For much of the last thousand years, business didn’t really change much. Most commerce was local and business people typically did everything themselves or with the help of clerical assistants. Then the industrial revolution arrived and new ways of working and organising people became popular.
The first dedicated office building was constructed in 1726 in London, built to handle the administration requirements of the colonisation of the West Indies and the slave trade.
In the early part of the 20th century, the concept of the open-plan office came along, with rigid floor layouts allowing a manager to oversee row upon row of desks manned by clerical staff.
This was done to maximise productivity and efficiency but it happened at the expense of individual autonomy for staff.
After World War II, research started to appear suggesting that improved morale in the workplace would lead to increased productivity and so the office changed again. The human needs of staff were taken into account for the first time and the cubicle arrived along with the adaptable partition.
These allowed some privacy and space for staff and facilitated teams being grouped together in clusters based on their workflow. Since then, things have largely stayed the same, with some notable blips such as internet companies attempting to blur the boundaries between work and recreational spaces with foosball tables, beanbags, fitness centres and breakout rooms.
It seems certain that, once again, we’re on the cusp of a permanent change. Covid-19 has prompted a huge shift to remote working and a big question is what will happen when this pandemic passes?
It’s expected by many that when the pandemic is over, huge numbers of companies will facilitate hybrid working arrangements, a combination of working from home and working in the office.
“The pandemic has resulted in the rapid adoption of a whole host of digital technologies, and that’s fundamentally changing, we believe, the nature of work. We’re seeing new patterns emerge in which people want choice and flexibility. That’s resulting in teams becoming more distributed, working remotely, and a company’s culture is now more important than ever,” Shane Heraty, managing director for Cisco Ireland and Scotland, said.
“Collaboration technology is a key element of that but also beyond just the tech it’s also how these tools make use of artificial intelligence, environmental sensors and advanced analytics. These will all be critical to empowering employees in the future, keeping our teams connected and productive in every location, whether that be from home or in the office.”
Adapting to a new reality where people increasingly work from home will be a challenge for some companies, even if they have seen it done successfully over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In certain industries, adoption and adaptation will require a cultural shift. But obviously, then, in other industries, hybrid or remote working and a distributed workforce have been around for a long time. It’s also important for companies to realise that workers put a high value on flexibility and on having control over their work hours,” Heraty said.
“They want to choose whether they work from home or in the office or a mix of the two. And actually, being able to facilitate that could end up being a competitive advantage for organisations competing for staff.”
For many tech companies it wasn’t that big a deal to migrate staff from the office to working from home. Patrick Murphy, chief executive of Codex, appreciates that wasn’t necessarily the case for companies outside the tech sector.
“Getting our staff to work remotely enabled us as a business to keep going and keep the show on the road. We managed to keep all of our staff employed in the middle of a pandemic so from that point of view, it’s been a great success, albeit one in which sales are down 20 or 30 per cent,” he said.
“In terms of carrying on into the future, my opinion on remote working from a full-time perspective is that it makes everything harder. I get that there are benefits for staff and we will definitely be more flexible going forward but it’s not all good news.”
One issue he has found is the difficulty of effectively creating the right company culture. It’s a lot harder to do that over Zoom than it is to do it with casual conversations and attitudes in a shared physical workspace.
“I know some of the bigger global companies have gone with the idea that going forward it’ll be fine to work full time from home and maybe in a bigger corporate that’ll work,” said Murphy.
“For an SME, one of the benefits of being smaller is being a little bit more flexible, being more in touch with staff, being able to pivot and change that little bit more and being more agile and I think that’s harder in a remote environment to pull off.”
This is particularly true, he says, of small to medium-sized companies in which the boundaries between roles are blurred.
“In large companies you can clearly map out roles, job descriptions and processes. When you’re an SME, employees often do a lot more and often dip in and out of the different departments,” said Murphy. That’s a lot harder to do remotely, but it’s a fact of life for SMEs.”
Dell Technologies is one of the large global companies that Murphy mentions, and according to Ciara Dempsey, regional sales manager for Dell Technologies Ireland, it has facilitated remote working since 2009
The Covid-19 pandemic obviously resulted in more people taking up the option than normal, but most employees already had the technology they needed to make it work.
“Within two weeks last March, 90 per cent of Dell Technologies were working remotely, just under 140,000 people. One thing we’ve learned over the years with flexible working is that it’s very hard to maintain the right culture.
“Sometimes with flexible working, you can lose that so to help with that we use Connexus Employee Resource Group (ERG), which ensures that people stay connected,” she said.
“It uses enhanced technology, infrastructure and training to maximise collaboration and make it easier for people to work together. But that said, prior to the pandemic, there were many roles in the company that we thought just intrinsically weren’t suited to remote working. And the pandemic changed all that, and I’d say we’re not unique. When you have to, you find a way.”
Dempsey points to her own role as a team leader. It’s not that she couldn’t do it remotely, but prior to the pandemic she just thought it was better done in front of her team members.
“When we were forced to do these roles remotely, we just got on with it and actually we found out that some aspects of the job were better. We found a way to work things and used different technologies to do what we had to do. Microsoft Teams, shared videos, Zoom calls – we stayed connected,” she said.
For other organisations, doing this well depends on what they have in place to start with, according to Dempsey. Ideally they should be technology-ready and already in the process of trying to build a resilient culture to make teams work.
“It also takes strong leadership. You have to be clear about the culture you want to impart and be able to encourage the kind of change you need in terms of how people think about work,” Dempsey said.
“For example, in a lot of sales organisations, there is nearly an idea that if the employees aren’t within sight, then they’re not working. But that can be a bit of a control thing – you have to be able to let go of that.”
Remote working has to focus on outcomes rather than on processes, and managers need to be able to actively encourage social interaction.
“You know, it’s not good if every call is a work call or a team call, you also have to have virtual team events to help build personal connections between teams as well. We have had a few of those over the years and they’ve been great,” said Dempsey.
Initially, many Dell Technologies employees were happy to work from home and enjoyed the change of routine, and the lack of a commute to work, but after some time had passed the realities of working from the kitchen table set in.
“As we’ve gone through the year, I think what people have missed most is interaction with others. I have team members who have gone from ‘this is great’ because they were able to skip a long commute to now saying ‘actually, I’d like to be in the office a couple of days a week’,” she said.
“I think like a lot of other organisations, we will keep the hybrid approach to working – some people will work some of the time in the office and some of the time from home. Who does exactly what will be up to the individual. Flexibility will be key.”
During the summer of 2020, technology consultancy TEKenable ran a survey on attitudes to home working, something it plans to do again this year, and it found that what people really want is choice.
“What we found was that the majority of people want some balance between working from home and working in the office. Only 20 per cent said they actually wanted to work full time at home, or come back to the office full time.
“Everyone else wanted some mix of four days a week, three days a week, two days a week etc at home or in the office,” Nick Connors, managing director of TEKenable, said.
“The biggest finding that came up in our survey, by far, was dissatisfaction with commuting. People really don’t like wasting time on the commute in the morning and the evening. The second was the realisation that they could get more done working from home than in the office.”
The third finding of the survey was related to family and childcare – working from home made dealing with family and childcare much easier.
“So the future is hybrid, and the idea of the 9 to 5, seven days a week working week in the office is probably not going to last. Perhaps for some positions and some sectors, but it’s hard to see people going back to the old way of doing things,” said Connors.
TEKenable made an acquisition last year and had planned to move to bigger offices to accommodate more staff. It shut the office of the acquired company and as staff were working from home, it didn’t need to acquire the larger office. Now it has decided not to. Its existing office will suffice.
“We’re all working from home, we don’t need the space and when we come back to the office, it won’t be in the same way. I think if we were in a very large space, we probably would look at downsizing,” Connors said.
Interestingly, Connors has taken a straw poll of the companies TEKenable works with and, according to him, they too have come to the same conclusions about the future of optimal working.
“They don’t see a time when everything is going to go back to where things were a year ago. That’s absolutely not going to happen. There are certain industries that don’t have an option and that have to bring people in to run production lines and the like, but other than that, no,” he said.
“Even some companies running call centres which you would think wouldn’t be able to operate remotely are actively looking at it, which you would imagine would have to go into one place. They’ve downscaled and have a lighter team in the office. It reduces costs, which is a bottom line for most, but also staff are happier.”
For Joe Roche, head of marketing for Blueface, it seems obvious that a hybrid working arrangement is going to become the de facto method for all but the most inflexible of industries.
“Everyone has been forced to deploy remote work as a result of Covid-19 restrictions and now they have a very good data sample as to which departments work best and which don’t,” he said.
“It seems to be the case that, for example, sales and support teams may need a centralised location but oftentimes hybrid working works best for functions like marketing and some finance functions that can be done at home, depending on the level of sensitivity and the nature of the information being passed back and forth.”
Ultimately, Roche said, hybrid working will be the way forward, fuelled by further growth in cloud technology.
“Overall the general level of digital literacy in the workplace has grown significantly in recent years, and that’s a huge lasting change. When people do return to the office, they will likely bring a lot of learning with them, things like productivity gains made with cloud software and collaboration tools,” he said.
“I think older people and even some younger people who might not have been so technologically savvy in the past have learned a lot in recent times and that could make them more competitive in future.
“It could be even, just as I said, for people that would have been an older generation for a large organisation, or even people from the younger generation that aren’t so technologically savvy, they may have brought skills significantly over the last while to be able to be more competitive.”
The net result of this is that remote working is a skill that the majority of business people are now familiar with and have experience in.
“I think we’re going to see when people return to the office that remote working is going to be normal, because every business now is going to need remote workers. It’s likely to be a big part of staff retention for both small and large companies,” said Roche.
“In future when core staff decide they want to relocate, it won’t be a death knell for their career. It’ll actually open the company’s mind a little bit more in terms of keeping them on.”
With all this movement, what is the future for the physical office? Roche suggests it will take on a role similar to that of the typical university library.
“When I was in college, I didn’t spend that much time in the library, but when it came time to do intensive study or research, it was there and it was invaluable.
“The office should be seen in a similar way, as a resource to get projects over the line. It can be a place for people to meet to plan at each stage of a project life cycle to make use of the resources there.”
“But there’s no need for everyone to be there every day,” he said.
Getting the fax right
In 2021, fax technology might seem like something from the distant past, but according to Scott Wilson of eFax Global, it’s one of those things that once is out of sight, is also out of mind.
He works with one Irish company that still sends around 35,000 faxes a month and for certain companies in certain sectors, fax remains the ideal communications medium.
“Faxes are time and date stamped and are trusted in medical and financial circles in a way that email just isn’t. They can’t be intercepted or hacked and so fax is still really important. If you don’t need it, you won’t know that but if you do, you absolutely will,” he said.
Like lots of companies that offer comms technology, Wilson said eFax Global was “hammered” by customers looking for remote access to their products in March 2020.
“There were three or four months where we were very busy because customers were making sure all their staff had laptops, VPNs and access to all their files and folders. Then they realised they needed fax functionality and they came to us,” Wilson said.
“We saw lots of customer sign-ups as we offered a way for people to send and receive fax numbers, keeping their existing numbers but using software to redirect things.
“It was just one of those fortuitous things that suddenly, people who were used to doing things in a certain way needed to communicate by fax.”
The lesson for many companies is that even when it comes to infrastructure, and something seemingly as fixed as a fax machine in an office, there are ways to allow for a distributed workforce.
“People have started to realise that there are actually better ways to use a technology, regardless of their location. They’re realising that the barriers to location are dissolving, they can just as easily be in Los Angeles as in Dublin,” Wilson said.
“Adopting these technologies will be beneficial in the future when they’re back in the office some days a week, because it can be done with software, it can be integrated into multi-function devices in a workplace so you can receive a fax in the office or in your living room if you’re working from home.”