Chief Information Officer
Employees in the cloud
Keoghs has been investing in its digital transformation since 2012, not least to remove physical constraints to agility. Therefore, with perhaps just one hair-raising exception, the firm was in good shape to react to the Covid-19 lockdown and support a ‘distributed workforce’. As a consequence, Keoghs, like many organisations, has had cause to examine our spend on office space in the context of results. And as part of that, perhaps a key question for Keoghs further digital transformation is this: do we continue to assume that a vacancy is to be associated to an office location? In what circumstances might we specify the location as being ‘anywhere’, so that we can resource a role or team with the best candidates irrespective of where they are based? Indeed, is it appropriate that we start to think of entire teams as being ‘in the cloud’?
In the years prior to lockdown, Keoghs had replaced desktop computers with laptops-for-all (and a ‘hot dock’ with additional monitor on every desk), and replaced wired telephones with Skype for Business. Most people were working from home for a day or two a week, and people were having online meetings just as frequently as in-person; and the uptake of Yammer, the group discussion forum, had grown strong for conversations that bridge geography and working patterns. More recently, Keoghs had piloted removing the reliance on paper files via a series of developments in working practices, accompanied by enhancements in our technology (including the creation of a digital post room, and developments to our proprietary case management system, Tracker). The launch for working without paper was due to be a phased rollout throughout 2020; but the impending Covid-19 lockdown ‘encouraged us’ to go live en masse in March.
Fortunately, all went well, giving cause for us to be grateful for our investments in digital practices, for adapting to this new situation. Keoghs was able to ask staff to take their laptops home prior to the government-imposed lockdown, to help protect staff safety and ensure service to clients. We ramped up our digital post-room, so that physical post from all offices is now converted and delivered electronically to the distributed workforce. And, with productivity and quality measures now visible through operational dashboards, we have been able to doubly-ensure ongoing, good service.
However, we were not entirely prepared for the change to an almost 100% distributed workforce. Our risk mitigations had assumed that only a percentage of people would need to work remotely at once, e.g. ‘bad weather means that x% of our workforce cannot safely travel to an office’. In hindsight, we ought to have prepared for a full lockdown-type situation, particularly given that Covid-19 is only one of a number of pandemics that have threatened the UK in recent years. But we had viewed the probability as low, and in early March we were only in position to support about 80% of staff to connect via ‘VPN’ at once, without which the remaining people could not access the case system. We therefore had to scramble to buy upgraded VPN devices. Whilst the news media focused on the scarcity of toilet rolls, they might also have shown the bare shelves for remote working hardware. But, after a fight or two in the aisles, it was a moment of delight when the whole firm logged in voluntarily on a Saturday to prove that we had remote working capacity to spare.
Since then, remote or ‘distributed’ working has continued to be successful, with no overall negative impact to staff productivity. That is not to play down the trials of the crisis situation itself, of course, including the challenges for parents and carers who have to juggle care with work; and the mental health challenges, including loneliness. Rather, I am grateful that our success with distributed working has mitigated those challenges.
Keoghs digital transformation, or journey, continues, so what about that key question of location: when should we specify that a candidate (or employee) must be based in a particular office, versus when to specify that the location is ‘anywhere’? There are challenges with having a distributed workforce, of course, including (in the context of my team) that there are times when it at least feels easier, and much more social, to gather around a whiteboard and have a chat over lunch. But the positives are substantial, including the fact that many people have taken a preference to it; we can reduce spend; and we can reduce attrition, e.g. if an employee moves location to be nearer to their spouse’s work, it doesn’t mean they need to leave their job. The potential advantage that most excites me, though, is whether we can open up and diversify the talent pool if we are not constrained to local job markets and traditional working patterns.
In Keoghs IT team, we are now recruiting for roles where the location is ‘cyberspace’. (We don’t actually put that; we specify home/remote working in the UK; UK based relating to data protection considerations). We have received near tenfold the number of quality CVs we received pre-lockdown, when we specified a location. The increased quantity might be the result of other factors too, e.g. Covid-19 and the ‘IR35’ tax situation for contractors. However the range of candidates’ locations suggests that the primary difference is indeed the freedom of location, plus our willingness to be flexible with working patterns as part of our commitment to being a diverse employer. We have already seen that some of the candidates that we are most excited about are based in locations that surely would not have applied to us otherwise. This is good news: we have high standards for the IT team which they always meet, and we don’t want vacancies to remain open for months before we find the quality of candidate that we require.
Therefore, we have asked ourselves what we think will be more important to the output of Keoghs IT: the yearning, perhaps born of old habits, to commute to an office to gather around a whiteboard and share sandwiches in person, or the ability to recruit the best candidates no matter where they might be located and the hours they might work? Given our recent success with distributed working, we are confident that a distributed team, recruited from anywhere and working almost any time, will prove more successful. For as Ben Franklin is quoted as saying, “out of adversity comes opportunity”. Or as Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder put it, to a better soundtrack, “however far it seems, we’ll always be together, together in electric dreams”.