The Covid-19 pandemic has created the biggest corporate shake-up in a generation, causing businesses across sectors to re-evaluate how they do business and re-assess the nature of their offer both to clients and customers and to employees.
Only six months into the Covid-19 era, it is not surprising that there are still many variables and unknowns, not least because we still do not know how the virus will pan out and when an effective vaccine will be widely available.
What is clear, however, is the scale of the impact of the pandemic on IT and business operations. The 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey, which reflects the views of over 4,200 tech leaders worldwide, found that companies spent the equivalent of US$15bn extra a week on technology during the crisis to enable safe and secure home working. 86% of tech leaders said their organisation had moved a significant part of their workforce to remote working, and 43% expect more than half of their employees to work from home at least some of the time after the pandemic.
The remote working model has clearly worked, with services maintained, productivity broadly unaffected and most employees finding that, even if they miss the social buzz of the office, there are advantages to compensate.
But what is the long-term view? Management teams are reaching the point where they need to make some bets for the future. This is challenging given the number of variables that exist, but nevertheless we are beginning to see increasing signs of big tech players and others modelling new operational possibilities for the future, with business leaders essentially needing to consider three facets:
- Does this work for our staff and our customers?
- How are we going to administer, manage and monitor it?
- Where does this leave us contractually and legally?
All of these pieces need to align. They have not all landed yet, and may not do so for some time.
The biggest and most obvious question is the extent to which tech firms and corporates more generally bring staff back to the office, and how much time they expect them to spend there. There seems little doubt that the future model will be a hybrid; the balance will depend on the nature of the business and on individual roles and responsibilities.
So it is fascinating to see some apparently quite different signals from two tech giants. On the one hand, Amazon recently announced the creation of 3,500 new jobs by expanding six of its physical tech hubs in the US. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, said a few months ago that he expects around half of the company’s staff to work remotely within the next five to ten years – and that the organization may remunerate individuals partly according to the cost of living where they are based.
Both of these initiatives are revealing, and indicate the complexity of the new era we are entering. For me, Amazon’s announcement underlines the fact that, for all that remote working can be highly effective, sometimes there is no substitute for bringing people together.
This is particularly the case for innovation – something that is crucial for the tech sector. As we have all been experiencing, video calls and remote connectivity are in fact quite structured events. They have to be, otherwise they would become impractical and unwieldy. But innovation is typically unstructured, especially in its early stages. It is more likely to occur when people are physically together and can interact spontaneously. Individuals spark off each other, ideas are rapidly iterated, a concept develops in a freestyle manner and takes everyone to a new place or conclusion.
Entering new territory
For this reason – quite apart from the important fact that people naturally want to see each other and socialize – I believe that physical workspaces or hubs will continue to be essential as part of the future operating model. Without them, businesses may become ‘steady state’ entities – solid, but lacking in dynamic new ideas – rather than organizations who are capable of making giant leaps forward.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that businesses will operate on much more distributed lines than before. Remote working is with us to stay as a fundamental aspect of most employees’ future experience.
This inevitably ushers in new operational questions that business leaders must resolve, including remuneration models. Facebook’s proposal may be controversial: would it lead to some individuals feeling under-valued simply because of where they live? Is it fair to pay two people different amounts for the same work based on where they are?
These are the sorts of issues that the future could be taking us towards; it is commendable that Facebook has given this signal to its staff and been very open about its thinking.
There are other questions too – with many businesses making savings through removing or reducing perks such as free breakfasts or hot drinks/snacks, or access to corporate facilities such as gyms, is there scope to give the savings back as benefits in a different form (discounts or vouchers for health and wellbeing services, for example)?
Another question is around productivity. It has become clear through the pandemic that many staff take time out of the standard business day to do other things – childcare, exercise etc – and make up the time by working out of hours. New contracts may be needed to allow for this and make the parameters of what is acceptable clear.
While many question marks remain, it feels certain that we are entering new territory which has the potential to bring an energizing freshness to the way that businesses operate.
Bev White, CEO, Harvey Nash Group