Thursday August 6, 2020

The future of work is flexible

The future of work will be adaptable, catering for home, office and remote working. Quinton O’Reilly reports on the foundation that’s needed for this new reality

7th June, 2020
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For workers who have the choice in the future, not everyone will want to work remotely. Picture: Getty

Whether you like it or not, we’ve entered a new period of working life where remote and office work will exist in tandem.

A couple of months ago, remote working was seen as a luxury available to particular roles – but now that everyone has received a taste of it, the appetite for it has grown.

There’s no shortage of findings to back this up, with a recent WDC/NUI Galway study finding that out of 7,241 respondents, 83 per cent want to continue to work remotely post Covid-19.

Over half had never worked remotely before the pandemic and, from that group, 78 per cent said they’d like to work remotely for some or all of the time after the crisis is over.

This will be the new standard when offices begin opening up and will continue long after Covid-19 becomes a distant memory. Major tech players like Google, Twitter and Facebook have already allowed people to work from home until the end of the year and it’s likely many others will offer similar opportunities.

At this point, talk of the new normal and benefits of remote working have been well covered. But what also needs to be discussed is what happens between now and that period.

Not everyone will want to work remotely and not all businesses will be able to offer it. But for the majority of professionals who can, they will expect this type of flexibility to be the standard.

For that, the focus will be on the infrastructure that businesses rely on and how they can manage these shifting priorities as it’s shown how certain jobs are no longer bound to geography.

Philip Harrison, chief technical officer, CWSI

“This has proven that work is now an activity, it’s not a place,” said Emma Gregan, technical sales specialist at Dell Technologies Ireland. “You don’t have to be in an office.”

Before you can start discussing the office as a whole, you have to start with the people. For many workers, the past few months will have made them consider working from home as a perk of the job, cutting down the number of days per week spent in the office.

While the mental and emotional benefits of such a move have been highlighted, this may not be the main reason why people will continue working from home longer than expected, according to Gregan.

“At the core of it, employee safety is key. So if that means people are more comfortable working from home, then businesses going forward have an obligation to provide that for their employee. Initially, the first wave [of remote working] was making sure the users at home had the equipment to work from home,” she said.

“Now the supporting infrastructure behind that needs to be modernised and optimised to cope. If you’re running a business that shifted to remote working overnight, unless you have the infrastructure behind it, the applications and software that your end-users are using are going to be knackered.”

That statement highlights just how important the foundations are for businesses when working in a post-office world. While the pandemic has forced the hand of many firms, those who hadn’t properly thought about remote working before are relying on a patchwork of different technologies to meet demands.

Gregan highlighted the importance of employee preferences when it comes to remote working. For every person who loves it, there’s likely another who can’t wait to return to the office and gain some normality.

“Some people have adapted really well to working from home – I’m one of them – but then there are others like colleagues of mine who need the office,” she said. “They need a workspace, so it’s about trying to cater to the individual as well as making sure that productivity isn’t impacted from a business point of view.”

As for Gregan herself, her view on remote working is clear-cut. “I’ve no intention of working full-time in an office ever again,” she said. “I was spending two hours a day commuting and that’s gone now.”

Prepping the office

While remote working is going to play a greater role than before, the office is still going to continue to exist, albeit in a different form.

How exactly the office will look once workers can return without fear of infection is another matter entirely. While there are still some elements that need to be clarified over time as restrictions ease, businesses can still make tentative plans for the future.

“Business leaders need to understand that the return to the office is likely to be very different,” said Chas Moloney, director at Ricoh Ireland and Britain.

Emma Gregan, technical sales specialist at Dell Technologies Ireland

“Some people will not return in a full-time capacity, therefore video conferencing tools and remote working capabilities will remain a staple. For those that do, measures will need to be put in place, including distanced workstations, booking systems for desks and deep-cleaning protocols.”

Moloney does bring up the fact that the personal circumstances of some workers – such as those who live with vulnerable or at-risk individuals – will require the support of their employer to work effectively from where they are, something organisations will soon have to address.

“Larger organisations may need to consider how to split the workforce so that fewer people are travelling into the office on any given day, or perhaps look at setting up a number of satellite offices instead of a central hub,” he said.

“It will take time to identify what is required. But hopefully it will lead to a more fluid, but equally productive, way of working that can benefit the individual, the business and society.”

The pandemic does bring up the opportunity for businesses to really think about their infrastructure and create the conditions for greater flexibility. Moloney said the focus has shifted from surviving to thriving, with firms more receptive to the idea of transforming their processes and infrastructure.

“Companies are more open to the idea of continual business transformation and being flexible in order to stay competitive and be successful,” he said. “It has been and continues to be a challenging time, but the pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for companies to reimagine and restructure the way they work.”

Empowering users

Whatever way working life is restructured, the office will be a staple for reasons beyond functionality. Some people want to keep work separate from their home life, others might not have the means to work from home properly, and then there’s the social element of seeing people in the office.

That said, upgrading your services to accommodate remote working brings benefits beyond those who work from home, with some companies who incorporated remote working thriving.

One company that has been managing well is mobile enterprise specialist CWSI. For it and its clients, transitioning from office to home has been smooth, with its chief technical officer Philip Harrison saying “we feel what we’ve been pushing has been vindicated in the last few months”.

“For a lot of businesses it will be a great way of evolving their IT infrastructure in general,” he said. “A lot of businesses will be in a better place coming out of this because they’ve been forced to adopt this stuff that has matured hugely and is enterprise-ready.”

Even if a business can’t exactly offer remote working elements or is reluctant to continue the practice, Harrison gives two non-remote benefits for when office life returns. The first is the concept of deperimeterisation, a strategy for protecting a company’s data on multiple levels by using encryption and dynamic data-level authentication.

The benefit to this isn’t just accessibility for remote working, but setting up the conditions that would allow businesses to scale. Cloud solutions and services like Office 365 are designed to be flexible – so if a business grows, it can scale without too much trouble.

Liam Fahy, operations director for Videnda Distribution

The other benefit is to treat it as a form of business continuity. If your office is unavailable for whatever reason, having remote working capabilities built into your culture will mitigate much of the pain that situation would usually cause.

“By having your users work remotely like this all the time, you’re constantly testing your business continuity,” Harrison said. “It’s not going to be applicable to all businesses, but there’s a real benefit there going from business continuity testing.”

At the moment, he recommends businesses start developing a home working policy sooner rather than later. The reason for this is because it’s more difficult to take things away from people once they become used to them.

“Everyone should be rapidly developing home working policies and they can start off very basic,” he said. “That’s important, particularly for businesses who are struggling to get hardware to make available to use at home, that most people have home equipment, be it iPad, PC or laptop.”

Always a mindset

While businesses are now likely used to their new conditions, formulating work-from-home policies is probably the only tangible action they can carry out right now.

The reason for that is while there is a roadmap for how the country will reopen, nobody truly knows exactly how the next couple of months will progress. That uncertainty has meant that businesses have adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach instead of being proactive.

“At a corporate level they’re still holding out, because they don’t know how it’s going to pan out,” said Liam Fahy, the operations director for Videnda Distribution “If you look at what causes inertia it’s uncertainty, and if people are unsure they won’t make a move.”

The issue is, if people feel that circumstances can change or that they don’t have all the necessary information to make a decision, they’ll choose to wait it out. It’s why Fahy isn’t placing too much weight on what decisions businesses are making right now.

“It’s not a real market per se because people have not sat down [to consider it],” he said. “Part of it is they’re not sure when they’re getting back to the office, they’re not sure in what form it will be, and they’re not sure what impact government guidelines are going to have on them.”

Much like CWSI, Videnda has been operating since the pandemic started, supplying conferencing and unified communication tools like headsets, webcams and other devices to customers.

Naturally, whether businesses keep up remote working and how they incorporate it will differ from business to business, but one area that they will have to consider post-pandemic is the type of equipment and set-up they’re using.

“What will happen post-pandemic is organisations will come back and look at the equipment people are using,” Fahy said. “They will look at standardising [management of devices and tools], be it headsets, webcams and platforms.”

While the technology is there, the real factor that will shape remote working’s role in the workplace is how it will affect the culture of a business. While it has its benefits, whether businesses feel like it’s a good substitute for face-to-face interactions is a question that won’t be truly answered until the pandemic passes.

That said, Fahy believes that remote working is a mindset and its success comes down to how you manage people and the level of trust you give. The type of IT strategy you implement will come down to factors like what you can deliver and how you can measure.

This is something that will vary from organisation to organisation but, if anything, the current crisis has provided a frame of reference for future strategies.

“One thing that will be taken away is that every company has done it in some form,” he said. “They have a much better idea whether they can continue with that model or extend it. It is essentially a massive forced corporate experiment in remote working.”

Silver lining

For every dark cloud there’s a silver lining, and for unified communications and collaboration tools, it has been a situation where years of development have paid off.

What has strengthened the case for this is the current strength of the technology supporting this new lifestyle. Different industries such as telephony, unified communications and collaboration tools have been vindicated with the likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack experiencing significant gains in both users and overall usage.

To give a snapshot of the upward trajectory they’re experiencing, Microsoft Teams daily active users grew 70 per cent to 75 million in one month. Zoom revealed it had 300 million daily meeting participants at the end of April, up from 200 million at the beginning of the month. Slack added 9,000 new paid customers between the start of February to the end of March.

While those examples involve more front-facing and ubiquitous tools, the pandemic has given other technologies a chance to shine.

Players like VMWare, owned by Dell Technologies, have seen major gains from the pandemic through a higher uptake in its software-as-a-service offerings like Workspace One.

This was reflected in VMWare experiencing a better-than-expected Q1 2020, as its subscription and software-as-a-service revenue jumped 39 per cent from a year ago.

Increasing capacity is a sign of demand for a service like this, and, while the return to the office will reduce the pressure on these services, these tools will likely play a key role in future enterprise set-ups.

People-first approach

While mobile working has been a key component for many businesses, the recent pandemic has made it an essential component.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, it’s wise for businesses to start taking a people-first approach and craft policies and procedures that take into account people’s circumstances like commute times or family lives.

“Every person is different, and circumstances have changed,” said Chas Moloney, director at Ricoh Ireland and Britain.

“Now it’s about enabling people to work together from anywhere and thinking beyond the workplace – supporting workforces with the right technologies, but also being flexible and understanding that people need a balance in order to work effectively and deal with the challenges of the current situation.”

Moloney speaks from experience, saying that Ricoh Ireland has been an “advocate of individual work styles for some time”, giving people the means to work in a way that allows them to be productive.

Whether that’s being in the office five days a week, working remotely or a mixture of the two, everyone is different. By embracing it, businesses can see improvements in performance.

“Only through appreciating how people work best and where business performance can be improved will leaders make informed decisions and bring about positive change for everyone involved,” Moloney said.

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