Is hybrid working here to stay?
The Covid-19 pandemic imposed a new way of working on the world, but which aspects of the new order will persist and which will fall away when things go back to normal?
For years, exponents of remote working have argued that employees would reward more flexible working arrangements with increased productivity, and events of the last 12 months seem to have largely proved them right.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced companies all around the world to engage in an unprecedented proof-of-concept experiment, whether they wanted to or not.
Vast numbers of people are working at home, at kitchen tables and on sofas around Ireland – but with vaccination levels rising and an end to the pandemic in sight, some interesting questions remain.
Chief among them are, what aspects of the remote working revolution will remain when the metaphorical waters recede and it becomes possible to return to the office?
“To be honest, I think significant aspects of how we are now working are here to stay long term. Let me qualify a bit about that. This time last year, everyone was in a massive panic,” said Mark Needham, hybrid workplace lead for Cisco.
“They were sent home and the default was to allow internal employees to be able to meet each other, which is an obvious place to start. The number of people using our solutions rocketed, as did everyone else’s in the collaboration space.”
That was the first stage of the change for Cisco’s customers. Around five or six months into remote working, customers began to take a more long-term view.
“The penny dropped that this was going to be around for a while, and it was time to take more considered decisions about the technology choices being made to enable people.”
The next challenge from a Cisco point of view was to enable every member of an organisation to do every aspect of their job from any location. Not a simple thing to do.
“So that’s not just about facilitating an online meeting, that’s about every element of the online collaboration process. Nobody spends all their time in meetings. All the planning might be done in meetings, but the actual work that makes things happen usually takes place somewhere else,” said Needham. “So that real work needs to be facilitated in a secure and reliable way.”
According to Cisco, one of the big takeaways of this pandemic period is that employees really value autonomy – and once they’ve had a taste of it, they don’t want to give it up.
“Regardless of where you are, you value the freedom to live a life that’s more in tune with the best version of yourself, both for your work life and your personal life,” said Needham.
“The freedom to choose is enormously important and it’s important for people going forward that they can keep that level of autonomy as we transition back to a non-Covid-19 world.”
For Ken Tormey, director with Typetec, a key differentiator in terms of how well companies have adapted to the pandemic is how far along their own digital transformation journey they were before it started.
“We have seen a lot of change in the last 12 months, of that there is no doubt. However, one thing we’ve noticed is that some organisations were better prepared than others. Those that had already taken steps down the smart working road, had moved a lot of their systems to the cloud and had made provisions for remote working found things an awful lot easier,” he said.
“Likewise, those that were already working with collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom were able to flip over quite easily. We’re predominantly a Microsoft house here, for example, and the numbers that we saw in terms of concurrent users on Teams exploded worldwide.”
According to Tormey, those customers that were already working with those tools and had become used to remote working as a concept adapted a lot more easily, whereas others who hadn’t really struggled.
“Some of the difficulty was down to really basic things, like figuring out how to save and retrieve files remotely in a shared environment. If you’re not used to doing that, then you have to learn. It was an organisational shift for a lot of companies, and there are still companies out there struggling now to be honest,” he said.
“An interesting thing that’s happening right now is that companies are shifting their focus out from having a tactical approach to a more strategic one. Back when things went south, they put in place the bare minimum and since then they’ve stacked up a couple of layers, but they were working on the proviso that things were probably going to return to normal.”
Now, according to Tormey, organisations are beginning to recognise that this situation ‘has legs’ and there is no guarantee that things will ever go back to normal, or at least to the way they were before.
“They’re beginning to look at things a little more strategically. For example, they’re reassessing the security postures that need to change to accommodate ongoing remote collaboration. They’re looking again at the kind of space they need – and in terms of infrastructure, they’re making the changes necessary to empower a hybrid kind of workspace,” he said.
“This is something that we doubled down on ourselves at Typetec going back two or three years ago. And it’s something that has worked very well for us. But I think a lot of companies prior to the current situation we’re in right now were down on remote working a little because there was a negative association. People thought ‘working from home’ meant ‘dossing at home’.”
To counter this, Typetec deliberately embraced a pro-remote working agenda to help illustrate for its clients how it could be done.
“We changed our whole culture and way of working and we just decided we were going to do this seriously and talk to our customers about how well it could work for them. We effectively gave everybody the option of working from home where and when possible, and we implemented a hybrid policy,” said Tormey.
“It was on the basis of, if you need to be or you want to be in the office, you can come into the office. And that was a recognition, I think, of the social element that I think people are really beginning to feel the effects of now.”
It now seems likely that when the Covid-19 pandemic ends and a sufficient number of people are vaccinated to allow the workforce to return to the office, things will have shifted permanently. Many people have had a taste of a commute-free experience and of being more in charge of their own schedule.
The result is that many want to work at least part of the time at home and part of the time in the office. A knock-on effect for companies will be a move towards examining just how much space they need to house their offices.
“We actually just signed a long-term lease for new office space in Dublin city centre, but we’re a telecoms company and that means that many of our staff can work remotely quite seamlessly,” said Joe Roche, head of marketing for Blueface.
“The new office can take 200 people, but probably we’ll have 150 people on site and 50 people working remotely at any given time. I think the future of work is blended. It’ll be team based and priority based, not location based.”
Blueface has its own unified communication technology, so it’s straightforward for it to roll out remote work access across Ireland.
“It seems likely to us that the future is going to be hybrid, where we will have a fixed office space in the city for meetings and collaboration for getting projects over the line, but that a certain percentage of people will be at home,” said Roche.
“There will be certain teams that will work remotely, certainly, and will telecommute for the most part – and as a consequence I think that collaborative software tools and video conferencing are here to stay.”
Roche said that from this point on all meeting rooms will need to feature video facilities, as at least some participants in every meeting will be dialling in remotely.
“A lot of marketing teams will work remotely because it’s been proven that remote working for marketers does work quite well. But I also think there will be a lot of people in the office full-time again in the future,” he said.
“The technology will continue to grow significantly and people will lean on softphones and video conferencing more. Larger businesses will probably investigate getting a higher profile but smaller offices.”
According to Tara Gale, client solutions marketing manager for Dell Technologies Ireland, there’s an irony contained in the fact that the concept of workforce transformation has been around for a long time but the execution of the concept happened virtually overnight.
“We all woke up one day, and all of a sudden we had to make it real. It was the most ‘fast-forwarding’ of a process anyone had ever seen. We were totally used to it within Dell Technologies, but it’s been very interesting to see that reality imposed on the rest of the world overnight,” she said.
Gale said that once the initial realisation hit companies that they would be locked down for more than two or three weeks, they responded to ensure they remained functional.
“We know that the Irish market for end computing grew by about 30 per cent; that means now there is a huge range of devices out there,” said Gale.
“Going forward, companies are left with the headache of how to manage these devices and handle security in the workplace.”
Once the initial expense of purchasing hardware and software licences has been done, Gale said that many companies have made savings.
“There has been a reduction in costs in terms of offices and mileage incurred in travelling. We also think from research we’ve done that, going forward, 74 per cent of companies will have some level of remote working,” she said.
“We’re also hearing that between 30 and 40 per cent of people will work remotely full time. And then there will be the hybrid worker, somebody who might do two to three days in the office and then a couple of days at home.”
According to Gale, office capacity is a big discussion point for a lot of its customers at the moment as the position for the rest of the year and 2022.
“They’re not going to go back to the same capacity and we in Dell Technologies are in the same boat. There were 1,500 of us in Cherrywood and when we do go back, we think about 500 people will back in offices. We expect to use hot desking for the majority of the time, apart from our support staff, etc, that are there 24 hours a day,” she said.
“Internally we’re working on an app that will roll out to help manage this. We’ll be able to open up our smartphones and prebook a desk, book a meeting room or book a car space, depending on our needs in the office. So there is a big change coming down the lines for our office, but we’re also hearing the same thing from our customers.”
The consensus among Dell Technologies Ireland’s customers on how things are going to work is that between 30 and 50 per cent capacity of what they were previously, with the rest of their capacity made up of hot desks.
“A big challenge that we’re seeing at the moment is: what does that hot desk actually look like? How do you set up an office that encourages us to continue with the great work that we’ve done around collaboration?”