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Building a Powerful and Passionate Remote Workforce

Milind Lakkad
EVP and Global Head, Human Resources

Essential points:

  • Remote work is here to stay, but making it more productive and engaging is not easy.
  • Leaders must make virtual meetings more uplifting, embed purpose into remote work, demonstrate they care, and make growth opportunities visible.
  • From surveys and the experience of TCS and other companies, organizations that do this well will gain a significant talent advantage. 


When the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies around the world to shift everyone who could work offsite to their homes, it set off one of the largest collective projects in business history in managing organizational change.

And just as in any massive organizational change effort, employers and employees have seen both benefits and challenges in this new way of working.

The migration to remote work has been dramatic. New TCS research on 287 organizations in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific (97% with at least $1 billion in annual revenue) found remote work is likely to last for the immediate future. The average organization had 64% of its employees working primarily from home in July—seven times the number in March, just prior to the pandemic. By 2025, these organizations on average projected 40% of their employees would operate mainly from home.1

The study and predictions lead us to believe that a substantial percentage of employees in many large organizations will largely work from home permanently. At TCS, we look at this as a new beginning. The Secure Borderless WorkspacesTM approach has paved the way for 25 by 25 vision—by 20252, only 25% of TCS workforce will work out of TCS facilities at any time, with associates spending only 25% of their time in the office.

A key question for leaders of these organizations is this: How can they make remote work more productive and engaging for employees in the new work order?

In our experience, the answers lie in the commitments that organizations and leaders make to remote workers. A major part of that commitment is the support they provide to keep employees productive and engaged with what is going on in the organization, while equipping them with the latest technology tools and state of the art security systems.

But the technical requirements are only part of these commitments. Organizations must also help employees strike the right work-life balance—as the lines become increasingly blurred.

In this article, I will go more in depth on the benefits of remote work, the challenges to making that work productive and the support that companies must provide to make this new beginning successful for employees and the workplaces.

Rethinking Talent: During the Pandemic, and After

The challenges of leading global organizations and teams have been elevated due to the sudden disruption caused by the pandemic. It has made it much harder for globally dispersed teams to be in synch and keep the workforce productive, enthusiastic and proud of the jobs they are doing. But the challenges extend beyond promoting a purposeful esprit de corps. Providing the right communications and collaboration tools that a distributed workforce can’t succeed without is a given in the new paradigm.

Providing the right communication and collaboration tools that a distributed workforce can’t succeed without is a given in the new paradigm.

Talent practices have to be re-imagined in order to build and sustain a strong culture and a sense of belonging. This will be the key to success going forward. Creating and nurturing the virtual talent ecosystem, for recruiting and onboarding, along with exciting opportunities for employees internally to learn, enhance their skills and grow will provide employees and organizations with new opportunities for growth and transformation.

Fostering Purpose, Engagement and Performance Among Far-Flung Workers

What will ultimately determine the success of these work-from-home initiatives? How can large organizations greatly increase the chances to remain as productive—or even become more productive—with large numbers of employees working remotely?

And while doing so, how can they keep their valued talent tethered to their organization? We see five core elements to excellence in managing remote talent:

1. Keeping Managers and Employees Digitally Engaged in the New Work Order.

In the pandemic, it is easy to see the daily benefits of the latest technology tools, from online messaging platforms that keep teams on the same digital page to desktop and smartphone video conferencing software. (We have been putting these tools to highly productive use at TCS for years.

However, with less in-person supervision and fewer impromptu discussions with managers and other employees, people can feel like they have less access to help at the moment of need. Isolated from office interactions, employees can miss the camaraderie of work. What’s more, it’s easier for family and other outside-of-work obligations to distract focus on their jobs.

While organizations continue to invest in solutions and tools to keep employees connected virtually, managers and team leaders also would do well to promote remote social interaction.

Establishing clear rules of engagement to make virtual meetings and presentations become more productive is important. However, not every minute of every video or conference call must be about work. For example, starting video conference calls asking for updates on everyone’s weekends helps managers share genuine interest in their team members’ lives outside work, and making those times matter. Recreating water cooler chats and discussing nonwork issues that are discussable may go a long way in creating greater solidarity.

Leaders at all organizational levels need to also set aside time for one-onone connects for employees to share concerns in private settings. Empathy is always essential—but especially so in times of crisis, when people may face unusual health issues and concerns, as well as family struggles. Demonstrating emotional intelligence, sensing when an employee needs extra support, and providing that support will go a long way in showing that an organization cares about its employees.

The Borderless Workspaces at TCS

Enabling TCS’ more than 470,000 people to work remotely from their homes around the world has been critical in our ability to keep our, and our clients’, business and IT operations up and running. However, the capabilities behind what we’ve turned into a service (Secure Borderless WorkspacesTM) predate the pandemic. 

TCS has been working for several years to ensure that our agile teams could deliver systems and technology support to clients without having to be in the same room, the same building or the same time zone. We might have a software quality expert in one office, and a business process or industry expert in another office. And other team members might be in several other locations. (For more background, see TCS Perspectives article, “Creating a Thriving Remote, Secure and Agile Workforce”)

We refer to them as “location-independent agile teams.” They have long proved that the best agile teams don’t have to occupy the same room.

2. Engagement with Purpose.

Organizations and their people find mutual gain when they align around a common purpose. Purpose—the organization’s reason for being, the role it plays to make a positive difference for the work that its people do—is the glue that brings people together and keeps them together. It communicates what the organization values above all else—its employees, the customers it serves and the benefits it brings to them and the broader world.

At TCS, purpose-driven engagement ensures a unique approach, with initiatives focused on stratified employee segments across the organization. Virtual HR Bays and HR 1-2-1 connects (with 470,000 employees globally) have enhanced employee connections. Work, social collaboration and focus on wellness has helped in inspiring and motivating our remote workforce and their families, while regular virtual town hall meetings with senior management, including the CEO, COO and other business leaders provide future directions to associates.

The virtual hub-based engagement strategy adopted globally has helped build a strong sense of belonging. Additional programs provide opportunities to build their careers, learn more about our company and opportunities here and engage in lifelong learning. All enrich the employee experience.

It is essential to embed purpose into employees’ work. Establishing and communicating a purpose that goes beyond profit is especially meaningful in today’s time of uncertainty when it’s natural for people to lose focus on their day-to-day work. News of the pandemic and its effects have been unrelenting. Looking after their own and family’s health and caring for loved ones is a key concern. Giving employees reasons to be passionate about the work they are doing—to inject purpose into their daily activities—can renew them, individually and collectively. It helps them find meaning and do their best work.

While it is the role of senior leaders to develop and articulate the organization’s purpose, the best managers tie their teams’ everyday tasks to fulfilling that broader mission. (For more on how leading companies articulate a purpose to improve their performance, see “A New CMO Role: Leveraging an Organization’s Purpose for Strategic Advantage” in this issue of TCS Perspectives.)

Embedding the organization’s purpose into the everyday work of its remote employees shows it cares about its people and the world. That can be a big boost to employee satisfaction and retention.

Embedding the organization’s purpose into the everyday work of its remote employees shows it cares about its people and the world.

3. Showing Employees That the Organization Cares About Their Wellbeing.

With the vast majority of employees working from home right now, organizations have increased their attention on mental health and wellbeing. A study in March and April 2020 found worsening mental health in 42% of employees in the U.S., UK, Europe and Asia Pacific.3 HR organizations everywhere have a huge challenge in responding remotely to employees’ physical, mental and emotional issues.

Employee safety and wellbeing have always been a strong focus for us, as we believe customer centricity and employee empathy are two sides of the same coin. Our well-defined initiative—TCS Cares, put in place long before the pandemic is focused on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of employees. All employees have access to counselling sessions, self-help resources, self-assessments and a host of initiatives focused on maintaining emotional and physical health. 

It is heartening to see that the dialogue around mental health and emotional well-being has been initiated across the organization. Today, we have more and more associates joining this conversation and proactively reaching out for support as well as extending support. Manager sensitization and programs to build resilience have helped build a culture of awareness, understanding and acceptance of mental health.

It is also important to focus on the safety of our employees. A lack of information can lead to considerable stress. Recognizing this, we set up a medical hotline to answer employees’ questions about the pandemic. Multiple initiatives focused on the wellbeing of employees and their families—including COVID-19 isolation centers within TCS premises, as well as hospital admission assistance, home healthcare services, comprehensive health check facilities from home and comprehensive medical assistance for associates working out of TCS offices. All of these services have driven home the message that associate safety and wellbeing are paramount. Business unit leaders and other executives use large virtual gatherings such as town halls to reinforce the message that the organization has support and services in place when employees need them.

Reinforcing a positive work culture by designing policies and processes that help and support all employees, sharing success stories and recognizing achievements, also contribute to a strong sense of purpose and building a powerful and resilient workforce.

4. Creating Growth Opportunities and Keeping Them Visible.

Organizations have long understood the need to develop crucial new business capabilities in good times and bad. Investing in making their people future ready is no longer a choice. More and more leaders are coming to realize that every job in their organization—and new jobs in the future—requires a set of skills and experiences by which novices can turn into masters.

At TCS, virtual onboarding and training has been a key focus in integrating new joiners. After adapting our recruiting to a virtual environment, we set up virtual training programs for incoming college graduates to accelerate their skills in working with clients. The programs include daily webinars, weekly online assessments and weekly hackathons. All of these help them to demonstrate their capabilities and become productive from day one.

While employees, whether they aspire to move up the organizational hierarchy or seek to excel at their job, are typically hungry for skill development, in our experience, this works best if accountability for employee development falls not only on the employee, but also to the team of which he or she is a member.

Sophisticated personalized talent development programs address this need. Drawing on predictive analytics, they give employees customized advice on the skills they need to achieve their career goals. Based on detailed employee profiles, these systems are also plugged into the job postings of the large organization. By matching internal demand and supply, they help companies leverage internal expertise.

Matching people to jobs across a large, global organization is only the first step. Developing people for the jobs they want and the jobs the organization needs is just as important. A strong personalized talent development program must ensure that the means of skill development—starting with event notifications, the relevant online courses and sand boxes—are delivered virtually. Investing in a good Learning Management System that helps organizations and employees track their current learning and competency levels is no longer an option.

A robust career development approach has always been a unique selling proposition to attract and retain talent. But today, technology and business models change at such a rapid pace that hiring new people for every new skill is not just impractical, it is counterproductive. A 2018 Korn Ferry study estimated that if left unchecked, talent shortages in a range of industries could lead to a “talent deficit” of 85 million jobs and unrealized revenues of more than $8 trillion.4 Organizations that invest heavily in reskilling their people, establish outstanding learning and development programs, nurture contextual knowledge and reinvent their everyday learning approaches will retain their leadership position in their fields—and among talented people they recruit. The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated this need.

5. Emergence of Talent Clouds and Enabling the Future of Work.

A concept that pairs a business’s talent needs with people based anywhere in the world, talent clouds offer new opportunities to employees and organizations. Today, we are not constrained by location dependency; a position in Boston could now be filled by an employee in Brussels. Combined with the fungibility of roles, skills and the deep contextual knowledge that employees bring, this is a big game changer in the talent landscape of the future paving the way for organizations and employees to derive exponential value through maximizing opportunities and embracing risk.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Remote Work Have Become Clear

The benefits of letting employees work from home have finally become clear for many organizations and employees. A global survey of 3,500 remote workers, 80% of whom were working from home, found 98% wanted to continue the arrangement after they had started.5 They liked the flexibility in scheduling, locations and not having to commute to work. As well, many liked their quality of life, being closer to loved ones during the day and lower costs in traveling to an office. 

Employers also see the many advantages. Many organizations see the potential of major reductions in real estate costs for offices they don’t need to operate or space they can downsize, for example. One of the big advantages is they can recruit talent anywhere. A job applicant’s willingness to work out of an organization’s office no longer matters for many firms. Companies such as Facebook have extended work-from-home policies to the middle of 2021, while Microsoft and Google have similarly announced work-from-home initiatives that will extend long after.

The remote work model has increased focus on employee engagement, that was already a key priority. Nearly two year ago, Dutch bank ING Group, with 55,000 employees in more than 40 countries, named a head of global employee experience. ING improved new employee onboarding and instituted ways to check in with them at key moments in their careers. By this June, employee satisfaction had increased 20% and manager satisfaction had risen 30%. “By taking excellent care of our employees, we create higher-performing teams that are better able to care for our customers,” said Sander de Bruijn, the bank’s head of its global employee experience.6

That said, allowing employees to work from home won’t necessarily make them as productive or as happy as they were at the office. Getting strong and ongoing managerial direction can be a big issue. A survey this spring by the European business school INSEAD of 429 workers in 58 countries found that only 63% received clear policies about their work-from-home arrangements.7 Only half said their managers provided effective support. Meanwhile, technology and tech support weren’t a frequent problem: Four of five workers lauded their technology infrastructure.

“By taking excellent care of our employees, we create higher-performing teams that are better able to care for our customers,” said Sander de Bruijn, the bank’s head of its global employee experience.

It is a fine balance that organizations and employees have to achieve and make the best use of the opportunities provided.

The Power of Purposeful People

By providing deep support for remote employees, showing they truly care about their careers and personal well-being and motivating them with an altruistic organization purpose, organization leaders can turn a vast remote workforce into a considerable business advantage.

The return on these investments go beyond supporting and engaging employees. They also reassure customers that the organization can be just as effective with a virtual workforce. By strengthening employee loyalty and productivity, they build customer loyalty.

Our efforts have not been finite and narrow to mitigate a certain situation. We have embraced the new beginning and looked at what we could learn from this situation and what we can use going forward positively for our organization, our people and our customers. I believe that a powerful and passionate remote workforce is the key to unlocking future possibilities.

 

1 “TCS COVID-19 Business Impact Survey 2020,” accessed Oct. 6, 2020 at: https://www.tcs.com/business-impact-survey-2020.

2 Krishnan Ramanujam, “Empowering the Permanently Remote Workforce,” TCS, June 12, 2020, accessed October 15, 2020 at: https://www.tcs.com/blogs/empowering-the-permanently-remote-workforce.

3 Study by Mind Share Partners, Qualtrics and SAP, and discussed in a Harvard Business Review article, Aug. 7, 2020. Accessed at https://hbr.org/2020/08/8-ways-managers-can-support-employees-mental-health

4 “Korn Ferry Study Reveals Global Talent Shortage Could Threaten Business Growth Around the World,” May 2, 2018, accessed October 15, 2020 at: https://www.kornferry.com/about-us/press/korn-ferry-study-reveals-globaltalent-shortage-could-threaten-business-growth-around-the-world.

5 “The 2020 State of Remote Work,” sponsored by Buffer and AngelList, accessed October 6, 2020 at: https://lp.buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2020.

5 Forbes column by Jeanne Meister, June 8, 2020. Accessed here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeannemeister/2020/06/08/employee-experience-is-more-important-than-ever-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/#258089ff34bc

7 “INSEAD survey delves into the experience of working remotely,” April 7, 2020, accessed October 6, 2020 at: https://alumnimagazine.insead.edu/insead-survey-delves-into-the-experience-of-working-remotely/.

 

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