Reflections on Evolving Working Practices
Like all organisations itelligence has been impacted by the pandemic. Every one of our 400+ employees has had to make adjustments to their daily activities.
At heart we are a professional services business. In real terms that means skilled people helping customers solve business challenges through the application of technology, mainly software. It was obvious that the global pandemic was going to have a large impact on our business, particularly when we moved to lockdown.
We have had to expand not only our working practices but also in many cases our working locations. Technology has played a huge part in enabling this pivot within our business and I will cover some of this in more detail, including our use of the Qualtrics Remote Worker Pulse to see how our colleagues are adapting to the changes.
Looking back on the changes we have made, the resulting benefits, challenges and learnings are important. There are two lenses we can use to assess our response: our Customers and our Colleagues, both are important for different reasons.
This blog is an attempt to share some of my reflections on how itelligence pivoted in response to the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
The Evolution of Working Practices
Over the last few years we have seen a steady shift to more distributed working models. Models which in the main have resulted in benefits to both our colleagues and our customers.
Customers see the benefits of a lower expenses overhead on projects where consultants no longer have to visit the customer site, and colleagues get the benefit of less travel time and a better work life balance. There is no doubt that this has helped us attract and retain some of the best SAP staff in the UK.
The back of an envelope diagram below is a simple representation of our working model before the coronavirus lockdown began.
As can be seen all of the operational teams within the organisation had adopted some form of distributed working, however for many teams this was not their 100% default work pattern.
Typically, most of our Consultants were working on Customer Projects, onsite at the Customer premises, not 100% of the time, but it is fair to say that this was the default practice.
Our back office / SG&A colleagues were spending a number of days per week either in one of our offices or at a partner or client site. Outside of this there was flexibility to work from home when desired.
Finally our Managed Services Team already had a proven track record of hybrid working patterns with some colleagues working flexibly between our offices, customer premises and home, and others being based primarily at home.
Working Practices During Lockdown
Before the UK entered formal lockdown we were already introducing more flexibility that included shifting a number of our activities towards home based working. It won’t surprise you to hear that the announcement of the formal UK lockdown accelerated this process.
We quickly moved to a position where all itelligence UK employees were working from home and supported by a number of systems and working practices designed to minimise the impact of these changes.
As previously mentioned our entire Managed Services Team were already fully empowered for flexible working and moved to become 100% distributed without any discernible impact on the Customer experience.
Our SG & A colleagues moved from 3 or 4 days per week in the office to full time at home.
The larger transition was for our Consulting Team who, as previously mentioned, were used to working in physical proximity to each other and customers. Most of our customers were going through the same process as us in requesting that their employees make the pivot to home working.
We were of course able to leverage the learning and best practice from our Managed Services Team to ease this transition.
The Role of Technology
As a technology company we are always looking to leverage systems that can help us improve as a business. Over the years we have adopted a wide range of technologies to help us with our increasingly distributed workforce.
All itelligence colleagues are provided with a company iPhone and a laptop, the basic tools for a remote worker. Those who frequently work from home are also able to obtain external screens, keyboards and mice and are also encouraged to get good quality external webcams as well.
We utilise a core set of IT systems to run our business such as SAP Finance, SuccessFactors and a range of Microsoft solutions (Exchange and Sharepoint). These systems are accessible to all colleagues who need them either via the internet or via VPN for some internal systems.
Our Managed Services Team were already managing secure VPN connections to all of our clients systems as a foundation of the service delivery capability. These best practices were shared with the Consulting Teams and Client Project stakeholders to minimise the impact of moving to distributed project teams.
Within itelligence we make use of Microsoft Teams for our collaboration requirements. This will not be a functional capabilities list, a review or an advert. Suffice to say, without access to Teams it would have been almost impossible to make the pivot to a fully distributed workforce. This was particularly true for our Consulting and Business Development colleagues where Team Updates, Project Meetings and even Customer Workshops were able to take place remotely. Finally not forgetting the large number of “keep in touch socials” from after works drinks to quiz sessions, our use has rocketed during the lockdown.
Understanding the Impact on Our Colleagues
There is of course a very real human element to these changes and we wanted to ensure every one of our itelligence UK colleagues received the support they needed. We pride ourselves on our employee wellbeing program which includes a number of offerings to support colleagues who may be going through challenging times. However in this case it was clear that this was a rare moment, every colleague was subject to these changes at once. Without being able to physically “walk the corners” of the offices we needed to be able to understand how everyone was feeling.
This is where our SAP knowledge came to the fore, in particular SAP Qualtrics, the Experience Management solution.
The SAP Qualtrics Remote Work Pulse
SAP Qualtrics have made a set of their Pulse surveys available to use free of charge. You can go to the Qualtrics website, register and get immediate access to a range of offerings which are all grouped together under the banner of COVID-19 XM Solutions. The list includes industry specific items as well as some which are more widely applicable. In this case the item we utilised was the Remote Work Pulse.
We wanted to use the Remote Work pulse in order to better understand how our colleagues were coping with the change in working practices so that we could ensure we were providing the necessary ongoing support.
A Qualtrics Pulse lifecycle has 4 distinct phases:
1. Setup – where you get started, in this case the Employee Remote Work pulse was prebuilt with a range of standard questions. You can review, edit, amend and even add additional questions to ensure you have the survey that is right for you. I added the itelligence logo, amended the intro text, and added a couple of questions. All using a WYSIWYG browser based editor, it couldn’t have been easier.
2. Preview – The next task was to preview the survey and check how it would work operationally. It is possible to move seamlessly back and forth between steps 1 and 2 in order to iterate the survey. In order to get as wide a response as possible we wanted to make a Pulse that would be simple to use. We were expecting most colleagues to respond via their iPhones so the mobile preview of the survey was very useful.
3. Launch – A survey is of no use without a target, and the launch phase is where you decide how to approach your chosen audience. For speed of deployment and to encourage open responses we distributed our Pulse via anonymous link. This provided each respondent with full anonymity, there would be no tracing. This is extremely important when discussing sensitive topics. We placed the link inside an invitation email and sent it to the full itelligence UK employee base. Each Pulse can be distributed multiple times through multiple channels.
4. Analyse – From the point that you first distribute your Pulse you are able to view any responses that have been gathered to date. I began my career in Analytics and Data Warehousing so I have reasonably high expectations when it comes to embedded reporting capabilities of products. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Qualtrics, the standard reports were good and it was easy to use the Report Builder to share insights with my colleagues across our People Team and the UK Exec. It should be noted that there are deeper capabilities for sentiment and keyword analysis based on free text responses, this was extremely useful in our Pulse.
So What Have We Learned?
It would be misleading to suggest that this organisation-wide pivot has been achieved seamlessly and that there hasn’t been friction along the way.
It is also true to say that hindsight is a wonderful thing. We can always look back and wish we had done certain things differently.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, there are two obvious lenses we can use to assess how itelligence UK responded to this unprecedented situation. Our Customers and our Colleagues.
Although we already had a proven set of distributed working practices within itelligence UK it would be fair to say that these were not yet fully adopted across all teams for all Customer scenarios. For most of our customers however, remote working was not normal, even by exception.
The switch for them has been harder. But by leveraging strong relationships we have been able to help them on the journey.
1. Share Experience – as previously mentioned, the fact that we already had a large percentage of our workforce with distributed working experience meant that we were, in many cases, able to provide our customers with thought leadership to smooth the pivot.
2. Be prepared to Adapt – it was encouraging to see that Customer Workshops could still go ahead through a combination of Microsoft Teams, collaboration tools such as OneNote and Mural, and equal doses of humour, patience and perseverance!
3. Be Understanding – we needed to recognise that for some of our customers, the pivot to distributed working was a gargantuan effort. Many were working at home for the first time. Just taking the time to understand this and make allowances ensured that personal relationships were strengthened rather than weakened due to the added pressures.
Our Managed Services Team works with over 300 Customers and has maintained Customer satisfaction ratings over 90%. In addition our main projects are keeping on track despite the combined Customer and itelligence team being fully distributed.
It has been interesting also to chart the rise of online cross team social activities like Project Team quizzes.
The Qualtrics powered Remote Work Pulse was crucial in helping us understand how our colleagues were responding to the unfolding situation, we learnt a number of important lessons from reviewing the responses.
1. Flexibility – Many colleagues were taking their turn in home schooling their kids (me included) and over 10% of our workforce have a keyworker in their household. People were juggling competing priorities so we needed to understand that not everyone would still be working the recognised core hours. It was important to recognise this and allow for flexibility in working patterns.
2. Social Interaction – humans are social animals, we enjoy interacting with each other, sharing experiences, building a common story. Removing all direct close proximity interaction badly affected some people. We should never underestimate the effect this can have on people’s mental health.
3. Work Life Balance – For many colleagues this was their first real experience of prolonged working from home. This is not going to turn into another of those top tips for working from home articles, but suffice to say it is important to make sure that everyone understands the best practices and doesn’t fall into recognised traps like working unreasonable hours. This is a particular risk for those who have not experienced home working.
We are acutely aware that this is an ongoing situation and there is a danger in reading too much into an individual set of “snapshot” responses. We will ensure we continue to reach out to our colleagues through additional Qualtrics Pulses and open mic virtual town hall events.
The biggest learning of course is one that we should already know.
“Technology alone is never enough, people are the answer.”
As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It shouldn’t be forgotten that these pivots are at heart cultural changes and it takes real commitment from all parties to make them a success.
Praise must go not only to our Teams but also to the many Customers whose journeys have intersected with ours.
As we look beyond lockdown, it is increasingly clear that continuing to iterate these “new normal” working practices will make us more responsive, resilient and ultimately a better employer and partner to our customers.