesharing, or other key tools, the imperative was keeping business running as usual. And this will obviously remain the chief goal. 

“The expectation is that services work all the time, whether I’m in the office or I’m at home. Business continuity is the requirement,” said Keith Dennis, Regional Vice President for Enterprise Sales at RingCentral, during a recent webinar on working from anywhere.

But with remote or flexible working arrangements becoming the new normal, both during COVID-19 and beyond, managers are realizing that true business continuity means more than just keeping the lights on. “The common thread that I’ve heard … is really around the social aspect of it. How do we interact with one another? How do we keep it personal? How do we not burn ourselves out? How do we bring in the personal elements as well? And how do we innovate?” Dennis said.

Across industries and both the public and private sectors, these are questions businesses are struggling with. And while transitions of this magnitude undoubtedly bring a period of adjustment, there is much to be learned from real-life experiences businesses shared during RingCentral’s Work From Anywhere webinar. 

Fostering employee engagement at home

For Jerry Britcher, CIO of the Washington State Health Care Authority, a key concern is maintaining a sense of connection between employees, even when they don’t see each other as frequently. “We moved over 90% of our staff out of the building. So basically, out of 13,115 staff, we have less than 100 in the [office],” Britcher said.

It’s a concern many share, and one that can have implications for both staff and business health. Many are seeing success at mitigating the risk of disconnection by leveraging business tools in decidedly non-business ways. For example, Clackamas Community College hosts regular virtual happy hours, where Larry Rosenberg, the college’s Director of IT, leads employees through a series of moderated questions designed to learn more about each other personally (first concerts and favorite movies are among some recent topics). 

Though the goal is to keep it casual, there is one rule: shop talk is off the table. “When they see the senior-level people be laid back and maybe having a beer, that tends to make people relax,” Rosenberg said.

Keeping it organic

For David Thelen, Director of Business Systems at Viewpoint, social activities are also a priority. But rather than having managers facilitate, he wants employees to take the lead. Whether it’s booking a meeting to play video games together remotely as a break during the workday or finding other ways to connect and blow off steam, Thelen believes it’s important to recreate the sense of camaraderie that once naturally developed over matches of Ping Pong in the office. 

“My goal was to make sure all the people in my office understood that they have the space to, quite frankly, fart around a little. I want them to come up with ideas, so it’s not me telling them what to do. And all these small sorts of things have popped up. Keeping it organic, and making it (true to the culture), and giving people the space to do what they want to do, I think it’s been relatively successful,” said Thelen.

Fostering employee relationships and engagement are certainly objectives, but Thelen is also after something deeper: learning how to remotely recreate the sort of magic that occurs when you bring talented people together with a common goal in office settings. 

“How do you create the random encounter that drives innovation (in the) office? That’s the question I keep thinking about and wondering about. How do you provide those opportunities for random innovation to occur?”

Originally published Sep 08, 2020, updated Jan 18, 2023

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