Confronting the new work-from-home challenges

Nearly one year into a global pandemic, Canadian enterprises are still grappling with seismic shifts involving paper and people.

In a recent virtual roundtable sponsored by ServiceNow and Thursday by CanadianCIO, IT managers from cities and industries across Canada shared their pain points on two changes driven by Covid-19: digitizing paper-based business processes, and keeping employees motivated and mentally healthy.

Pushing paper

Although Covid-19 has spurred businesses to digitize and automate workflows, many are still pushing paper. In a poll of Thursday’s roundtable participants, just over half (57 per cent) said their organization’s processes are still “more digital” while 43 per cent described them as “more paper-based.”

One roundtable participant said inroads have been made in digitizing external processes but much more must be done to remove paper friction points within corporate operations.

“As we improve our services to the customer, we’re not improving how we internally manage those processes. There’s still a lot of overlap or duplication. It’s not necessarily clear or automated and there’s still a lot of manual processes,” said the participant, an IT manager at a provincial government utility.

Attendees were guaranteed anonymity to foster open, honest discussion at the event.

In a recent global survey conducted by ServiceNow, 91 per cent of executives admitted they still use offline workflows, including:

  • document approvals (51%)
  • security incident reports (45%)
  • IT support requests or processing (42%)

In the same poll, 60 per cent of executives and 59 per cent of workers said their companies still don’t have a fully integrated system to manage digital workflows.

Paradigm shift

According to ServiceNow’s Tom Yeatts, digitizing and automating paper processes requires “a paradigm shift” throughout an organization.

“You can’t start with assumptions based on ‘because we did it that way in the past.’ If we had 50 sheets of paper that had to go from office to office, that can’t happen anymore. Go digital and stay digital is a great philosophy,” said Yeatts, CTO for state and local government and higher education at ServiceNow.

Yeatts said organizations can demonstrate the value of digitization by starting with one workflow process when someone first fills out a paper form. That process can then be broken down into “what is the actual process that needs to happen to ensure a more consistent delivery” across company departments, he said.

Yeatts recalled that at one of his former workplaces, the process of physically delivering envelopes in four to six weeks was whittled down to a digital system “where we could crank through those in an afternoon.”

Pushing people

The discussion also dealt with concerns about the ongoing impact of working from home (WFH) on corporate innovation, team collaboration, and employee well-being.

“The first part of working from home was a novelty and we were all feeling more productive. But now a lot of us are missing those water-cooler sessions and also those whiteboard sessions,” said a roundtable participant from the energy sector.

“We’ve seen an uptick in (WFH) productivity,” added a participant from a major Canadian bank. “But there’s very little interest in virtually coming together or talking now. People would rather just sit at their (home) desk and do their work and be done with it.”

While IT’s challenge at the start of the pandemic was huge – how to enable remote work en masse almost overnight – it’s now confronting a new problem: how to use technology to ease WFH burnout.

Yeatts said tech tools can be helpful, including ServiceNow’s Miro virtual whiteboard for visually collaborating online “when people can’t physically get into that room to do brainstorming.”

He also noted Microsoft Corp. is adding a virtual commute feature to its Teams app. It can schedule time for a ‘commute’ – like a walk, cup of coffee or meditation session – before and after each user’s virtual work day, to help them transition better between work mode and personal time.

Research by the Robert Half recruiting agency suggests remote work is taking a toll on Canadians. Released in October, the survey showed 55 per cent of those doing WFH are working weekends and 34 per cent are regularly putting in more than eight hours per day.

Hybrid work model

Many roundtable attendees said a hybrid work model that enables employees to work both on-site and from home comes with degrees of uncertainty such as:

  • not knowing when most employees will be able to permanently return to the office or main work site
  • avoiding WFH burnout by encouraging remote staff to take time off
  • accurately and fairly evaluating the performance of WFH employees

To address the last of those three challenges, Yeatts said managers can harness analytics and be “more specific than ever about what you’re measuring. Being specific about those work-from-home KPIs upfront is really helpful.” Make sure performance evaluations accurately reflect the critical tasks of WFH staff, he advised, whether those are sales targets, new customers or resolved contact centre calls.

In a year of so much uncertainty, Yeatts said one thing is likely in 2021: the need for hybrid work models to continue throughout the pandemic.

“We’re just starting to see what this continued remote work life will be like. We’re gonna hit a hybrid model within the next year where it’s a little more interactive. But I don’t think it’s going back to where it was (before Covid-19),” he said.

IDC agrees. It included the following in its year-end report on IT industry predictions for 2021:

  • by 2023, 75 per cent of G2000 companies will commit to providing technical parity to a workforce that is hybrid by design rather than by circumstance, enabling them to work together separately and in real time.
  • by 2024 more than 33 per cent of Global 2000 companies will have deployed smart assistant-driven WFH solutions for frictionless collaboration and higher employee productivity.

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Christine Wong
Christine Wong
Christine Wong has been an on-air reporter for a national daily show on Rogers TV and at High Tech TV, a weekly news magazine on CTV's Ottawa affiliate. She was also an associate producer at Report On Business Television (now called BNN) and CBC's The Hour With George Stroumboulopoulos. As an associate producer at Slice TV, she helped launch two national daily talk shows, The Mom Show and Three Takes. Recently, she was a Staff Writer at and is now a freelance contributor.

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