COVID-19: Lessons learned by enterprises during the remote work era

When Mother Nature blanketed the Greater Toronto Area with layers of snow and ice in late 2018, 20,000 TD employees found themselves working from home. The 165-year-old company managed to sustain its operations with a small portion of its workforce working in sweatpants, all without compromising security. With roughly 25 million customers, many of whom access the bank’s services online daily, the pivot was deemed an impressive feat, according to Greg Keeley, executive vice-president of enterprise technology at TD.

“But we recognized we needed the capability to do more,” he says.

Five weeks before employees began clearing out the TD Centre towers downtown Toronto due to the pandemic, Keeley and other senior leaders got a clearer picture of what that added capacity had to look like thanks to information coming from TD’s Singapore offices.

Greg Keeley, executive vice-president of enterprise technology at TD.

By the time the Canadian-U.S. border was closed in mid-March, the enterprise had achieved enough remote capacity for 100,000 employees to work from home, compared to the 20,000 total from a month prior. This also meant that the majority of its contact centre staff was fully equipped to work from home as well.

“The capacity we’ve created in our network and the infrastructure we’ve put into those environments is one thing, but it’s only as good as that last mile,” Keeley says, referring to the quality of employees’ home internet connection. Ensuring they were set up with the right equipment took more than 15,000 newly purchased endpoint devices and additional training.

The pivot to remote work also led to the creation of a virtual “war room,” a planning hub for executives and the bank’s technology team that pulls data from every digital nook and corner available to them. At first, the room was divided into two physical spaces in downtown Toronto and Mount Laurel, New Jersey, before it went virtual. It’s essentially the steering wheel guiding the corporate ship through uncharted lockdown territory. And even when the lockdowns are lifted, Keeley expects the relatively new situation room to be an integral part of operations moving forward.

Unfortunately, according to software consultant Arctiq, many of its enterprise clients, which include financial institutions, were caught flat-footed by the lockdowns.

“It’s been a punch in the face for some of our enterprise customers,” indicated Kyle Bassett, partner at Arctiq.

‘Inviting people into the room you normally wouldn’t invite’

Shifting to remote work requires, among other things, additional investments in cloud computing. According to a recent survey of 559 enterprise engineering and IT professionals – respondents were manager level or higher from the U.S., U.K., France and Germany – 40 per cent of businesses are accelerating cloud adoption plans in anticipation of a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

But “going remote” requires more than a heel click and uttering the word public cloud. Companies have to unravel a tangled web of architecture internally to achieve any progress, and include all levels of the organization in those discussions. Unfortunately, many enterprises are only realizing this now, Bassett told IT World.

“Coming out of this, I think it will force people to look at their business more seriously,” he says, shaking his head. “Some of our customers didn’t set up their remote access properly, and as a result, they’re tightly locked down and unable to use cloud services.”

The pandemic has also exposed unexpected problems, such as the inability to access local data centres or colocation facilities, making the need to adopt cloud, or some kind of hybrid cloud capability, a top priority for many large businesses.

Enterprises have mostly stopped spending money on long-term projects, but enabling a remote workforce to maintain business operations is priority number one, says Arctiq’s partner and head of containers, security, Shea Stewart. Most of Arctiq’s business during the lockdown is coming from large businesses preparing for the second wave of infections, and whatever global disruption that awaits the economy post-pandemic, according to Stewart. Those preparations include hand-crafted solutions for a certain user groups, as well as the ability to maintain those solutions once Arctiq moves on to help the next customer. It’s been an eye-opening experience for many large companies, says Stewart.

“It starts with whiteboards and humans. That’s where the culture shift starts to happen,” Stewart explains. “Then we ask them to invite people into the room that they normally wouldn’t invite, and we talk about their criteria for success and what are the parameters under which they need a platform to work. I want to map the user journey from the development workflow to the ops workflow and have that conversation with everybody in the room. There are still silos in some of these organizations where people don’t talk to each other, and it’s taken a long time for some of them to have everyone come to one meeting and start talking to each other. But that’s when things start to click. And all of this is just in the first couple of weeks, and that’s a lot for people to absorb.”

Recent data suggests these types of internal pivots to improve employee productivity is widespread. Boomi research says today’s transformation efforts are focused primarily on customer experience (54 per cent) and employee productivity (50 per cent). Both of these areas are crucial for supporting more modern, agile customers and workforces.

And while these conversations aren’t taking place in a physical boardroom anymore, the rapid pivot to a remote workforce is challenging traditional corporate structure nevertheless. Slack channels are connecting multiple departments, Stewart highlights, and people are more comfortable working in the open and sharing work.

“When people are willing to change and take pride in something they’re working on, then you can’t have those large waterfall, six-month or year-long project goals,” says Bassett. “You’re showing demos every two weeks. It’s about continuous improvement.”

Some Canadian organizations are so confident about their early success with remote work that they’ve completely abandoned the idea of returning to physical office space after the pandemic. Last month, Waterloo, Ont.-based OpenText said productivity has mostly remained unchanged, and remote work has gone so well that it’s considering closing half its offices after the COVID-19 pandemic. Cameron Dow, president of SAS Canada, suggests enterprises pump the brakes just a little.

“I think we have to be careful to jump in with both feet into a situation where everyone’s working remotely all the time,” he says.

And this is your cubicle … oh wait

In addition to the fact that many people don’t have the necessary infrastructure at home to do their work properly, and in the education sector, for example, remote classrooms in many cases have significantly degraded the learning experience, a permanent workforce means massive changes across an enterprise that don’t resolve themselves simply by handing out Zoom licenses.

“We’re already hearing about Zoom fatigue and how all of this videoconferencing starts to rewire the brain. And although on paper it looks like a smart decision to go fully remote, I wonder whether strategically, looking at this long term, it could have a negative impact on your employees and as an extension to your customers,” Dow says.




It’s an interesting question that Dow says the analytics firm is starting to track.

“After a while you can start to model different scenarios and determine, for example, what does a 10 per cent increase in productivity and a 5 per cent decrease in overall expenditures through a fully remote workforce do to employee engagement? Then you also have to factor in the hidden costs on the HR side.

“And what about when you hire a new employee and that’s done remotely, too. You don’t have the opportunity to engage, in-person, with someone new at the company. I’m wondering how that impacts their ability to do their job over time as well.”

SAP Canada recently welcomed 80 new interns despite its empty corporate offices. Heike Neumann, the head of HR for SAP Canada, says the challenges of running a virtual internship program were obvious, but it didn’t take long for the company to greenlight the initiative anyway.

Heike Neumann, VP, head of human resources at SAP Canada

“We know it’s so much harder for students and interns to enter the workforce during the pandemic,” Neumann says. “For us, students and interns are strategic assets to our workforce, and we absolutely wanted to make sure that we continued to offer them opportunities. Our interns are paid at SAP because they work on deliverables and outcomes that matter to the business.”

Those deliverables, which could be anything from building applications, to conducting research, make up roughly 70 per cent of the internship experience, according to Neumann. The other 30 per cent involve workshops that build communication and leadership skills, as well as community engagement programs. All of these components have translated to a virtual environment admirably, says Neumann. The virtual workshops have even opened up new opportunities.

“In the past, we had a more location-based approach to some of these workshops,” she explains. “Now, of course, we can invite people from across Canada and beyond.”

In some cases, these “Power Hour” workshops during the summer, according to Neumann, have featured people from at least six different countries. “Building a network like that wasn’t this easy before.”

Rewriting what’s possible

Much like enterprises, municipalities have also had to adjust during the pandemic, all the while ensuring public services remained functional and accessible.

Last month, the City of Toronto announced that it had partnered with several tech companies and telcos to provide free temporary internet access for many vulnerable residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. With libraries and other centres, which often offer Wi-Fi access for those vulnerable Toronto residents closed, the need to have better internet access was evident.

Twenty-five large residential apartment buildings in lower-income neighbourhoods will have temporary free internet access for one year. The first buildings slated to receive free internet went online last month. The city’s chief technology officer Lawrence Eta says the municipality leaned on an existing project roadmap aimed at improving Toronto’s telecommunications infrastructure to accomplish this.

“It was about expanding broadband inside the city, but what we did, because of COVID, was take those principles and expand them to these locations,” Eta says.

The City’s Technology Services Division also deployed free 24-hour access to WiFi throughout all 10 City-operated long-term care homes. Rogers, one of Toronto’s many technology partners, donated free Wi-Fi for three months to four permanent shelter locations.

Eta says the city is focused on maintaining this level of output when it comes to its technology projects.

“COVID has highlighted for us what’s possible,” Eta says, referring to the rapid rollout of free internet to more than a dozen apartment buildings in the city. “Of course, this was done during an emergency, which means we have to figure out how to keep that momentum and use these innovative partnerships to deliver those outcomes and services.”

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Alex Coop
Alex Coop
Former Editorial Director for IT World Canada and its sister publications.

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