As the COVID-19 crisis remains, all businesses have had to make often radical changes to how they organise their workforces, processes and their customer support. Many in the business community are asking whether this massive shift to remote working could – for a large number of firms at least – become the norm after the COVID-19 crisis passes.

The pandemic could have profound and far-reaching consequences for all businesses, no matter their market sector. The sudden shift to home-based working has put corporate networks under pressure. Remote working tools often used on an ad hoc basis are suddenly being leveraged to connect entire workforces. Corporate networks unaccustomed to multiple remote connections often over VPNs are straining under the loads.

Speaking to Silicon UK, Malcolm Murphy, Technical Director, EMEA, Infoblox said: “With the UK on lockdown, the majority of businesses have been forced to re-equip their workforce for remote working in the past two weeks. Many companies will have found that remote working worked better than they expected.

Malcolm Murphy, Technical Director, EMEA, Infoblox.

“Yet, people encouraged to work from home when their employers are not necessarily set up for it will be using personal devices, such as laptops or mobile phones, for work purposes. Whether the IT team likes it or not, there has been and, will continue to be, a huge increase in the number of shadow IT devices (active devices in use without the IT team’s knowledge) being used by employees, as well as the use of collaboration applications not approved by the company, e.g. WhatsApp, Skype, etc.”

Security is, of course, of paramount importance, as Acceleration Partners‘ CEO, Robert Glazer explains: “Security is top-of-mind for many companies, especially those with a remote work environment. Companies are investing technologies such as Single Sign-On (SSO), Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), phishing detection and Mobile Device Management (MDM) to protect employees and data outside of a traditional physical office. Requiring employees to participate in InfoSec training annually can also help them to understand the risks and remain diligent about security and best practices. Organisations that are just getting started with remote work may not have had time to put the technologies and systems in place and may have people working on personal computers that risk exposure.”

Connecting workers

With remote mass working becoming the standard, merely expanding the use of established remote working tools isn’t enough. Workforces accustomed to office environments are suddenly thrown into isolation with little training and educations regarding the use of remote working tools and, the impact this change could have on their wellbeing.

Research from OWLLabs that quizzed workers across the US concluded: “Workers who work remotely, at least some of the time are happier, feel more trusted, less stressed, are more inclined to recommend their employer to a friend, and are less likely to leave than their office-bound colleagues.”

Getting the mix of on-prem and remote workers right will be vital to understanding how work will be organised and carried out post-COVID-19. Those workers forced to work from home are the group that will need the most support if a permanent change in their working patterns takes place.

Nelson Phillips, Abu Dhabi Chamber Chair in Innovation and Strategy, Imperial College London says: “Leaders should take this opportunity to focus on the permanent digital transformation of work to increase efficiency, employee satisfaction, and attractiveness to the best new talent (it is worth noting that flexible working and working from home are two of the most highly valued workplace policies). While the pandemic is a dark cloud, it may have a silver lining – that is, leaders could take advantage of this opportunity to accelerate the digital transformation of their organisations.”

“Companies have been forced to adapt to remote working, and many have been able to do so – this, of course, has happened at a quicker rate than if it was to happen naturally,” Dirk Buyens, Professor of Human Resources Management at Vlerick Business School told Silicon UK.

Dirk Buyens, Professor of Human Resources Management at Vlerick Business School.

Buyens continued: “However, one concern would be, how we could ever go back to how employees worked before? Now that employees have had a taste of constantly working from home, and the convenience of doing so, it may be difficult to encourage workforces to come back into the office as much as before. Workers are certainly going to want to work from home a lot more, especially those with long commute times who are now aware they can do the same job but cut a few hours of travelling out of their day. In essence, it’s going to become a challenge to get workers back in the office, unless they are those who are keen for social interaction after this. It also is likely that people may be less inclined to make trips abroad too, as they likely feel as though there is no need for the long trips to do so.”

The impact of COVID-19

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 crisis has for many businesses and organisations the catalyst for change. Workers that have been working remotely may want to continue after the pandemic passes.

Indeed, according to Gallup: “Don’t be surprised if they (workers) don’t want to come back to the office. Gallup research shows that 53% of employees say greater work-life balance and personal wellbeing is “very important” to them when considering a new job, as do 60% of women, of whom 48% are actively looking for a new employer and, that 51% of US workers say they would quit their current job for one that allows flextime.”

No one knows the impact mass remote working would have on businesses and the environments they trade within. An initiative by Leesman, supported by The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) is telling, as Leesman advocates testing and a metric to understand the impact working from home is and will have.

Research by Leesman is also revealing in that it suggests before the COVID-19 crisis, nearly 80% of employees worked remotely for just one day a week, with only 1% working from home for more than four days a week. The vast majority of workers, therefore, are having to make immediate adjustments to their working location and patterns.

“We are amid a larger test of remote working than any of us thought necessary or possible,” says Tim Oldman, CEO, Leesman. “But if no one marks the test, we leave ourselves wide open to misinterpretation. The immediate impact on employees and employers is unknown, while uncertainty about how long this will last is adding to employees’ anxieties.”

Oldman continued: “We urgently need to know how home working is working, which tasks are suffering, and which might improve. We believe this international crisis needs a unified international analysis that lets us learn from one another’s experiences as they unfold and together be ready for the questions that will come thick and fast when normality returns.”

Paul Bagust, Global Property Standards Director, RICS also commenting: “This much-needed mass response to what has been described as the biggest global crisis since World War Two is the profession’s opportunity to demonstrate the resilience and agility it has long preached as vital for its survival. Our Asian colleagues are weeks ahead of us in their response, and we need to capture and distribute their experiences rapidly. Now that the stakes are the highest, we could have ever imagined; it is time to unite and layout the plan for action.”

Acceleration Partners’ CEO Robert Glazer also commented: “Remote working is not just a trend, it’s here to stay. We’ll see companies be more flexible when it comes to remote work–they will accommodate different types of employees and schedules to attract the best talent. Organisations will also start to measure value through results rather than desk hours.

“People rarely have a perfect balance between work and their personal lives and the benefit of a remote-work environment is that it enables people to set aside time for exercise, parenting or other passions. As long as leaders create accountability, flexible environments can benefit companies even more than employees. Employers trust people to get the work done and empower them to work in a way that makes them feel productive and fulfilled.”

Leslie Willcocks, Professor of Technology Work and Globalisation at the London School of Economics, Department of Management, concluded: “I think that since the birth of the internet this has been one crucial, unavoidable trend in the future of work. It already has a history of adoption in different circumstances, and of challenges, failed experiments, and successful deployments for specific tasks.

Leslie Willcocks, Professor of Technology Work and Globalisation at the London School of Economics.

“The issue businesspeople are now learning about is what it takes to cope in increasingly unstable, volatile, uncertain environments. I do think that the wise businesses will invest in remote, flexible environments, not just because of the net productivity gains, and the social acceptance, but also because it offers a default way of operating in case of future unanticipated crises, disasters, and events, natural or otherwise.”

The business landscape has radically altered in a short space of time. Many enterprises have been caught off-guard having previously only dabbled with remote working for a small percentage of their workers as remote working becomes the new norm, radical alterations in how business communications are in place. The question is whether these systems are efficient, safe and, potentially offer a new template for doing business in a post-COVID-19 world.

Silicon in Focus

Gerry Tombs, CEO, Clearvision.

Gerry Tombs, CEO, Clearvision.

Remote working has always been part of the tech landscape. In a post-COVID-19 world, will tech companies move ultimately to remote teams?

While the advantages around remote working are clear, and there may be a desire for tech teams to work remotely all of the time, it is never as simple it seems.

Converting what was in-office staff to full-time home/remote workers throughout the business will be a painful experience and is far more likely to fail. The best approach is to start with a recruitment process, whereby suitable candidates can be interviewed based on their role being fully remote – like it or not, not everyone likes to always work from home. It will, therefore, be inevitable that moving an existing company to work remotely, full-time will result in a group of individuals who eventually dislike their job, due to social isolation, lack of motivation, or the inability to focus correctly. It may turn out that these people are your best employees.

Not only do I believe that more companies will turn towards remote working, but I think that this will drive a fundamental shift in the way that businesses view their full-time workforce. Amazing talent can be found across the globe, and the younger generation is seeking increasing workplace flexibility. After the challenges of COVID-19 and recessions, companies are likely to recognise the value behind short-term contract engagements, using freelancers to come into a business as and when required. This is known as ‘Just-In-Time-Talent (JITT); with all of the rules and restrictions around employing staff, more companies are likely to leverage JITT.

While sounding easy, remote working is anything but. Technology can make the experience and some elements of productivity easier. Still, the human, process and security aspects bring a new, different dimension to the challenges that businesses continue to face.

Working from home at least one day a week will become normal; we will wonder why on earth, we always worked in the office. However, if not executed properly, the transition could prove to be painful and counterproductive.

Are the collaboration tools we have available today able to scale to the levels we may need if remote working becomes the default state for most tech businesses?

The term ‘collaboration’ can often be misinterpreted as just talking about speech and video tools like Zoom, RingCentral, Microsoft Teams, etc. There are many other tools which come under the term ‘collaboration’; almost any SaaS tool is considered a collaboration tool, for example, Monday.com, Salesforce.com and Confluence. Many of these vendors have based their physical infrastructure around AWS or similar, instead of having their own datacentres.

The vast majority of technology-based companies had used collaboration tools for years, even when staff worked within the same office. So, demand on central systems, while increased, is well within the scaling capability of an AWS platform.

Companies with IT managers or security teams who insist or mandate running their own infrastructure will find themselves in a very sticky position. Some companies and even various government security organisations around the world have found themselves having to rethink the reasons why they mandated limited external access to remote working in the first place. We are aware of several organisations whose security offices refused such access, limitations which, under present circumstances, have subsequently disappeared overnight.

Have the security issues for remote mass working been assessed yet? Do we have adequate systems in place to protect businesses and their customers?

In the financial crisis of 2007/08, many large enterprises and financial institutions successfully recovered after implementing a solid ‘work from home’ policy. Before 2007, many large companies would have disaster recovery buildings ready to re-house employees; such infrastructure has long since gone, replaced by work from home and 50/50 desk sharing policies.

The remaining companies are ill-prepared for such a rapid change in remote working, with many choosing to collaborate solely in the office. Many of these companies are discovering for the first time their technology limitations, e.g. not everyone has a laptop and a second screen at home. A second screen is effectively essential to be productive – have one screen focused on work and the second displaying your colleagues on a conference call.

On the basis that many companies do not even give staff the correct equipment to work from home, such as second screens, they have certainly not assessed the question of security.

One perfect example of the human element of security risk introduced when all staff are remote is a large organisation who moved 3000 developers onto a work from home policy. Normally, they would lean across the desk to ask a more experienced colleague a question or to get guidance. They’re now searching online for answers or coding in an insecure way. The amount of code that has been cut and pasted from Google into an organisation’s codebases will inevitably rise, which will not only create an IP challenge but definitely increase the chances of pasting insecure code into a product.

In this case, the rapid deployment of work-from-home developers is likely to cause challenges with the way specific development tools are configured. For performance reasons, certain tools have historically been set up to run in-house, e.g. build, continuous integration, library management tools (Jenkins, Bamboo, Nexus, Artifactory). The various IT departments who are supporting development tools will be running around like headless chickens trying to reconfigure such tools for secure remote working. COVID-19 will be the turning point; companies will now be far more receptive to having such tools managed by external partners.

Is the future of work remote, flexible environments?

Flexible, scalable environments already exist today and are definitely the future. As projects scale up and down, companies want their infrastructure and costs to scale accordingly. Except for large enterprises, the days of in-house IT teams running their own infrastructure will change to having trusted managed service providers running a client’s infrastructure.

David Howell

Dave Howell is a freelance journalist and writer. His work has appeared across the national press and in industry-leading magazines and websites. He specialises in technology and business. Read more about Dave on his website: Nexus Publishing. https://www.nexuspublishing.co.uk.

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