Productivity and Trust in the New Normal

Two key components of business have been tested like never before as the world suddenly shifted to remote working in response to COVID-19. What happens now?

With Emma Sinden moderating, the speakers of this roundtable debate include: 

  • Jesper Frederiksen, VP & GM EMEA, Okta
  • Amitabh Apte, Digital Technology Director, Europe & Russia, Mars Pet Nutrition
  • Freddie Quek, Chief Technology Officer, Times Higher Education
  • Kevin Holian, Former IT Director, WHSmith


Working despite a new normal

We’ve spent the majority of 2020 quickly and continuously adapting to remote working. It has sometimes been fun, oftentimes surprising, for others isolating at worst and boring at best, but for all a necessary experiment. Finally, we’ve been given the opportunity to break apart the cultural norms of how and where we work, and reconsider its component parts, productivity and trust being two such examples. And as we close the historic chapter that is 2020, it’s important for us to consider just how those two key attributes to business have fared in our necessary experiment.

The Times Higher Education’s CTO, Freddie Quek, might have a biased opinion: he only joined the business one month before Britain went into its first lockdown in March 2020.

“I immediately needed to address productivity because [Times Higher Education] is regularly ranked as having one of the most productive teams in the world and with members not in the office we had to understand what needed to change,” he explained.

What he found interesting was the relative differences between teams and their response to remote working.

“I specifically lead two teams: product and engineering. The former really struggled with remote working. The latter, however, thrived,” he said, before adding, “there are downsides to consider. With less disruption there are less passive conversations and I wonder what that means for the business overall.”

Amitabh Apte, Mars Pet Nutrition Business’ CIO, agreed that those ‘watercooler’ conversations were missed but technology could step in and help.

“What’s been particularly successful for us is how remote working has allowed us to accelerate our digital transformation. Collaboration suites, collaborative tools have been kickstarted into action, encouraging teams to connect consciously—even online.”


Technology's opportunity

From a technology provider perspective, there are many opportunities to be had. Remote working not only forced businesses to explore technologies with more enthusiasm before, but also encouraged them to secure trusted strategic partners who’ve had the remote working experience before. Okta is one such example.

“We’ve always had a hybrid working model for our teams,” said Jesper Frederiksen, Okta’s VP GM EMEA, “but now I’ve noticed as we’re all remote and everyone is on the same footing, we’re more productive on team calls. And yes, we were a little ahead of the game: prior to COVID-19 we were working on ‘dynamic work’, turning the office into more of a clubhouse or lounge—not such a futuristic idea anymore…”

He concluded that work will be different forever now, a “scary but interesting” thought.

Kevin Holian, WHSmith’s former CIO, however, believes mindset to be the biggest barrier for productivity and trust in a remote working environment.

“Technology was never the barrier here. We had the tools to work remotely before the pandemic. We need leadership to show the way and get people united to perform still.”

Despite those words, the roundtable were still keen to understand the role of technology in solving some of the sticking points in remote working. Serendipitous, casual chats sometimes spark new thinking across myriad teams, especially in larger organisations. Can that be artificially recreated?

Yes and no. Weekly social, virtual events help maintain a frothy culture, but they’re made challenging when onboarding new staff members who have never met physically. Constant communication between leaders and teams keeps dialogue going but there’s still questions about the long term feasibility of these.

“We have a responsibility to educate people who aren’t used to different ways of working,” said Quek, “and as technology leaders we have to demonstrate that.”

What is apparent is that within this necessary experiment of remote working is the countless testing and hypothesising occurring daily within teams. Technology has always been available to maximise productivity and trust, used correctly, and remote working offers only a few challenges tech can’t solve. The main challenge is around people: different users have different needs and remote working not only impacts those who find solitary work difficult, it also impacts the culture of work in its entirety. That is the ramification for business; for if a culture isn’t cohesive, it won’t be as productive.

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