When Ireland went into the first stage of Covid-19 restrictions in March the experience was a brutal shock, not least because many of those who remained in work were told to do so from home, often with just a few days’ notice.
With normality still not re-established it looks as though 2021 will bring more of the same, and even if and when a vaccine for Covid-19 is widely available, it is likely that the changes that have rung through the workplace will continue to echo.
Few expect working from home to become the absolute norm, and fewer still want it, but for many, some amount of remote work is likely to be either required or requested.
“I’ve cut down on my commute by two hours a day. I think I’ve only put diesel in the car six times this year,” said Emma Gregan, compute and networking specialist at Dell Technologies Ireland. “That environmental issue will have an impact on people.”
As we try to navigate an uncertain future, enthusiasm for working from home, initially very high, has tempered. Despite the benefits, staff miss the office and employers remain uneasy.
Gregan said that she expected there to be three basic approaches once the pandemic is over: full-time remote working from home, full-time on-site, and a hybrid of the two.
“In a lot of cases it’s definitely going to be flexible. It really comes down to the employees’ preferences,” she said.
Certain tasks cannot be performed remotely, however, and not just because some staff need to meet people face-to-face. There is also a technology component to the equation, and as used as we have all become to cloud computing, there are still activities that are not suited to it.
“The way I would view cloud is that it’s not one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t necessarily suit everyone. It’s fantastic for some people, but there are certain workloads that just don’t fit the cloud.
“Anything like HPC [high-performance computing or supercomputing] or analytics-based where you need that heavy CPU use and massive bandwidth, you will want to be closer to it,” she said.
Working in the real world
Will Richards, channel manager for remote access provider LogMeIn, said that while remote working was nothing new, many businesses have not yet fully adjusted to it. One worry is compliance, he said.
“A lot of businesses still don’t have the systems in place. A lot of people jumped but they’re not GDPR-compliant. I was talking to a mortgage provider and they’ve been told by the Central Bank of Ireland that they have to record their calls,” he said.
Joe Roche, head of marketing at unified communications provider Blueface, echoed this, saying that compliance does need to be taken seriously. “The big head-scratcher for remote working is GDPR compliance and security,” he said.
Still, even for those whose compliance demands don’t rise to the level of financial services, the novelty of the situation means there are plenty of other causes for scratching scalps red raw. Unsurprisingly, readiness levels have varied across industries and sectors.
“That really depends on the type of the organisation that you are, and what departments sit within the organisation. We haven’t had a choice of whether to work remotely because that’s been a government decision to lock down.
“Some businesses have been able to move seamlessly to do that [whereas] some businesses, I’d imagine, would really struggle,” said Richards.
Richards said that he expects businesses to adapt to the post-pandemic world by continuing to support remote work.
“I do think the dinosaurs out there cannot wait to get their offices back up and running and have people in five days a week, but I generally think that that [attitude] will die out,” he said.
By October virtually everyone in business, from the c-suite to the workforce, was prepared to do whatever needed to be done to keep the show on the road. Joe Roche of Blueface said that his company has long supported working from home.
“We’ve been working remotely for some time. Remote working is no disruption to me at all, but not everyone has experience of it,” said Roche.
In fact, the company recently published a report on home working trends that was itself produced by a team that included a graphic designer in Madrid and analysts in Dublin and Warsaw.
Those businesses that did not have a policy in place, however, were the ones that struggled in March. Some also got a nasty shock.
“If you don’t have an IP [internet protocol telecoms] system you’re going to have to use call forwarding [to mobiles] and call forwarding is expensive. They get bill shock,” he said.
Those who did have IP- or cloud-based telephony, however, were able to configure their systems so that the same phone numbers and extensions that once rang the office now rang soft phones in workers’ homes.
“IP communications is not like PSTN [Public Switch Telephone Network]: you can configure it all from a browser,” he said.
Call centres in the cloud
David Lang, sales director at Phone Pulse, experienced the same phenomenon among customers.
“What happened initially was organisations just, if they didn’t have IP telephony or cloud, diverted their landlines to mobiles – and they had to do that with legacy phone systems,” he said.
Short-term workaround call forwarding did the job, but cost and inflexibility mean it is not a viable permanent solution. Lang said that this was driving take-up in cloud telephony.
“What we’ve seen is organisations that had sat on the fence about changing the phone system have jumped. The beauty of cloud telephony is you don’t have significant capital expenditure,” he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, even call centres were able to move out of the office during lockdown, enabled by internet-based telephony. Lang said that this was only possible because connectivity has improved dramatically in Ireland.
“If you look at the contact centre space in Ireland, the majority are sub-25 agents. They would typically be using IP-enabled or cloud-based systems,” he said.
"Why cloud [computing, including telephony] is so compelling now is because broadband at home is pretty much excellent in most areas. That wouldn’t have been the case previously. This is the game-changer for IP telephony in a pandemic.”
Those that needed to maintain a presence, perhaps for compliance reasons, were able to use the flexibility of cloud telephony to bring second sites on-stream, said Blueface’s Joe Roche.
“How do you social distance a contact centre? The first thing is to bring online a B-site, which you might have for disaster recovery reasons, and then split the staff into groups,” he said.
Some of Blueface’s customers took a blended approach, with workers on-site and others at home, but others preferred to split the workforce across multiple traditional sites.
“You’ve got larger, highly regulated sectors like financial services, where that [working from home] is not considered ideal,” he said.
Oliver Mallon, cloud solutions architect at Viatel, said that this kind of practice was likely to become the norm in 2021. “Blocks of staff will be staggered across the week, meaning businesses are left with a challenge: can they make the phone extensions work from both office and home seamlessly?” he said.
The rise of the video call
Traditional telephony may well have made the leap into the internet age, but businesses also wanted another form of voice communication: collaboration, often using the likes of Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Mallon said that one desire was to have this integrated with telephony.
“Taking a step back, the first thing under consideration would have been solutions around collaboration, so things like Microsoft Teams. We had customers who were [already] using the likes of Teams and had people working at home,” he said.
This was fine for collaboration and internal calls but businesses wanted something that could also integrate with incoming calls and make external calls. “This can be done, and it makes for a seamless experience,” said Mallon.
Another technology had to be sent home, too; one that few people think about these days, but which remains essential for some industries and professions: the fax.
Scott Wilson, director of customer experience at eFax, said that despite the perception that faxes had been usurped by e-mail and other forms of communication, in fact it still had a crucial role in some sectors.
“The people we find using it are those who use forms and documentation. We see a lot of court documents, hospitals that have a hand-off with ambulances, banks, and the construction industry is quite heavy in terms of paperwork,” he said.
The problem is that no one has a fax machine at home. eFax aims to solve this by turning the fax into a cloud service. Wilson said that documents can be sent and received from any device, meaning that it is more than just managing a legacy technology. Instead, he said, it gives it a new lease of life.
“You receive it on your smartphone in the app or as a PDF attachment in email. There are also secure options for things like healthcare and other sensitive areas like banking,” he said.
“Because of how the world has gone it has brought a find-me, follow-me approach. I think that’s the future of what we’ll see. It’s about the value of the document, not the method of transmission.”
One surprise to many has been that the sudden scattering of workers, across the country and around the world, has not led to widespread connectivity problems. Globally, bandwidth held up, and in Ireland connectivity was better than expected.
Derek McDonald, senior enterprise account manager at Fonua, said that despite Ireland’s reputation for broadband black spots, by and large 4G has been able to keep the country online.
“For us, we’re being asked for dongles for the likes of mobile broadband. In a lot of cases the coverage has been good. We’ve sold out a number of times,” he said.
Dell’s Emma Gregan said that she had not encountered situations where businesses were installing private business-only fibre, but some people were working from places other than home.
“I haven’t personally heard of anyone using new private business broadband but I’ve heard of some people checking into [the likes of] WeWork,” she said.
Other technologies have come into play to make the remote experience as close to the office as possible.
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) are starting to become commonplace as the chaos of the initial rush home begins to fade into memory.
“People are implementing VDI so that they can still have that secure, seamless workplace experience even though they’re not on site. The most important thing I’d be looking at is security,” she said.
Viatel’s Oliver Mallon said that hardware solutions were out there to improve security for employees logging on to company networks.
“How do you secure employees? We have an SD-WAN solution that has a teleworker device. You can connect it to the wireless network or put in a 4G sim and make it another node of the network,” he said.
In the end, though, while these technologies may underpin the whole experience, the ultimate question of what happens next will be a social one.
Fonua’s Derek McDonald said that once people had a taste of the relative freedom of working remotely they may never want to return.
“Some are doing more hours than they did before, some are being smarter about their work – some of those people will not be coming back to the office,” he said.
Scott Wilson from eFax said that just who that cohort may be is likely to be a matter of self-selection.
“Our team is missing the social aspect of work. If I was a finance person I might not feel that, but people in sales and communications are like that,” he said. “We’re talking about it [internally] ourselves, we think consolidation is the word. We will still have the office in Dublin, that’s for sure – but there’s a positive to not being stuck on the M50 every day.”
All change again
A May 2020 survey by Xerox, The Future of Work in a Pandemic Era, found that 72 per cent of respondents were “not fully prepared technologically” for remote work. It also estimated that 82 per cent of the workforce would be back to the office within 18 months. But those are US statistics, and date from before the second lockdown here.
Closer to home, a Central Statistics Office (CSO) study from the same time showed that 34 per cent of people reporting that the pandemic had affected their work had started remote working from home, while a further 12 per cent had increased their remote-working hours.
This was a significant shift: research conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), also from May 2020, showed that prior to the pandemic 14 per cent of Irish workers worked from home.
Interestingly, the ESRI’s figures also implied that economic development leads to a greater acceptance of remote work: 30 per cent of Swedish workers worked from home versus only one per cent of Bulgarians.
With 23.6 per cent working from home, Irish professionals were also more likely to work remotely than other sections of the workforce.
Even as things eased over the summer, though, there was a widespread feeling that something had shifted. At the time of writing in November 2020, Ireland, like much of Europe, is back in lockdown with those who can do so instructed to once again work from home.
News of potential vaccines notwithstanding, there is a widespread acceptance that the workplace will not ever go quite back to normal. Whether that turns out to be a good or a bad thing remains to be seen.