We’ve discussed quite a bit on Future of Field Service how COVID-19 will impact service businesses over the long term, how it will spur forth the journey to Servitization, and how it will act as an accelerator to digital transformation. But what is less clear is how will the work get done as these changes take place? To what degree will workplaces return to their pre-COVID-19 existences, and what new practices will forever stick?
It’s interesting to consider how navigating our way through this global pandemic may impact the future of work in a permanent way. Many share the opinion that remote work should become our new norm, and as a pre-COVID-19 remote worker, I can vouch firsthand on the improvement in both productivity and work/life balance. But it isn’t all positive – I’ve discussed recently with service leaders some of the challenges of our recent evolution to virtual everything. Those include videoconference burnout, feelings of isolation, it being harder to pick up on social cues and benefit from casual hallway interactions, and the need to evolve how we measure and track success.
The conversations I’ve had with service leaders in recent weeks around this topic differ based on what area of the workforce we are discussing. Three main areas that have come up are if and how COVID-19 will permanently change field service roles, whether the sales workforce needs to return to pre-COVID practices, and to what degree formerly office-based roles should remain remote. It’s clear that no one company has this “all figured out,” rather these are ongoing conversations within businesses today to define their future of work. Here are some common points that come up in conversation related to each category of work:
To What Degree Will Field Service Become Remote Service?
Many businesses have had to either fall back on existing or deploy new ways of providing remote service. One company I spoke with recently said that their previously deployed augmented reality based remote collaboration tool increased in use from February to April by more than 700 percent. We covered how Munters deployed remote assistance to gain business continuity in areas where travel was banned, and their use of the technology is expanding. With companies forced to adjust to distancing and no-travel conditions, the question now is to what degree will these remote service practices stick?
Most agree that they won’t replace field service visits altogether, ever. But gaining the ability to remotely diagnose and resolve issues has powerful benefits. It provides faster resolution to customers, reduces costs for the service organization by reducing non-essential visits, and some have said it has even improved the work/life balance for technicians because they are able to provide support remotely part of the time instead of always being on-the-go.
Companies I’ve spoken with recently are now moving out of “damage control” to putting some intentional thought and planning behind the permanently increased role of these tools – how to create proper processes, how to commercialize the service offerings, and how to ensure the have the appropriate resources staffed and available for both remote and on-site work. In addition, companies are working to be sure their field technicians feel more empowered as recovery ramps up so that they know they never need to be in a position they don’t feel safe. Mental health is another key consideration as companies look to determine the best ways to keep a sense of connectedness with a mostly or entirely remote worker.
Is the Future of Sales Virtual?
Another area that has come up in discussions is sales – sales is a function that in most industries pre-COVID-19 involved significant amounts of travel and face-to-face interactions. As the ability to conduct business that way came to a screeching halt, sales teams were forced to get creative and find new ways of making connections, fostering relationships, articulating value, and closing deals. While I’m sure there are some portion of sales executives chomping at the bit to get back on flights and back into boardrooms, I’m not sure it is the majority.
I believe there’s been a realization among companies that the degree to which sales was conducted involving travel before is not exactly necessary. I don’t think that means that the post-COVID sales world will be entirely virtual, but I bet there will be a lot more thought and caution put into how much travel is really required to get the job done. One company I spoke with recently has no desire to go back to “the way it was,” and are in the process of formalizing virtual sales processes, tools, and trainings with the objective of making it their new normal going forward.
Do We Ever Need to Return to the Office?
The final category of discussion is around any of the roles that were formerly office based that have become virtual – from customer service to IT to operations to leadership and so on. Some companies are beginning to phase back into having employees return to the office; others have announced extended virtual working operations. I’d say definitively that for any company, this situation has opened eyes when it comes to the ability to successfully and productively work from home – which I do think will have lasting implications.
Companies must determine for themselves what parameters to use to determine when, how, and to what degree they’ll return to the office environment. In a recent podcast with Reihaneh Irani-Famili, VP of Business Readiness at National Grid, we discussed a number of relevant considerations for these decisions. First, she shared that for National Grid, they had conducted a survey and determine people simply don’t yet feel comfortable returning – and consideration of your employees’ feelings, needs, and comfort is certainly major.
Beyond that, we discussed some of the common topics – videoconference burnout and how to avoid it, making virtual meetings effective and productive, and keeping teams collaborative and engaged. Reihaneh brought up an incredibly valid point around the need to provide better visibility into outcomes when working in a virtual environment. “When people are virtual, they need the clarity of the deliverable that they’re driving. You need to replace that 8:00 to 5:00 mentality by a deliverable-based mentality and a value-based mentality. And it’s both for the leaders in the companies as well as for those employees,” she says. “Because as an employee, if before my success was to spend eight hours in the office, now that needs to be replaced by ‘this is the value that I have created in the hours that I was working or being productive.’ The more clarity you can give on the outcomes and the value that you’re trying to drive and less about how they would get to that, it helps people be more productive, more engaged, and it would really make sure that your productivity doesn’t get impacted by this sudden move to a virtual environment.”
Most leaders I’ve talked with agree that a 100% return to office work for employees that did so before is unlikely, but so too is becoming 100% virtual. It seems to be agreed upon that while productivity is high in a work-from-home environment, certain types of collaboration, teambuilding, change, and major initiatives are difficult to achieve success with in a virtual-only way. As such, some combination seems likely for most businesses.