“It all just plain worked,” says Chris Mauritz, Vice President of Infrastructure and End-User Services for Freddie Mac, of his company’s suite of Microsoft collaboration tools.

Nov 18 2020
Digital Workspace

In a Year Like No Other, Collaboration Tech Solutions Shine

Businesses have discovered that their videoconferencing and other teamwork tech scaled better than expected.

Early this year, IT leaders at Freddie Mac were working to ensure that tools like Microsoft SharePoint, OneDrive and Teams could support any employee who needed to work from home in case of an emergency. Little did they know that just a few weeks later, the secondary mortgage market giant would need to enable every one of its employees to work remotely in response to the coronavirus crisis.

“The foundation was all in place,” says Chris Mauritz, vice president of infrastructure and end-user services for Freddie Mac. “Then, in the middle of March, with a day or two of notice, the IT department got the word that this was getting more serious than we thought. The business asked if we could go to a fully remote solution. Literally, over the course of a weekend, we got to a place where 95 percent of the company was working remotely. To be h­onest, I expected there to be complications with scaling so quickly at that level. I was pleasantly surprised at how simple and seamless the transition was. It all just plain worked.”

It’s an experience that was mirrored all over the business world this year as companies shuttered their physical offices in response to the coronavirus and millions of employees retreated to the safety of their homes. Use of collaboration tools skyrocketed, and many companies have reported that the solutions have held up remarkably well under the strain of dramatically increased demand. With so many workers experiencing how valuable collaboration solutions can be, it seems likely that use will remain high, even when the business world returns to normal — whatever that may look like.

“It’s really shocking,” Nick Barber, senior analyst for Forrester, says of the rapid adoption of collaboration tools. “Back in January, we couldn’t have known any of this was coming. As companies shifted to work from home, all of a sudden the spotlight was thrown on these collaboration platforms. Companies realized that they needed to deploy a collaboration platform if they didn’t already have one, or else their employees were going to figure it out for them.”

Enabling a Smooth Transition to Remote Work

Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, Freddie Mac was supporting remote work for only a fraction of its workers on any given day. Many teams, for instance, gave employees the option to work from home one day a week. Mauritz says he faced the overnight scale-up with skepticism. “I’ve been in the infrastructure business for a long time, and you’re never really sure how infrastructure is going to scale until you start beating on it,” he says.

In the early weeks of remote work, virtual meetings at Freddie Mac were up 149 percent, private chats were up 59 percent and group chats were up 94 percent. While the infrastructure held up, there was a two-week increase in help desk calls as employees familiarized themselves with the tools. “For the initial few weeks, there was an influx of calls, but those were heavily weighted toward people who hadn’t used the tools as much before,” Mauritz says. “Since those first couple of weeks, our call volume hasn’t been any higher than it was before the crisis hit.”

AmCap Insurance, a commercial property insurance carrier based in St. Petersburg, Fla., initially deployed RingCentral to ensure business continuity. Employees use the collaboration solution for conference calls, video meetings and screen sharing.

“I’ve had nobody complain about the transition,” says Stacia Falls, business transformation analyst at the company. “Everybody has been able to use RingCentral, either from their cellphones — that’s the majority — or another device.”

In addition to using video collaboration for business meetings, AmCap Insurance has relied on RingCentral for holding virtual happy hours and new-hire breakfasts. Also, Falls says, screen sharing has increased tenfold, as the f­eature helps with remote troubleshooting. “It runs really smoothly, making troubleshooting remotely quick and effective,” she says.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: How to prepare for a hybrid work environment.

Using the Tools Your Business Already Has

Armstrong International — a global company that designs, manufactures and distributes control systems for steam, air and hot water utility applications — was already using several collaboration tools prior to the coronavirus crisis. Employees rely on Microsoft 365 for file sharing, email and chat, while the company has long used Lifesize for video collaboration. Those tools have helped to accommodate the quick shift to remote work, but the ­company has also adopted new processes and policies to keep employee productivity high, says Kurt Armstrong, CIO for the company.

“We put together some guidelines on how to be successful working from home,” Armstrong says. “Things like dressing to impress — just because you’re working from home, that doesn’t mean you should be coming in in your pajamas. You should also make sure you’re in an environment that’s quiet and separated from the rest of your home.”

Teams at Armstrong participate in virtual stand-up meetings each morning, helping to set the tone for the day.

There’s one key rule: Employees need to be ready to jump on a video call at any point during working hours. “It’s not acceptable to say, ‘I don’t want to do a videoconference,’” Armstrong says.

Looking Ahead to the Future of Collaboration

With so many companies getting a good look at how collaboration technologies can support widespread remote work, many are likely to re-evaluate their permanent work-from-home policies, says Barber. “I think there will be a lot of people saying, ‘Why do I need to go back to the office?’” he says. “What it’s going to do is push companies to evaluate the mix of time when people are expected to be in the office. It’s going to push companies to have more of a hybrid approach.”

“This experience has given everybody several months of seeing what it would be like if everybody worked from home,” Armstrong says. “People have gotten more comfortable. Managers are better at using some of these collaboration tools to work with their employees remotely. I think that getting in there and trying it is going to give people a lot of confidence to continue remote work programs.”

Mauritz says he has already seen attitudes shift about the viability of remote work supported by collaboration tools. “In some areas, we are more productive than we were before,” he says. “A lot of minds have been opened. I don’t think you can put that genie back in the bottle. These technologies are here to stay.” 

PHOTOGRAPHY By Jonathan Timmes

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