Most organizations survived the pandemic by adopting remote work strategies, but they didn’t all look the same throughout the last year. With the pandemic on the downswing, organizations are now rethinking their work strategies as offices begin to reopen.
However, those hybrid work strategies vary from company to company.
One company that is already implementing a hybrid work strategy is Barco, a manufacturer of communications equipment. We spoke with Iain Urquhart, the company’s senior vice president for the Americas, about the company’s unique hybrid work approach.
What did Barco learn about remote work?
Iain: Like everyone, when the COVID situation hit, we had to move really all our roles off site to remote. Like many companies, we had some roles that were supported for remote like sales. Field-based roles and most of our what you’d call back office corporate roles were not. I think one thing we learned very quickly is that thank goodness for the evolutions in technology, because we were able to very quickly just about get every single role supported remotely. We had just actually started using (Microsoft) Teams and like most companies that forced us to jump headfirst into Teams and use it much more aggressively. And then we did have a few roles, like we have some repair and hands-on roles that cannot be done remotely. We figured out how to keep our office safe, both through rotation of schedules to keep people safe, and then also facilities and everything else that we had to do to keep things clean and sanitized. So, it was a lot. But in fairness, I don’t feel like we felt significant business impact from having to go remote. I think every business felt an impact from COVID and a slowdown, but we were able to keep everything running fairly well. And like everyone spend our days on Teams calls and other things remotely.
Internally, what is the company’s feelings toward remote work?
Iain: Yeah, I mean, it gets tough after a while. In fact, we, we have done sort of pulse surveys with our employees throughout the last year and I think at first, the negative feelings were more of uncertainty, and as you get closer now, the last set of surveys we did, it was much more about the social interaction missing. And some of the other things that happened in the office. In fact, we moved to bringing a back rotational model for our office in March. We keep social distancing masks, rotations, but we’ve actually found getting people back together, face to face, and what’s really now becoming more of like a hybrid meeting where there’s a couple people that might be in the office, and then other people are on the video or on Teams, and kind of working through that.
I’m not a big believer that remote work is the same as in person. I do think that it is proven that if you’re working all day in a cubicle, you can do that at your home office. But if you want to engage and collaborate, then you want to get into the office more. We’re seeing most of our customers start to look at transforming their space into a more collaborative space and less individual office space.
What do you think were some mistakes the company made in moving to remote work?
Iain: It’s a really good question. I think one of the things we’ve learned is that it’s not just about the role. When you’re in business, you kind of get focused on roles. And what we’re learning is that it’s also about the people. It may seem obvious, but individuals handle remote working at different levels. And as we’ve come back to the office, we’ve definitely done it in a way where we’re very open if someone isn’t comfortable. We had early on parents who had kids that weren’t back in school, so they needed to be at home. So, you begin to kind of balance both the role and which roles really need to be in the office and when. We learned that really any of the roles could be done remotely outside of the ones that have to touch physical gear. I think helped us say, “Hey, we can have a balance here and we will likely still have roles that are more in office than out and some that are more out than in, but then we’ll also be more flexible.” One other lesson we learned: I did this myself. I brought my leadership team back for a meeting, face to face, which everyone on the team would say was a really good thing. But one of the members of our leadership team met with a partner for dinner one night and his wife had been exposed. And we all had to be quarantined for two weeks. You want to get people back together, but at the end of the day, be thoughtful, be safe.
What I’m really looking forward to – and I think this is a big shift that’s about to come – is everyone’s thinking that remote work is about COVID and what COVID did. But honestly, the health aspects of this are going to change and hopefully go away. When they go away, it doesn’t mean that this remote work concept goes away. It’s then going to be more of a business-driven decision. And I think one of the things at Barco that we’re trying to do is is think about that now and say, “OK, when it is okay for everyone to be back in the office, what is our actual policy going to be? And how do we take advantage of the things we learned? But then also what roles and at what times?”
What does the office look like now at Barco? What is the hybrid work model?
Iain: We’re never more than 50% staffed in the office. That’s one of our ways to kind of maintain the social distancing. You wear a mask when you’re not at your desk. Our meeting rooms are all set up to be six feet apart. We have set all our conference rooms up or are now video conference rooms. And I think one of the things we’ve learned is that in the past a video conference room was a different type of technology, or it was an expensive, you know, Polycom or Cisco system and half the people in the company didn’t know how to use it, or you had to know an IP address or whatever. Now it’s a Logitech camera microphone. And so, all our meetings are hybrid. I had a staff meeting last week, and I was in the office, and maybe a third of my staff were there. We were in a room spread out. And then the rest were on the video conference. That’s the way we’re operating.
What has the impact been on your internal IT folks?
Iain: You would think with all this remote work and conferencing stuff we talked about, that IT would be highly impacted. I think maybe it’s a testament to cloud technology like Teams, but really, IT was ready. We looked at network bandwidth, but because we’re half-filled right now, we don’t have any latency or network issues. So, what I think’s been really good is that it’s been more of a peripheral a process of making sure you have a speaker, microphone, camera and display. Honestly, technology hasn’t been the issue. It’s been getting people to be comfortable coming back and following the guidelines when they are in the office and everything else. So, it was actually a very quick process that we saw happen.
Now, I think it is fair to say that in the AV channel – and even in the IT channel – every company’s initial reaction was kind of like, “We’ve got to put gear at people’s homes”. There was a lot of home purchase, then people are coming back to the office, so let me grab a camera really quick for that conference room. I think there’ll be a reconciliation as the dust settles. Most larger companies are probably going to enable every room for video. Not just conference rooms – even the little huddle rooms, or the little workspaces that we thought were just for two people who are in the office. There are a lot of reactive purchases and decisions I think we’ve seen right now, just as everyone’s just trying to be prepared.
In five years, what does the office look like at Barco?
Iain: I think there will still be as much customer and partner engagement space as we need for the geography in Atlanta, where the headquarters is for Barco for the Americas. We have an experience center, and I think that’ll continue to be – especially in our business where seeing and experiencing the technology makes a difference. But I will tell you this: all those facilities will be enabled for virtual demos, which is one of the other lessons learned. We almost literally turned our customer experience center into a studio so that we can have people in there live. But we can also do all our demo work remotely. We set up a small conference room for ClickShare, where you could request a demo, and one of our folks would run in and be able to do the demo live for you.
I think for the employee side, it’ll still a higher percent of conference and collaboration space and a lower percent of individual workspace. We will likely still have some offices for management, HR and finance functions. Before Barco, I worked at Oracle and then before Oracle at Rackspace and Rackspace had that strategy where even the CEO sat in a cubicle. I still think there’s some privacy opportunities that offices make some sense, but there will probably be less fixed cubicles for anyone that doesn’t have a job where they’re mostly in the office.
Do you have any advice for companies putting together their hybrid work strategy?
Iain: Embrace the technology. Think of every conference room as a videoconference room if you’re not already. The COVID-driven decision making is going to change and it’s going to be business. You won’t have to be six feet apart necessarily. But you’re still going to have rotation and probably more remote work and hybrid. I would be thinking through what roles and what activities get the most value from face to face.