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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Not Business as Usual

HARC Living Lab

Thoughtful preparation has enabled HARC to carry on its work remotely.

Written by Bill Bass, Geospatial & Analytics Senior Manager, and Bob Travis, Manager, Business Administration

HARC’s proactive plans help the organization navigate COVID-19 and prepare for the future.

With the dawn of 2020 and the potential for a global pandemic arriving on the shores of the United States, many people and businesses were understandably apprehensive. Not since the 1918 influenza pandemic had the world experienced a global pandemic with this degree of impact and uncertainty. As the pandemic grew, and the risk of COVID-19 spreading to the United States became a reality, businesses began assessing their exposure. Many implemented new teleworking capabilities or expanded existing technologies to staff not traditionally considered teleworkers. Organizations unable to adapt to the mandatory ‘stay at home’ or ‘shelter in place’ orders put into place by state and local governments were left with little choice but to close their doors and hope for a speedy reopening. This has, without question, been a challenging time for businesses, both large and small.

Over the last five years, the Greater Houston region has experienced numerous significant natural disasters, including: the Memorial Day Flood, Tax Day Flood, and Hurricane Harvey. Following those events, HARC began to look at ways in which staff could work remotely and support an elevated level of productivity. The key solutions included cloud-based collaboration tools, the ability to access computers and data remotely, and video conferencing.

HARC is an organization with a culture built on work-life balance. Additionally, as a research hub in the knowledge-based economy, the nature of our work can be conducive to teleworking. Prior to the construction of HARC’s net zero headquarters in The Woodlands, Texas, most teleworking was done by research staff utilizing laptops and virtual private network (VPN) to access files remotely. However, the construction of the HARC building and implementation of updated technology infrastructure enabled HARC to offer teleworking for all employees. Even employees with desktop computers were able to work from another site using remote desktop services.

HARC’s approach used newer technology capabilities that better supported business processes. In some instances, these new capabilities brought about an improvement in business processes and efficiency. These improvements included services like web-based discussion forums, document libraries, and project management tools. Cloud-based tools allowed for the creation of virtual teams centered around business operations, programs, and research projects allowing team members to easily collaborate, plan, and share information and research.

HARC also expanded its geospatial and analytics capabilities to go beyond traditional static map and desktop GIS capabilities. The organization brings data, online mapping, and analysis tools to all research staff in a simple, web-based interface. Finally, HARC implemented a video conferencing and messaging platform that allows staff to communicate with one another visually or via chat. The platform also supports the ability to conduct webinars to reach larger audiences, allowing participants to attend virtually. Initially, videoconferencing was implemented for research staff but as the events of COVID-19 unfolded, all staff were given access to these tools to support collaborative work from home measures implemented in late March.

HARC further focused its efforts on effectively communicating with staff in a distributed environment. Staff can use a combination of chat, e-mail, shared calendars, and video conferencing to share information, communicate, and find meeting availability. HARC has also leveraged the video conferencing platform to hold its recurring monthly HARC Café gathering for employees to help facilitate a level of inclusion that may so easily be lost in a remote work environment.

Three months after the first stay at home orders were issued, employees at HARC continue to work from home using online tools to conduct HARC business. HARC employees with duties essential to business operations, such as facilities management and IT infrastructure, make coordinated on-site visits to carry out tasks that cannot be completed remotely. Staff with duties that can be carried out using the technology HARC began implementing over 3 years ago continue to work remotely and collaboratively.

Although technical capabilities may provide new and innovative ways to conduct business, it is necessary to back them up with sustainable business processes. One process that facilitated a more virtual work environment was the move from physical to electronic document scanning and storage. Not only did this provide HARC cost savings on physical file storage space, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, these files are remotely accessible by staff. Other tasks such as electronic deposits, that reduce the need for bank branch visits, improved efficiency prior to COVID-19 while reducing the risk of exposure to the virus.

Many business and government leaders have stated in one form or another, “Never let a crisis go to waste,” and that is as true today as when the phrase first came into the parlance of leaders navigating troubled waters in years past. By learning from any crisis and finding opportunities for improvement, one can grow stronger and find ways to accomplish objectives that might not have been possible to achieve beforehand.

Every business today, from the largest corporation to the smallest nonprofit, can look for a silver lining in this pandemic to become stronger and more resilient. Not every business and industry have the flexibly to fully implement measures that allow their entire business operation to run virtually and every employee to work remotely. For those in the knowledge-based economy, where one’s computer is their workspace, remote solutions are more realistic to implement. For those in manufacturing, health care, medical research, or service-oriented industries, where physical presence and face-to-face interactions are the core of the business, adapting is challenging. Yet even those businesses that require an on-site presence may leverage some aspect of the virtual work environment for employees not required to be on-site to perform their job duties.

Going forward, all businesses may find the work environment to be altered in a way that many did not implement or even perceive prior to COVID-19. Perhaps workers that have been effectively working from home can do so more often. Fewer employees on-site on a given day reduces the need for office space. Maybe there will be a change in attitude about coming to work when feeling ill or staying home to care for a sick family member, thereby reducing transmission risk. In effort to find and retain a diverse workforce, employers may consider providing employees with more flexible work-life balance arrangements, including fewer days commuting to work, and remote work options for those that lack reliable transportation. In terms of talent acquisition and retention, remote working arrangements may break down barriers to hiring, allowing candidates to avoid relocation, and helping companies save on relocation expenses.

In a post COVID-19 world, businesses will still face situations such as natural disasters or public health related crises that might require employees to work remotely again. Thus, regular practice and familiarity with a teleworking arrangement will help employees maintain their productivity and effectiveness.

One thing is certain, the situation with COVID-19 is fluid and still changing with an undetermined endpoint. All businesses will need to look at their operations, capabilities, and infrastructure to assess what may be improved. In the months and years to come, HARC will continue to leverage its investments in communication platforms, information tools, and business processes. HARC will not stop there. Rather, we will continue to look for new ways to further improve upon existing business operations, leverage capabilities, and innovation. Only by finding opportunities to become stronger can organizations and people adapt and succeed in an ever-changing world.