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IT chiefs address growing set of collaboration problems tied to remote work

Companies focus on making remote work easier on their employees

Half a year into the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, information-technology leaders are tackling a new set of communication problems, as companies extend their remote-work infrastructure beyond business continuity and into employee well-being.

Most of their efforts are aimed at bridging a sprawling communications gap between corporate managers and their workers, who are no longer under the same roof.

“Covid-19 has accelerated all our projects, especially those related to technology and how it could help us bring people together during this moment," said Iuri Miranda, chief executive officer of Burger King Brazil.

The company, which has 16,000 employees at more than 800 restaurants, had been shifting in-person human resources services before the crisis to a WhatsApp interactive bot, Mr. Miranda said. Since March, it has boosted the bot’s capabilities to respond to specific questions about the impact of the outbreak and other workplace concerns, he said.

“The pandemic has raised the importance of companies’ ability to engage, communicate with and enable workforces," said Mark Foster, a senior vice president of services at International Business Machines Corp.

In addition to videoconferencing tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, he added, many businesses are deploying chat apps and virtual hangouts to foster less formal communication.

The goal is to get a better sense of how employees are holding up and what they need to make working from home easier, Mr. Foster said.

In May, 70% of U.S. employees reported working entirely or partially from home, according to a survey by polling firm Gallup.

Mr. Foster said technology has played a critical role during the crisis in helping address employee expectations for clear communication and feedback loops, access to training for technical skills, and safeguarding workers’ mental health and well-being.

But maintaining an ability to check in on workers sometimes got lost in the shuffle, especially as businesses scrambled to get remote-work systems in place when Covid-19 began to spread, Mr. Foster said.

Between April and June, roughly 80% of employers said they were supporting the physical and emotional health of their workers, according to a survey of nearly 3,500 corporate executives world-wide by IBM and global research firm Oxford Economics. In a separate survey, 48% of some 50,000 workers reported they felt these needs weren’t being met, IBM said.

“It’s been a case of leaders second-guessing what workers want," Mr. Foster said.

According to technology research firm Gartner Inc., two out of three employees report having to exert too much effort to use technology provided by employers. The average employee spends more than five hours a week wrestling with tech issues, Gartner says.

Gartner, which has operated with a remote staff long before the pandemic, said in an April report that remote workers can feel excluded from team and office-level events, have unclear work expectations, and lack visibility into workflows. That can take a toll on morale and productivity, the report said.

It advised employers to bolster technology infrastructure to ensure workers at home, co-working spaces or cafes can seamlessly communicate with each other and their managers.

Employee burnout can also be an issue. A recent study of a team of 350 Microsoft Corp. employees found average workweeks had jumped by four hours after the shift to remote work. Employees were also spending more time in meetings, according to the study.

Write to Angus Loten at angus.loten@wsj.com

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