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The workplace of the future: The post-Covid-19 wave of remote working

(Image credit: Image Credit: Thefarmsoho.com)

Every year, think tanks, businesses academics and analysts give their view on the technology trends that they believe will most impact the future workplace—and how those technologies are shaping business technology investment. Over the years, the pressures driving toward remote working have been building, but no one could have predicted the seismic shift caused by Covid-19. 

Entire functions of many global organisations are now working remotely, and this looks set to permanently alter the way people think about the world of work. Remote working is no longer a benefit, luxury or convenience. It’s also more than a current make-do for organisations looking to conduct business as usual. Yet, senior leaders will have to leverage this inflection point to drive sustainable competitive advantage for their organisations in the new normal.

Covid-19 caused a seismic shift

Before coronavirus hit, remote working had been steadily increasing yet, most organisations have largely stayed true to the idea of the office workplace. One reason for this could be that many were built in the last century, and the corporate world is still primarily defined by the baby boomers –a group that entered the workforce before mobile phones, personal computers and the internet even existed. For them, the office is where work is done, and the very concept of remote working may raise concerns over productivity and motivation. 

This is why many organisations have not enabled remote working as part of their business as usual before now. Those organisations that were still largely built around an office-based model are the ones that have had to scramble the hardest in recent weeks in the drive to set up remote working capabilities.

The four waves of remote working

For example, remote workers will need access to experts, call centre operators will need an environment where security and data privacy issues are well addressed, and teachers will need a way to monitor tests and exams. It’s critical to start with the user’s needs and create a user experience that threads back through the supporting technologies to create a user-friendly and highly functional working environment.

There are four waves of remote working, and right now, we’re in the middle of the Covid-19-induced third wave. The Covid-19 crisis is hastening organisations’ ambitions to embrace remote working as the new normal. What CIOs around the globe need to think about is how to make this happen.

What’s interesting is that, over recent years, we’ve already seen “traditional” ways of working being pressured from various directions, including the impact of the sharing economy on lifestyle, the gradual decline in commute efficiency, the fight for millennial talent and the impact of the climate crisis on air travel. This is perhaps why many jobs were already starting to be enabled remotely, from contact centres to customer service, computer programming to sales, data entry to medical billing, coding to design.

What is becoming clear is that the post-Covid-19 new normal will be different. Boston Consulting Group’s view is that “comfort with remote work will reshape our future workplace,” where flexible work arrangements will increasingly be the norm. In the post-Covid-19 fourth wave of remote working, organisations wishing to drive sustainable competitive advantage will have to resolve a set of challenges across both technologies and people, and piece together talent attraction and retention, employee engagement and partner engagement effectiveness in a cohesive manner. Underlying this wave will be the emerging deployment across key industries of a set of new technologies now taking shape, such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and spatial sensing and mapping.

CIOs must adapt quickly

The unique set of challenges presented by a remote workforce requires all senior leaders of an organisation—CIOs, CHROs, CISOs—to work together to resolve them. The CIO needs to be a proactive participant in leading and driving change and clearly demonstrating the link between the technology agenda and the employee value proposition. Opening up the possibility of remote working to more employees demonstrates that it can work (and in days rather than months), so it can be a part of the new operational plan.

Of course, it’s not that CIOs don’t plan for unprecedented events. It’s that most business continuity plans contemplate regional pandemics, and focus on how other regions of the globe can pick up the workplace slack. The global nature of the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented and has caught many CIOs unaware.

Within this new wave, the CIO’s role in managing the agenda from the previous three waves remains the same. From the broadest goal of on-the-ground operations (such as ensuring that technological systems and procedures are aligned with business goals) to planning ahead for the future (like understanding digital technologies and how to cost effectively utilise them), the CIO still plays an integral role. But now an additional focus needs to be put on the forward-looking “next wave” of technical building, beyond the table-stakes priorities. And early preparation is key as there are many “new” considerations for CIOs including:

  • Is remote-access infrastructure robust enough to handle most employees shifting to remote work?
  • Are core business applications cloud ready? Or are you relying on bulky solutions that are not user friendly as a workaround?
  • Can your collaboration solutions cope with a massive explosion in traffic volumes as users switch to virtual collaboration solutions
  • Is your dispersed office environment secure?

Once you move the office perimeter to the user device, it’s vital to establish secure trust environments to safeguard customer, financial or personal data. We’ve already seen a massive uptick in cybercrime looking to exploit Covid-19.

What’s clear is that CIOs need to seize the opportunity to plan for the future right now. They need to look at how to put in place a network architecture that will enable them to quickly adapt to the new, flexible remote-working world. More details on this topic can be found in the whitepaper I wrote in conjunction with Boston Consulting Group, on returning to business as unusual - available here.

Sampath Sowmyanarayan, President, Global Enterprise, Verizon Business