We all know companies whose offices were once a powerful recruiting tool: Fully-stocked kitchens, pool tables, treadmill desks. One Boston-based services firm hid a full bar, stocked with expensive scotch, behind a trick bookcase and set up a 3D printer station for employees to tinker at.
When leaders mindfully invest a lot of money in office real estate and perks, it’s because they see a certain type of physical space as central to their cultures.
I work with many companies, many of them very much in that “our offices, ourselves” mindset, to make sure their technology infrastructures can support the business. The mass exodus of their knowledge workers from expansive, open-concept offices to whatever corner they could carve out at home has raised questions, both practical and existential, for them.
At first, our firm got a flood of queries about which hardware, software and services were needed to keep serving customers. Now, I hear worries about the toll all of that is taking on the bottom line. As a leader, you can’t help but wonder: Has productivity fallen? Are employees binging Netflix — or tutoring their kids — instead of serving our customers? You wonder about lease renewals and vaccine schedules and whether your culture will ever be the same.
The honest answer is, probably not. Flexible working arrangements are now a permanent fixture in employees’ psyches. Hardware maker Lenovo did a survey of more than 20,000 employed adults and found that 63% feel they’re more productive working from home than when they were in the office, and 52% say they’ll continue to WFH at least some of the time, even after social distancing measures lift.
A short-term survival situation is now a long-term cultural shift.
If the past nine months have taught us anything, it’s that having a relentlessly hip HQ isn’t vital to the customer experience, nor, evidently, is it determinative to the success of your employees. In my world, entire sales teams are now scattered across the map, large-scale projects are executed in an entirely virtual ecosystem, and interactions are 100% video-based.
Your workforce was likely far more resilient than you expected. What’s more, that money you once spent on travel, fringe perks like coffee and snacks, and maybe even rent if you were able to scale back leases, is showing as a gain on your books.
Don’t be too quick to pocket those savings. Remember, your reason for spending on nap rooms and in-office yoga was to give your employees a healthy, motivational environment in which to work. Those hard costs contributed to a lot of soft gains with your teams.
That environment has since decentralized and is now a complex, layered setting. So yes, you are saving money, but at what cost? It had better not be the deterioration of your culture.
While many people really are more productive at home, your workforce may have a fresh set of concerns: Back and neck pain, reduced personal connections with coworkers, difficulty separating work life from home life and more.
That money you once spent on artisanal coffee and sushi? It didn’t define your culture after all. As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stated so elegantly, “Culture doesn’t make people, people make culture.”
What I’m getting at is that culture isn’t about four “brick-and-mortar” walls now. Maybe it never was. So, you need to find ways to provide it in the hybrid workplace so that your people can continue to grow your business and serve customers.
The good news is that it seems most finance leaders have this outlook already. Brainyard’s Fall 2020 survey shows that CFOs are extremely upbeat about the amount of money they plan to spend on technology in the coming new year. They realize that, because the remote work revolution isn’t possible without modern communications technology, tech investments are essential for maintaining productivity, business continuity and, most of all, culture.
To that end, here are some practical suggestions on how to save and spend wisely on technology.
First, figure out where you can free up some money since your communications needs have shifted away from central offices. Engaging a TEM (telecom expense management) service is a great place to start. TEMs are agnostic firms, unconnected to providers, that dive into the nitty-gritty of all those telecom and connectivity bills you pay every month. They get paid based on saving you money, so TEMs are highly motivated to help their clients understand, control and rationalize spend without reducing service levels.
An engagement starts with an audit. The work product will be a clear picture of which capacity is being used, where you might need new lines, what your hardware asset inventory looks like and which tools are effective in your organization now. Then, you can take steps to optimize.
You can invest savings right back into the culture initiatives that support the success of your employees. I’ve seen TEM plus asset management initiatives cut as much as one-third from the IT budget. That’s not necessarily common, but if you’ve been in business for five or 10 years or more, there’s almost always chaff to be cut. You can connect with a TEM through your IT team or service provider. Look for one that has experience analyzing bills from the telecom and connectivity providers you use.
Next, take a microscope to collaboration tools. When COVID hit, companies like Microsoft, Slack, Google and Zoom pushed their product roadmaps forward at a much faster rate than planned. They and other providers enhanced functionality, efficiency and security to get their shares of a deluge of new customers, and companies unused to supporting remote work often threw multiple services at the wall to see what would stick. Now, it’s time for a reckoning. Are you paying for one tool’s license when you already have the same capabilities in another? Check in with the CIO and have a talk about duplicate spend on collaboration and productivity tools. There almost always is some.
Employees working from home mean you now have many branch offices that need secure access to business applications.
A major frustration for some home workers is competition for internet bandwidth. You can do something about that without paying big stipends to upgrade to business-class service. At your office, your IT staff could prioritize which apps or which type of digital traffic (voice, data) had priority. Home routers lack the control needed to define that Netflix or your kid’s Minecraft game isn’t as important as the international customer call you’re trying to conduct.
A technology that can help is SD-WAN, or a software-defined wide-area network. SD-WAN has come way down in cost in recent years, and it can be a lifesaver for employees who depend on SaaS business applications, videoconferencing or virtual desktops. Besides being cost-effective and user-friendly, SD-WAN also adds security and gives your IT team more visibility. Think of it as a digital traffic cop. In most cases, you drop-ship employees a small appliance, about the size of a hardcover book. They plug it in, and your service provider or IT team takes it from there.
Perhaps one of the most critical areas in which to spend in these times is cybersecurity — COVID has absolutely brought about an adaptation in criminal activity. One recent study showed about 20% of businesses with WFH employees have experienced a breach of some sort. There is a real opportunity to keep your company’s data secure while helping your employees feel safer. Assuming your IT team is covering the basics, besides SD-WAN, one of the best places to invest is in awareness. There are many effective security training programs available at a small cost. Again, your IT team or service provider can recommend the best option.
You can divert a lot of money into tech to improve security and productivity. But many companies are going beyond that, offering employees money to spend on home office environments, snack programs, health initiatives and many other inventive options. You’d be surprised how the confidence level goes up in virtual meetings when you’re able to redecorate your “Zoom background.” Some companies are even offering stipends for parents to purchase games, educational books and other items to help lower stress.
Not only is this a good investment in your current employees, but it could pay off in future recruiting efforts. When your HR team is able to tell a candidate that the company provides $600 for home office upkeep, that says, “This company cares about its employees and probably has a pretty awesome culture.”
What will that culture look like in the future? No one knows, but you can certainly take some steps now to make sure that when you can open that cool office again, your people are happy, healthy and excited to come back.
Bryan Reynolds is director, sales operations for TBI, the nation’s leading third-party technology distributor. Bryan oversees 75+ individuals who provide TBI’s partner community with unparalleled back-office support ranging from quoting and solution design to implementation advocacy and project management. He plays a pivotal role in ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of the company’s sales initiatives and overall operations by identifying ways to improve, optimize and simplify practices with an emphasis on culture. The drivers of his organization are rooted in disrupting the boundaries of empowerment and cultivating an environment of superior human (customer/partner/employee) experience.