Leading teams is hard. Leading an entire team that’s new to working remotely is even harder. Now that concerns about the COVID-19 virus have led to a worldwide boom in remote working, decision makers in the enterprise are trying various ways to effectively lead remote teams. They are combining collaborative technologies with strong leadership acumen to build connectivity with their employees to help improve their communication and team performance. In a recent conversation with CXOToday, Apratim Purakayastha, Chief Technology Officer, Skillsoft, a Dublin-based company that offers an engaging learning experience through innovative, cloud-based learning, discusses if business leaders are ready to nurture and lead remote teams. He also explains how the future of work will depend on the company’s readiness to use collaboration tools to sustain a remote workforce.
CXOToday: The ongoing crisis has fundamentally changed several norms, with most employees working remotely. What does that mean for the IT team?
Apratim Purakayastha: It means several things including expertly using collaborative tools, maintaining enterprise security outside of enterprise networks, adapting work processes that needed face to face condensed meetings like agile scrum, creating a digital equivalent for employee engagement events. In addition, personal life is ‘closer’ to one’s work life. The key concern is how does one use technology to better manage personal commitments and obligations with work commitments and obligations including family members who are in a similar remote work situation. Now, technology at least partially solves the challenges. Efficient and expert use of collaborative tools like web meetings and instant messaging are necessary for almost any employee; understanding end-point security tools are essential for IT staff; using web-based work management tools to replace the proverbial whiteboard is now a prerogative for project managers and scrum masters. In addition to work responsibilities, employees must now understand how online educations tools work to help with kids who are now forced to learn online. In addition, digital tools and apps that help manage overall stress and mental health related to an elongated pandemic have become almost a necessity. For managers using creatively using digital means to simulate employee engagement event like a product launch celebration, or a happy hour have become important. Using online tools for recruiting and candidate evaluations are also significant for managers and leaders to become experts at.
CXOToday: How can a leader effectively lead a remote team and build employee engagement?
Apratim Purakayastha: A leader has to be fundamentally highly emotionally intelligent. Current pandemic related situation makes that need even more acute. Fundamentally understanding a sea change in employee’s holistic life and how to help the employee and the company balance personal and business needs for the best outcome is a challenge for leaders. How does the leader create more flexibility in meetings and schedules to accommodate employees’ personal needs during normal work hours? How does the leader maintain a sense of team spirit and team commitment during these times? How does a leader show true empathy in difficult economic situations related to furloughs and layoffs? Is the leader cognizant of work condition challenges in home related to space, privacy, ergonomics where the employee may need help? All the challenges also provide a true opportunity to build employee engagement and loyalty if handled by a strong leader with empathy and creativity.
CXOToday: What are some of the challenges faced by IT leaders given the current scenario and how to overcome them?
Apratim Purakayastha: A CTO faces significant technology readiness challenges. The first 48 hours to 96 hours getting a majority of the workforce to work remotely is a significant challenge. This includes ensuring collaboration infrastructure, security infrastructure, device security, mobile device security and bandwidth plans, etc. Once over the initial hump, longer term challenges need to be addressed. What digital productivity tools does the organization need for project management, messaging, and compliance certifications, and learning. What tools are needed by HR organization to promote employee engagement digitally? Is the support organization enabled to interact with customers completely remotely? What are the implications on customer data privacy? Fortunately, good planning and prioritization of these challenges are possible. A CTO must seek advice from industry peer groups and help peer groups when appropriate. A CTO also must closely work with CFO to properly manage costs of the infrastructure and work with the Chief Risk Officer in terms of continued compliance and security related to employee and customer data privacy.
CXOToday: What changes do you foresee in the future of work and workplaces?
Apratim Purakayastha: Among the emerging trends, we see a more appropriate formation of collaborative technologies. The current collaborative tools fall short of certain experiences as well, like working with colleagues on a specific topic in a particular setting. They are digital, collaborative, but are not that personal. I think collaborative technologies will mature to a point that we might use VR and AI in the long haul, even for the training purposes. We will be able to easily simulate a meeting space, capture gestures of people, and work with a quality experience. We are also going to see more commercialization of collaborative technologies using holographic techniques.
Another trend is that there are silver linings related to sustainability and the ability to actually do better for the environment. This is while providing cost-saving benefits to businesses. Companies working remotely will turn around and introspect on their expenses, unproductive activities, and carbon footprints. It will be interesting to see how companies strike a balance in the post-pandemic world. Also, what percentage of those teams will go back to some type of flexible schedule? Will they be going to the office or working from home, because in the past we’ve seen multiple examples where companies have tried both. Now, it will be more about productivity.
CXOToday: Considering everything is going virtual, how well prepared are we for this transition? How can organizations prepare themselves?
Apratim Purakayastha: Talking about technology, the future of work will depend upon how ready a company is with its collaboration tools to sustain a remote workforce. Thankfully, we have many cloud-based solutions for corporates. However, internet connectivity is an important factor in remote working and will have to be looked after by organizations. We also need to address the relevant security concerns. For example, phishing scams are taking place all across the globe. So, all of the endpoints will have to be secured by an enterprise.
Virtual boot camps can be utilized to train the workforce vis-à-vis technology. The future brings interesting opportunities. The technology interface is also simplified and there are various platforms to work with. Organizations must navigate through as per their unique needs.
CXOToday: What are the biggest learning opportunities for organizations that will emerge from this business crisis?
Apratim Purakayastha: The biggest learning opportunity that emerges is actually only a re-enforcement of an existing wisdom—people are everything. When you see your people every day you being to take them for granted and tend to focus more on process and technology. While process and technology remain important as key enablers, the real catalyst for business is its people and the collective culture they represent. Maintaining an engaged, well-trained, and digitally enabled workforce will be the key to a resilient culture which will help us tackle the next unpredictable global crisis.