Remote Work in a COVID World

The spread of COVID-19 and the consequent office closures and stay-at-home orders created a new world of work, with little warning. Executives and office workers have transitioned from corner offices to couches; cubicles to kitchen tables.

What factors contributed to the successful transition, how can organizations sustain their cultures while social distancing, and where do we go from here?

Alwin Brunner, CIO at Heidrick Struggles; Kathleen Fitzpatrick, CIO at Russell Reynolds Associates; and Brandon Johnson, CIO at Korn Ferry offer some answers, as well as additional questions leaders should consider as we move toward a post-COVID world.


A report published in late April by Harvard Business Review looked at different countries’ state of readiness for remote work. Recognizing that moving to remote work requires adequate digital services, e-commerce, digital media and digital payment options, the report finds that “this crisis casts a spotlight on the gaps overall and unevenness of digital access,” and concludes an essential part of recovery “should involve the digital systems—the platforms, the digital payments, and the internet infrastructure—the lifelines during the period of socially distant work.”

How did some AESC member organizations fare? "Heidrick & Struggles was able to move to a work from home scenario without too much friction,” Alwin Brunner, CIO at Heidrick & Struggles says. “We had already made inroads early on with sophisticated tools for collaboration, video conferencing and direct messaging, file sharing in the cloud and so on. So, the move itself, the change itself, was fairly straight forward.”

“As a firm, we were remarkably well-positioned for the shift to a virtual workplace,” Kathleen Fitzpatrick, CIO at Russell Reynolds says. “When we began to see the impact of COVID-19, we quickly mobilized to remote working and managed to continue to advise our clients as they too coped with the new reality. Our people gathered their laptops and plugged in the next day. It was as simple as that. By early March, our entire US team was online at home. Within a week, 90% of our European colleagues were online at home as well.”

Brandon Johnson is CIO at Korn Ferry. “We were well prepared for the massive and rapid shift to work from home at the technology level. We already had laptops for almost 98% of the company globally, and we had a strong set of collaboration tools including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, comprehensive end-user productivity tools, and a strong security wrapper around those.”

Readiness at Heidrick & Struggles meant, “We didn’t have to install software. We never had to call our network vendors and say we needed different bandwidth. We didn't have to install new hardware,” Brunner says. “Most of the help desk calls were about, 'Hey, I don't have a headset, I don't have a monitor. Can you please help me?'”

What makes the transition seamless? It comes down to strategy.

Fitzpatrick recalls a conversation with a group of managing directors reacting to the firm’s transition to remote work. “Their feedback was unanimously positive: ‘It was great! We just picked up, we worked from home, and it was like a miracle!’ My team and I are acutely aware that what appears a miracle is in fact a carefully executed technology strategy.” Many companies worldwide were unprepared for their employees to work from home. Fitzpatrick describes, “The loss of productivity is extensive. Business continuity is more than the inability of teams to continue to deliver their work, it’s the security and supply chain issues around set up and connectivity, among other things,” she says.


Now, in organizations that can accommodate remote work everyone knows the full range of WeChat features. Zoom is a household name. Blue light-blocking glasses are in fashion.

“I was chatting with a colleague of mine and we marveled at the resilience of our teams. For years we've had the ability to go virtual including video conferencing, document access in the cloud and other capabilities, ”Fitzpatrick says.“ It seemed so complicated for many of our employees to understand, to navigate and really to adopt them. And then suddenly when everyone works from home, poof, they figure it out!”

How broadly are AESC member firms relying on remote work? “Nearly a hundred percent I would expect,” Johnson says. “We've seen searches completed from beginning to end virtually, where we have never physically met with anyone. The client has not physically met with us and all the processes, everything from scoping it, pitching it, to conducting assessments and the interviews, to presentation have all been done virtually.”

How is it done? By leveraging available tools and adapting processes. Johnson describes the specific uses of various technology. For example, “Like many firms, we are using Zoom broadly, but we complement that with other platforms depending on need. Microsoft Teams, for example, is filling an important and critical role for us as an internal collaboration platform right now, and while some early security concerns about Zoom caused a few of our clients to avoid it, we have been able to flex to other platforms like WebEx and Adobe.” He says, “It’s important for us to have more than one tool in the tool belt.”

In terms of assessment, “Our consultants now run leadership assessments on video all day long,” Fitzpatrick says, “In the past they would travel to meet face-to-face. People are doing it out of necessity, but through that necessity, people are becoming more and more comfortable having those kinds of interactions electronically.”

Johnson says, “Korn Ferry has deep digital assessment capabilities leveraging a science-based approach, and that technology continues to evolve. I don't think the COVID-19 pandemic has really changed that for us. In other parts of the business, however, we are exploring new tools for delivery and engaging with our clients. An example is the use of Mural, a solution that allows for richer, more complex collaboration with our clients in a multi-person setting.”

Connecting with clients is essential in a relationship-based profession. For Brunner, the technology “allows us to present data to search clients through our digital portal. We can work remotely with clients and still present depth in not just the progress of a search, but also drill down into the candidate information that we discuss with our clients.”

Teams are using both video conferencing and cloud-based, shared document tools to solve the challenge of real-time collaboration. Johnson says, “It was interesting to see the innovative use of existing tools. For example, the use of Zoom with a PowerPoint web document, where you could have multiple people collaborating in the same document at the same time in real time. While not perfect, it was a creative workaround for not having a bespoke solution.”


People are also getting creative in how they stay connected to their colleagues and clients, and how they maintain their organizations’ cultures.

“Everybody in the firm globally recognized that we had to intensify staying in touch to help maintain our strong culture.” Brunner describes seeing leaders engaged through virtual collaboration tools, “making sure that everybody is engaged at a personal level, in addition to the professional level.” He says, “That in itself is very helpful, and it continues as we speak. Because we don't know exactly what longer-term reentry looks like, so we're focused on the engagement as well as getting the work done.”

It isn’t easy to do, as Fitzpatrick observes. “Although we're all working from home and I'm still connecting with people on video, it's not quite the same as chatting with a colleague over a cup of coffee. We will no doubt see long-term impact on our culture as a result. Having said that, I will say at our firm, and more importantly, our people are working hard to stay connected.”

How can organizations sustain culture remotely? “It takes leadership at all levels and a strong set of commonly held values that are actively reinforced to ensure your culture isn't eroded,” Johnson says. “It is also possible that some may not want to change or adapt, and you may lose talent or need to make talent choices based on their ability to thrive in this new environment.”

Tech in Troubles Times Connection and Culture


In the midst of a crisis our weaknesses are laid bare, our values are tested and our skills are honed. What are some of the lessons the crisis has taught us?

1. Proficiency is no longer optional.

“There is an expectation of fluency and competency with technology and tools that might not have been there before; you had alternatives before that you no longer have.” Johnson says. “You have no choice but to use these tools, and use them well, to be effective. Although there's been a steep learning curve for some of our colleagues, it has been short and on the whole, they have adapted very well.”

2. Mental health matters.

Brunner says, “Our leadership actively communicates that safety and our mental health are both very important to the firm.” For Fitzpatrick, “Remote work does stretch people mentally, especially those who are trying to homeschool their young children and continue their work.” She says, “In recognition of this hardship we offered people an opportunity to take voluntary time off, if they felt like it was all too much. We area people business and the welfare of our employees is of paramount importance.”

3. Trust your teams.

At a time when workers are largely unsupervised, Brunner says, “We are as productive as we were in the offices.” He acknowledges “there is an impact due to COVID, but people are working and they are conducting business remotely using the firm’s systems.” Johnson adds, “I would say for the most part, individual productivity has been as high or higher than it was prior to the pandemic.”

4. Pay attention to retention.

According to a first quarter 2020 Gartner survey of more than 5,000 employees, “48% of fully remote employees exhibit high discretionary effort, versus 35% of employees who never work remotely. The same survey revealed that the percentage of employees exhibiting high intent to stay with their current employer is 13 percentage points higher among those who never work remotely.” (Gartner Newsroom, April 14, 2020)

5. Step up security.

“In any crisis, bad actors are looking to take advantage of people's vulnerabilities,” Fitzpatrick says. “We do see phishing attempts, people trying to penetrate our environment, much more than usual. Fortunately, as part of the mobile strategy, we have a robust security program that is looking for changes in the threat landscape and adapting. We do see a lot more activity out there than we had seen in the past. And that's away of life now.”

6. Focus on Fairness.

Not everyone has adequate space or the same tolerance for remote work, and organizations can help address employees’ specific situations. According to a McKinsey report, “Working from home doesn’t work well for everyone. In certain cases, it’s creating and exposing new divides: divides in types of living setups, divides in the ways people and organizations get work done, and divides in our individual needs for social interaction. (“Bridging the New Divides” McKinsey & Company, May 19, 2020

7. Secure your culture.

“The level of connection and engagement of colleagues and employees is definitely under pressure,” Brunner says. “We can connect virtually, but that requires a different approach; ad hoc and spontaneous connections, when you’re remote, are not as easy to make happen.”

Brunner adds, “We value relationships in our firm, both externally and internally. It's in our DNA. It's interesting to see how, in a positive way, we're using digital tools to maintain relationships and communication. For example, our CEO regularly sends global video messages. You see other leaders throughout the firm doing that more frequently as well, helping to further create that sense of belonging that people long for in a period when we're kind of isolated.”

For Johnson, “The potential for negative impact on culture may come in the longer-term as people potentially become disconnected. It's tougher to be spontaneous in a virtual environment, for example. You can't just swing by to see someone, and you don't have the random fortuitous collisions that you have in a physical environment. We need to be deliberate if we want to ensure we keep coherent teams and relationships.”


Organizational leaders worldwide are asking if we’ll ever go back to the way things were. BBC reports, “Zhang Xiaomeng, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, points out that many companies have invested in online office platforms and related training during this period, which will make them more likely to use such features in the future. Attitudes are changing too, she says. “I think this ‘autocratic’ management approach is getting less popular, and more managers are caring more about employees’ needs. (Lu-Hai Liang, “How COVID-19 led to a nationwide work-from-home experiment,” BBC 8 March 2020)

For Brunner, “First, I think there will be a lasting impact psychologically with people who may not feel comfortable in larger groups of people. Second, the proof points and effectiveness around working from home suggest that corporate policies are probably going to be trending towards more opportunities to work from home because we've figured out as a society how to do it. Third, I think related to the other two, office setups, premises, configurations will likely change. Think: do I still have my own office, or do I just reserve a spot when I come in? So, the real estate footprints will probably change.”

Johnson can imagine a hybrid situation in the next 12 months. “Without a vaccine, I don’t believe people are going to be rushing back into offices. Given that and the potential timeline for a vaccine, you're going to have some significant portion of your workforce working from home and likely need to be prepared to accommodate that for the next year to year and a half.”

“That’s when collaboration could feel odd,” he suggests. “It's one thing when everybody's working remote or everybody's in the office, but if you have half and half it can be a little challenging. Say you've got five people in a large conference room all spaced appropriately and you have five people working remotely. Does everybody in the conference room log in individually on a laptop so you can see each other? It’s small, but I think there will be some small challenges that will have to be sorted out.”

Culturally is this sustainable? For Brunner, “The proof is in the pudding. The fact that as a firm we didn't miss a beat on execution with the whole transition to work from home means we have a very strong culture. I think we've seen that in a variety of ways. We've also seen our leadership really embrace opportunities to keep people connected and engaged, recognizing their personal situations. And that all manifested itself in an active and proactive maintenance of connectivity.”

Working from home is serious business. And it forces us to lighten up. Fitzpatrick describes a recent meeting. “One of my colleagues in London—a consummate, professional—was recently caught off-guard. He was doing his part of the presentation perfectly as he always does, and then all of a sudden you see this tiny hand come out and pat him on the arm while he's trying to tell his part of the story. It was hilarious!”

She says, “Often enough, while I'm chatting with a colleague or in a meeting, a small person waves to us, or a dog climbs in a lap. We are becoming a large family and a tight-knit RRA community—though we are all struggling with a variety of changes to our home lives and our work lives—we are coming through it together.”


Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting and Founder of the Remote Work Association, is quoted in Buffer’s “2020 State of Remote Work” report. She said, “When we eliminate commutes and empower professionals to choose their workplaces, the entire world is impacted. Carbon emissions and energy usage are dramatically reduced, transportation infrastructures are less congested and last longer, family dynamics and mental health are stronger, teams are more diverse and inclusive, the urban-rural divide shrinks, consumer debt decreases, and the list goes on. Virtual jobs aren't just changing the future of work, they're changing the future of our global society.” (, accessed June 2, 2020)

So what’s next? For Fitzpatrick, “It's important for us, as leaders in technology, to try to imagine the future. For instance, some time ago, I convinced the leadership team to invest in laptops for the entire employee base. They supported me at that time when few executive assistants and few researchers were working from home. We never imagined a pandemic would result, but we could envision a future where people would need to have flexibility in their work. It’s up to us to imagine the possible future and bring our senior leaders along the journey so we can all invest in that future.”

We must anticipate human needs, as well. Brunner says, “We are now actively exercising empathy, which is to be more compassionate with people who have a harder time either working in the office or from home, because those things have been spoken out loud, now. I think that the social aspects and the psychological aspects of virtual work and remote work will be more actively looked after, going forward.”

All organizations have an opportunity to learn from the experience afforded by COVID-19.“ The overarching lesson is that in a crisis, you're initially going to use the technology you have, not the technology you wish you had,” Johnson says. “Building an organization that is designed to be resilient under a wide range of circumstances serves you well for any type of crisis. That means ensuring you have enterprise-grade tools and solid disaster recovery and business continuity plans. Ensuring everyone knows their responsibilities and having an established communications plan allows you to successfully execute when you do have a crisis. This applies at every level; locally, regionally, or globally.”

“Prepare in advance, then adapt, improvise and overcome,” he says.

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