Opinion - Technology Executive Council

What can happen to a company if coronavirus sends every employee home

Wendy M. Pfeiffer, CIO, Nutanix
Key Points
  • Studies show that when employees are highly engaged, they are more likely to have above-average productivity.
  • Twitter, Google, Salesforce, J.P. Morgan and other major employers are encouraging or requiring remote work during the Covid-19 outbreak.
  • Making telecommuting work at scale will require companies to reevaluate how technology can be used to produce the best outcomes from their most valuable asset: workers. 
Nikolaevich | Stone | Getty Images

It's no secret that the way in which business leaders support and enable their employees can have a profound impact on the productivity of a company. In fact, studies show that when employees are highly engaged, they're 38% more likely to have above-average productivity.

Engaging and enabling employees through technology is even more critical for IT leaders during what is becoming a seismic shift to remote work due to a crisis happening on a global scale. Headlines from the past week show major tech giants deferring "nonessential" travel and encouraging employees to work from home for the near term — including Twitter, Google, Salesforce and others. 

As employees increasingly interact with technology from their homes, its user-friendliness, design and utility become an even more crucial driver of productive work. People are not machines — they have emotions and frustrations; they get overwhelmed — and for organizational and IT leaders, that means offering the right tools for this new paradigm, using technology that enables, not disables. 

So how should business and IT leaders enable their workforce to work from anywhere, at scale? Here are three ways.

1. Plan for all scenarios and test network scalability

IT has been architecting and delivering technologies for remote work for some time — after all, 74% of people believe that flexible working has become "the new normal," according to a 2019 survey. But it's one thing to have part of the workforce at home and an entirely different scenario when thousands of people are connecting remotely to a VPN at the same time. It becomes a test of whether the system will scale.

Many enterprise tools were built to only operate internally, so it's the IT department's job to ensure everyone can access apps and data securely from their devices — both mobile and desktop — at home. At a time of global crisis, when there is fear, unknown and a general lack of information, it's imperative for business IT leaders to provide specific information, tools and processes that people can rely on. 

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Citrix CEO David Henshall on the future of remote work flexibility

Thinking about eventualities and "what if" planning is a critical first step. What if, without warning, your entire company needs to go home? What if the network gets overloaded? What is the backup plan? Will the collaboration tools currently in place scale? Do people have instructions for how to access the systems they need to do their work?

Once you have developed a small set of possible scenarios, the next step is testing to ensure performance and scalability. If you're at a company that hasn't made much progress here, do it right now. Plan one day when all of IT works from home. If something physically doesn't work, this is an excellent opportunity to learn about it and fix it. Understanding what it feels like to be dependent on your own tech as a team will inform the interaction and workflows that are created as a result. 

2. Align on technology — not only on what tools to use but how to use them

Many people talk about remote collaboration technologies — from videoconferencing to desktop-as-a-service — but what isn't being emphasized is the importance of configuration. The questions of how to use technology are just as important as what technology to use. 

At Nutanix, we've created an ever-expanding intranet site titled "How to Work from Home." We include details about accessing the VPN, logging into our company-wide applications, about our videoconferencing tool, and how to enable employees to use their mobile phones on our cloud-based PBX (private telephone system).

This website compiles information into one central place for remote work while serving as a resource for any new employees who join the company. We also have worked hard to enable employees (and customers) through our cloud-based solution, Frame, a virtual desktop work space that allows individuals, teams, customers and partners to access their desktop, files and networks for work without needing to be in the office. Through this solution, staff who are remote have secure, reliable access to any application from their home web browser, with no software download required.

At a time when they might be isolated from each other and continuing to do their day-to-day work, the way in which IT leaders support and enable them through technology will have a profound impact on the productivity of the company overall.

Finally, we give direction to employees around optimal interactions and engagement. This set of guidance around "tech hygiene" means collectively deciding on questions like, "Should all meetings be recorded? Will we offer written transcriptions of recorded meetings (helpful for non-English speakers)? How will we ensure participants are engaged?"

While the answers to these questions go beyond IT, they are often influenced by which tools the IT team selects — for instance, some videoconferencing tools offer transcription capabilities (such as Zoom or Huddl.ai), while others do not. Having your entire team aligned around not only what tools you're using but also how to use them will help employees independently connect and work more productively. 

3. Prepare with the right documentation to enable everyone 

"Runbooks" are a basic tenet of IT management that outline where a system is running — whether on-prem, in the cloud, etc. — how to access it, admin accounts and passwords, expected operations and performance, monitoring guidance, and how to stop and start a system. In a worst-case scenario a core contributor may be inaccessible and all team members need to be enabled through this information. 

Today almost any runbook and it's associated workflows can be automated. The extent to which your organization has made progress in running things autonomously is a huge factor that contributes to your ability to weather a storm like this, even if a significant part of the team is impacted or unable to work. If you haven't started the automation journey, just getting your runbook information updated is a good step to ensure consistency and performance. Make use of some of that time you save commuting each day to apply low code or no code tools to the process of automating that updated runbook. Replacing even 5% of your manual operations with code can contribute significantly to your ability to scale in times of pressure.

The bottom line for IT leadership is that an organization's main value comes from its employees. At a time when they might be isolated from each other and continuing to do their day-to-day work, the way in which IT leaders support and enable them through technology will have a profound impact on the productivity of the company overall. 

— By Wendy M. Pfeiffer, CIO, Nutanix and a member of the CNBC Technology Executive Council