The Big Digital Recovery Remote Delivery – Lessons from COVID19

Our Big Digital Recovery webinar panel comprising Sarah Shilling (CMO, UNLIMITED), Horus Patel (CTO, Cera Care), Robin Beattie (MD, Spinks) and Chris Marsh (Head of Creative at Splendid) discussed the challenges of the Covid-19 outbreak, and how businesses had adapted to deliver service, innovation, support and productivity remotely.

Living in a whole new world

While the “u-word” has become somewhat overused, it is certainly undeniable that COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge to all of us: to global governments; health services; individuals; to corporations both large and small, both established startup; and to service providers such as recruiters.

Some four months or so into this new landscape, some of the early panic over remote working and delivery has started to settle down. The novelty of tweaking our Zoom/Teams backgrounds for comic effect has worn off, new WFH styles have become entrenched habits, employer concerns over productivity have largely been allayed and we’re collectively getting on with it. Even though businesses are starting to reopen, it seems like it will be some time yet before any form of normality can resume – remote delivery is with us for the foreseeable. With that in mind, we felt it was the perfect time to take stock of where we are now. What lessons have we learned about remote delivery? What has worked well and less well? Where is remote delivery headed?

The evolving landscape has forced rapid change

We are seeing many businesses changing how they are structured and operate due to COVID-19. To a large extent their ability to do this, or to do it easily and quickly, is dependent on how they were set up pre-COVID. Businesses that were largely digital and remote already have, of course, found it easier to adapt. Not only did these businesses often have the right tools in place but they also tended to have a digital, remote mindset. For them it has largely been a case of pace and scale. They’ve been able to adapt quite quickly by upscaling their pace of innovation and delivery.

Other businesses have had to work a bit harder. In the creative industries, for example, collaboration, both within teams but also between agency and client, is absolutely key to successful outcomes. Here adaptation has been somewhat enforced but a combination of the right attitude, the right tools and giving even more attention than usual to setting up project parameters correctly at the outset can work wonders.

“People businesses” such as recruitment have also had to switch rapidly to digital. Doing so successfully almost always involve a step-change in the frequency and nature of communications, with employees, with potential candidates and with clients, to bridge the digital divide, for example by replacing physical events with a range of digital ones from the large scale to the more intimate such as virtual coffee catchups.

“It is not uncommon for someone hired during lockdown to have spent their first six weeks in a new role without having actually met any of their new colleagues, never having shared a beer, a coffee or a lunch, so you have to put steps in place to ensure they are onboarded carefully.”

Robin Beattie, Spinks

To give credit where it is due, we have also seen changes in the regulatory environment and the reduction of bureaucracy, in order to shortcut the delivery process. In the world of social care, for example, regulators have changed their requirements surrounding DBS checks.

Digital tools can improve both ways of working and quality of interactions

Digital technologies are transforming both how remote workers deliver projects and dealing with the pastoral and wellbeing issues of working remotely.

There are ample tools available that help some aspects of remote project delivery – crunching through the processes of development, testing and implementation, for example:

  1. Video conferencing tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Google Meet
  2. Digital collaborative working tools like Microsoft Teams plug-in Miro
  3. Remote project management tools like Asana or Monday
  4. Remote whiteboarding tools like Cardboardit
  5. Digital onboarding tools like Enboarder
  6. Virtual recruitment interviewing tools likeHinterview

Projects are particularly challenging to deliver remotely from the point of view of rapid ideation and creativity and less so when it comes to simply crunching through the processes of development, testing and implementation. There’s something about all being in a room, clustered around a white board with a bunch of differently coloured Post-Its that gets the creative juices flowing and creates the magic.

But, even here, some are finding that technology can help. It is not necessarily all about new tools though. Sometimes new use scenarios for existing tools can transform working practices, and it can be about more than that creative magic. These kinds of approaches can also make the process more inclusive and more open, which clients love because it allows them to be involved and gives them confidence in their agency partners:

“Using shared Keynote files in conjunction with a Teams call can open up new creative avenues and new transparent approaches or opening up design files and design meetings to clients can both improve the end results and strengthen relationships with those clients”

Chris Marsh, Splendid

Technology has undoubtedly enabled businesses to remain functional, arguably to a much greater degree than many managers had gloomily forecast as lockdown first started. Digital platforms enable remote working but in doing so there is a danger that they create an always-on mindset:

“Our productivity scores are higher than ever but, while we need to recognise that work is not 9 to 5 anymore, we also need to look after our employees and make sure they get enough downtime.”

Horus Patel, Cera Care

Digital platforms and tools can also help in building and maintaining team dynamics and morale, with workforces struggling with isolation or with more practical issues such as hugely varied home working environments

Just yesterday, Microsoft Teams added in what they call “Together Mode”, a feature that redesigns meetings for the pandemic era where we are starting to suffer from videoconference fatigue. The mode better mirrors real-life by placing avatars of all participants into a virtual space that can feel like a coffee shop or meeting room or auditorium. It also aims to remove the visual distractions (like your colleagues’ exercise bikes or piles of dirty laundry that you normally see in large gallery views in meetings.

One of the key lessons though is not to regard technology as a panacea. Each business is different, and each will need to find the right blend of technology and “old school” solutions that meet its particular challenges right now, and in the future:

“Because we weren’t set up to work remotely, we initially looked for technology to replace everything we were doing before but in fact we realised that is not the case. Simple, basic communication is the key and communication tools like Teams have been a lifesaver”

Robin Beattie, Spinks

Scaling teams quickly

The sheer dynamism and unpredictability of the marketplace has made resourcing for remote delivery incredibly challenging, just in simple terms of having the right skillsets and headcounts available at the right time. You need to take into account multiple factors: alignment with overall vision; team culture; ways of working.

Furthermore, in the current climate recruitment needs to happen quickly, either because of a sudden project demand, or because the sector you are in has rapidly expanded (as is the case in healthcare).  Meeting these demands quickly but correctly is no easy task and can require both new technologies (such as virtual interviewing platforms or platforms that connect people directly to jobs) and sometimes help in removing barriers (such as convincing clients that geographic barriers aren’t relevant in a remote delivery world, or when legislators soften some of the bureaucracy associated with hiring in sensitive occupations):

“Having the right technology now in place has enabled us to take a recruitment process that used to take 4-6 weeks and get it done in less than 10 days.”

Horus Patel, Cera Care

“We needed to give clients the vision that they could scale far more quickly if they removed geography as a barrier to recruitment.”

Robin Beattie, Spinks

Softer aspects of recruitment such as cultural fit is an aspect that is easy to overlook because of the haste to recruit that we are seeing in certain situations at the moment. Having staff who offer “Culture Fit” or, even better, “Culture Add” is as important as the technical skillset in lockdown. While it may be tempting to think that “fit” doesn’t matter when staff are isolated is just plain wrong. Arguably, it is more important than ever. Back in the day, you could assess “fit” in-person over a series of interviews. Of course, you can try to do the same over a Teams call but it is not easy. More than that, the more enlightened are taking the pressure to fit in, that traditionally sits with the new hire and taking some of that onto themselves:

“We’ve looked closely at our culture and put a lot of effort into ensuring that we have created an environment that new hires can walk into and feel like they fit in straight away.”

Chris Marsh, Splendid

Key takeaways

We are working in an era of remote delivery. Winning in this era is about being open to evolving your operations by leveraging new technologies where they genuinely help but also by looking closely at your own internal communications, processes and culture. We’ve come up with this toolkit for success – good luck!

  1. Shift your mindset: this experience shows us all that we can move a lot faster than we sometimes think we can.
  2. Be tech-open: embrace the tech that is available to shift processes online wherever possible.
  3. But, also be tech-realistic: tech solutions are not always best, so be prepared to evaluate critically where tech can help you and where it cannot.
  4. Use this opportunity: moving remote gives employers a chance to think more openly about recruitment: don’t be afraid to remove geographic barriers to open up the talent pool.
  5. Think of your people: people need a purpose, particularly in these times, so try to be crystal clear with them, set strong objectives and clear deliverables.
  6. Culture first: particularly when hiring into a remote landscape, “culture fit” and “culture add” can be just as important as technical skillsets.
  7. Prioritise welfare as well as productivity: remember that the faces behind the screens are all real people with real issues and concerns
  8. Share the learnings: we’re all in this together. This is a shared crisis that we’ll only get through if we change our habits to be more collaborative, both within businesses, but also across sectors and in society more broadly.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED