How long will companies allow their employees to work from home? Will it be back to the office in September, will it last until the end of 2020, or will it go longer? Google just announced plans to let employees work from home until the summer of 2021, and Twitter has said that it will allow some employees to work from home forever.
Now Capital One, a financial company best known for its credit card services, has told InformationWeek that it plans to allow employees to work from home until the end of 2020. Melanie Frank, managing VP of technology at the company, said that Capital One set that date in order to give employees the ability to plan in a world of so much uncertainty.
The attitude towards work-from-home arrangements has certainly shifted in the five months since COVID-19 shut down so many offices and businesses. Organizations were forced to figure out how to work in a distributed environment. Since then many have committed to allowing at least some of its employees to work from home for longer periods of time, if not forever. But it all started with a fast pivot to a new way of doing things.
Capital One began talking about the possibility of such a shift towards the end of February when murmurs of possible COVID-19 shutdowns were just beginning, according to Frank. Frank's task was to focus on scenario planning of just what it would look like if all of Capital One suddenly had to work remotely.
For instance, did the company have all the capacity it needed on key infrastructure such as VPN? What was the current utilization and capacity? To get a clearer picture of what that would look like, Frank's group reviewed how the organization operated on Fridays, the peak day for people working in remote mode, and all systems seemed to function smoothly.
Next Frank's group looked at critical applications. Capital One had already made a commitment to operating in the cloud, so it touched base with major providers such as Zoom and Google about their ability to scale for a sudden move of office workers to home environments. Once those plans were in place, it was time for a test run.
In early March, the company asked a subset of employees to do the "game day test" and work from home. Four days later everyone else in that first wave of employees -- about 40,000 went home, too. These are the employees that were already equipped with laptops and mobile phones and could work from anywhere.
"We all went from feeling concerned and bad for folks in China to wondering if this could become a reality here," Frank said. She is based in Richmond, Virginia, about 2 hours south of the company's headquarters in McLean, Virginia. But Capital One has many offices around the country, and not all of them were in areas that were initially hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak. But some were.
"I remember that week in March it felt early as an enterprise decision," Frank said. Outbreaks were starting in some of the company's geographies such as San Francisco and New York, but not everywhere.
Some of the challenges with the pivot to work from home may sound familiar. For instance, if someone is at home and has trouble setting up, do they even have the help desk phone number to call?
The next wave of employees transitioned to work from home were call center and customer service employees. Among those was a subset of about 2,000 agents that were already equipped to work from anywhere. But a larger population of employees had desktop computers and dual monitors that were bolted to the desks.
"That was the harder part of the challenge," Frank said. Plus, these front-line customer service workers were expecting to see a higher volume of calls during the crisis. Thankfully, before the February pandemic whispers even began, Capital One had topped off its inventory of unassigned laptops at the end of 2019. It wasn't nearly enough to get everyone a laptop, but it helped, Frank said. Meanwhile, the company was also looking for as many monitors and wireless adapters it could find to help employees take their desktops home. Ultimately 13,000 agents were able to be shifted.
Finally, a third wave of moves was aimed at third-party providers such as outsourced call centers. Capital One performed a lot of risk analysis to figure out how to handle these workers and hold them up to the same level of performance. Like other call center employees, these workers needed to be in an environment that was controlled. While it may have been acceptable in the first months of pandemic-driven working from home for executives to have their kids and dogs in the background of Zoom calls, there's a different standard for customer service workers.
With all the upheaval, security was also a focus. Frank said the company has put increased attention on that area, creating a framework by which risks were evaluated and equipment set up with security mechanisms. Employees also went through computer-based training to help prevent issues down the road.
Frank credited the company's commitment to public cloud and its own digital transformation with its ability to pivot so quickly to working from home for so many employees. Because of all the disasters that organizations have prepared for -- floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and active shooters -- pandemic wasn't at the top of the list for many.
"Who could have possibly planned for this?" Frank asked. "I look back and we are very blessed that we had a strategy to modernize our technology..."Our shift to GSuite and Zoom looks brilliant now. They were able to scale, and they saw huge increases in usage those first few weeks. It allowed us to move quickly."