Working From Home: Disrupting Workflows and Supply Chains?

The current viral outbreak is pushing significant numbers of knowledge workers – globally – out of office environments to remote locations, including working from home (WFH, aka telecommuting). This is putting an unexpected amount of strain on workflows and enterprises’ ability to manage productivity – and disrupting supply chains needed to deliver basic needs.

Working remotely is not working as expected, let alone as hoped, for a growing number of organizations. In too many cases, WFH is suddenly the weakest link in the supply chain.

Despite its widespread use in some western countries, WFH is far from universal. Firms in India, China, and other Asian nations tend to use WFH sparingly, and often only in emergency or hardship situations. Laws and contracts frequently limit the ability of knowledge workers as well.

For example: In many large Indian firms, including leading IT services providers, WFH has been limited to a select few staff. It is not unusual to see a firm with 500 knowledge workers have only enough equipment (including broadband sticks/dongles) for a few dozen telecommuters at one time. Some of this is custom; some is based on legal work requirements. In fact, the Indian parliament recently had to pass at least one law in order to enable legal WFH for more workers.

Any switch in worker location and capabilities creates workflow disruption in the best of circumstances. The disruption from moving hundreds or thousands of workers to WFH circumstances, with minimal equipment and preparation, in today’s rushed and uncertain environment, can bring work to a halt. We even see firms with well-established WFH programs straining, because they were not set up to manage anything close to the levels of remote work now being experienced.

The resulting supply chain disruption is huge.

We saw in the early days of the pandemic that closing just one or a few companies in a supply chain can have catastrophic consequences down the chain – and there are tens of thousands of closures occurring right now.

Now add disconnected and inadequately-equipped workforces to the disruption, and you have supply chains that just cannot operate. Workforce disruption affects the availability of goods and services. It also disrupts cash flow, which further disrupts the flow of goods and services. Suddenly, we have supply chain nightmares that business scenario planners would not have considered possible just a few years ago – and which almost certainly were not incorporated into most companies’ current plans and budgets.

Action must be taken now to minimize workflow and supply chain disruption. Absent room and time for detailed instruction and explanation, here is a minimal checklist to help reduce WFH-related workflow disruptions:

  1. If you do not have a WFH policy and program in place, make one now. Model it on what works in your markets.
  2. Get qualified legal counsel and HR involved at the beginning.
  3. “Good enough” is good enough to begin with. Do not wait for every term and condition to be carefully defined and agreed to.
  4. Be flexible, and be prepared to manage challenges that you did not know existed.
  5. Evaluate your WFH program and plans against the problems listed in this post.
  6. Monitor the program daily; re-evaluate what works and what doesn’t work weekly.
  7. Make needed changes immediately.

The good news is that all of the above is resolvable. It will take many weeks in some cases, but it will improve.

Harder to resolve are network-related challenges. Workers are shifting from commercial areas that concentrate users and connectivity to more residential environments with much less bandwidth. This is straining public and private telecom networks. It is also magnifying connectivity and access issues within and between enterprises, which further disrupts workflows – and cashflows. More on that in the next post.

Finally: Look to The Analyst Syndicate for ongoing strategic and tactical insights and guidance. My colleagues have prepared valuable and effective insights on important business continuity and recovery topics, including the following:

Connect the DOTS for Covid-19 workforce risk

Rethink Business Resilience Planning. Now.

Contrarian COVID-19 Advice for Manufacturers

Coronavirus lessons and recommended actions

Coronavirus Playbook: CEO Pandemic Planning


The views and opinions in this analysis are my own and do not represent positions or opinions of The Analyst Syndicate. Read more on the Disclosure Policy.