man at computer with headset looking at zoom call on screen
How can companies prepare for staffing changes resulting from the new working environment?
by Ed Spence

Video calls with colleagues and working from the isolation of our homes have become part of the labor landscape, changing work life—maybe all our relationships—in ways we’ve yet to understand fully. 

On the positive side, the Zoom call is now a familiar new tool for all of us, bringing everyone on to the same playing field. When I can communicate face-to-face at the click of a mouse, I find I’m keeping closer contact with friends, family and colleagues. Even video introductions to new business contacts are not particularly intimidating. No flights, no trying to find time on the calendar to travel to a meeting, and no running around between conference rooms when I get there—video calls are efficient, cheap and less exhausting. The phrase “I’ll schedule a Zoom call” has entered the popular lexicon much in the same way “just Google it” denotes an action. 

When lockdown conditions first took hold, we were all talking about how staying at home impacts our lives. Mine didn’t change much—I’ve already been working at home for a few years, and I like it this way. But when everyone was essentially forced into this situation, and I could see the working arrangements of colleagues, I mused that this was not going to suit everyone long term. Now anecdotal evidence suggests that some workers are not all that happy to be working exclusively from home. 

According to a recent Forbes article, Jon Picoult points out that companies are seizing the opportunity afforded by the shutdown to cut costs by closing office buildings, enjoying the apparent increase in productivity from their work-from-home employees—at least for the short term. But the longer-term impact on the workforce may not be quite what we expected. 

Picoult predicts that the changes in work environment will lead to staffing changes also—companies who closed an urban office building near attractive amenities will discover younger workers paying through the nose to live close to that office don’t like being stuck in their small apartment working at the kitchen table. And this doesn’t even address the uncertain access to those same city amenities longer term—even hardy New Englanders like me won’t be eating and socializing outside now that the weather is changing.

Many also miss the daily personal interaction with coworkers that have become friends, or resent the removal of the barriers separating work from personal life. As much as people might have complained about their commute, in retrospect some might actually miss this personal time to decompress as part of the transition to home life, and maybe they can even run a few errands on the way home. 

As a result of these disruptions, some employees are leaving to find a job with a more communal workspace somewhere where it feels safer, maybe out in the suburbs, in a smaller city, or even farther out, leaving managers with a resource landscape that is shifting beneath their feet. The emigration currently underway out of some of the biggest cities in the United States has become a very visible trend. Once people move away, it can be very difficult to attract them back. Even if they stay with the company, working remotely is here to stay. 

And what if they don’t remain on your payroll once the attachment becomes virtual? 

As a hiring manager, your hands are tied due to the lingering economic conditions resulting from the shutdowns and inevitable hiring freeze. Traditionally, the lingering moratorium on hiring that accompanies an economic downturn results in opportunities for contract service firms and freelancers, and these COVID-induced changes in working arrangements are likely to accelerate this historical trend to plug gaps in your team with resources from outside the corporation. 

Consider Contract Service Firms

For those with little experience with contract services, allowing a team from another company to run your project can seem a scary proposition, conjuring up images of chaotic project management and loss of control. But this does not have to be the case. Established contract services companies have long experience implementing processes for smooth execution of projects from afar. The new Zoom normal only makes the iterative processing of defining, executing and evaluating the results of work between teams in different physical locations easier. Now that we are all more comfortable collaborating via team video calls, what difference does it make if collaborators live 6 miles away or six time zones? 

There were always were good, strategic reasons for seeking help from outside the enterprise in many situations. 

Besides some of the cost benefits that you’d expect from reduced overhead and capital expense of equipping new hires, longer term return on investment cited by clients includes the ability to focus key internal resources on work that is strategically important, farming out activities that are supportive but not critical to the business strategy. 

Hiring from outside is also a good way to acquire specialized expertise that is needed too infrequently to hire. I know—any self-respecting engineering manager believes that he and his lead technologists can figure out new technologies themselves. Maybe so; but climbing a learning curve for a new technology or methodology can take a long time. Take this approach if it is strategically important to own any new IP or competency, and you can afford the time. Otherwise, focus on what you do better than anyone else. 

Characteristics to Look for in a Contract Services Partner

Look for company culture and project management approach that strives to increase confidence by reducing execution risk. Take advantage of video conference tools to have some conversations. Some project capable contractors follow an Agile approach to managing projects, iteratively defining clear objectives with very short time duration execution sprints. This process helps develop the rapport between new teams, maintains client control over project direction, promotes frequent review of deliverables and increases likelihood of customer satisfaction. 

You might also consider starting small, with a low risk, short-term effort that can be well defined as a “stand alone” project executed by a self-contained team. How about making an investment in the “R” of R&D (research and development), something that drags on due to the demands of the “D”? Making progress on that backburner project to explore new technology may open doors to new opportunities. 

Once you’ve established a rapport with the project leaders on the services side and have a successful project under your belt, you will have more confidence to request an RFP (request for proposal) on a bigger project. You may get so comfortable with your new partners that you decide you can afford to take future video calls from Bermuda. Video optional.