The Covid pandemic moved the concept of remote working from something that used to require “air quotes” to something very real indeed. In many cases getting people to work from home enabled not just business continuity but business survival.
The trend was already growing, points out Gina O'Reilly, chief operating officer at Nitro, in San Francisco.
As a global document productivity company, Nitro is not new to remote work but it too saw massive change as a result of Covid.
“We made the decision to go 100 per cent remote early in the pandemic, and we could feasibly work 100 per cent remote indefinitely at normalised levels of productivity and customer service delivery three months in, that’s proving to be the case,” she says.
O’Reilly believes there are a number of key benefits to remote working.
“What organisations gain the most from employees working remotely is time better spent. Without a daily commute in a city like Dublin, which already has one of the highest commute times in the EU, imagine all the hours that can be saved per worker every day that could be used more efficiently and without the typical stress and frustration that comes with sitting in traffic?” she says.
By eliminating a physical commute, remote working also gives individuals the ability to adjust their work hours to what suits them and their team best. “This is particularly helpful when collaborating with teams in different time zones.”
More flexibility should mean better work-life balance too, she says, while ultimately, remote work goes beyond just “work from home” to “work from anywhere” – which can lead to better talent recruitment as well.
Reduced operational costs should accrue, not least those associated with rent, utilities, office supplies, insurance and catering.
There are however downsides. “The biggest risk with remote working stems from the need for companies and their teams to change how they operate and collaborate while still encouraging and building a strong company culture. What used to work well in person-all-hands meetings, town halls, brainstorming sessions, new-hire orientation programmes no longer applies. Also gone are the informal water cooler chats, coffee runs, and hallway conversations that helped to form team bonding in a very organic way,” she says.
For organisations to be successful with remote working, “we need to rethink how to deliver an optimal employee experience in a very different way”, she cautions.
Risk of burnout and disengagement must also be assessed. “While higher productivity is a clear benefit from remote working, there is a potential downside related to workers having more time. When high performers aren’t able to switch off at home, the work-life balance can tilt too far in the other direction. Managers need to be even more aware of potential burnout among their teams, and help individuals to set better boundaries before it becomes an issue.”
Digital transformation is complex, says Paschal Naylor, chief executive of Arkphire, an IT support services and IT product procurement company which helps to deliver IT to clients.
It provides an end-to-end solution for a managed digital work space, one of the key components of which is the ability to provide continuous monitoring and reporting of systems and security components.
Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation process, he says, pointing to a Gartner study that shows 74 per cent of companies plan to permanently shift to more remote work post-Covid.
For many organisations the process only began in the early, crisis-ridden stage in March when offices closed and the transition to working from home started at pace, before moving on to what he calls the current “extended” working from home phase, which already requires a more scalable solution.
That means adopting systems that provide better visibility into performance and usage and improved infrastructure to optimise performance, he says.
From here comes the move into what will be the new normal, “in which the future of work will be reimagined”, says Naylor. This will give rise to longer term work space strategies, including new ways of working that provide employees with opportunities to work on devices anytime, anywhere, with a transition to cloud-based services supporting productivity.
While organisations need to look at all aspects of service delivery including applications, security, networking, data and devices, the single biggest factor that will affect the success of a digital work space transformation will be user experience, he suggests.
Stephen Mulligan, enterprise technology consultant at mobile services provider Three is a confirmed home worker, having done so since 1996 when he lived in San Francisco.
“I know it works but I do know too that there is a benefit to being in the office. You can be fully productive in a home working environment but you do miss some of those random interactions of the office,” he says.
Random video calls with team members helps. But in his own case he is missing participation in the office choir, which provides friends outside of his normal work groups.
For all these reasons the future is likely to be marked by a blended mix of home and office-based working. But to make that work optimally, employers should take a remote-first approach, he suggests. This means ensuring all meetings take place remotely, for example, whether people are in the office or not. That helps do away with fears of presenteeism and ensures remote workers don’t feel like “second-class citizens” compared to those in the meeting room.
“With social distancing, I think meeting rooms won’t really work anyway,” he says.
While many businesses may be worried about how to sell in a WFH [work from home] landscape, webinars offer a good way forward. One run by Three recently had 180 attendees, an unprecedented number, which shows the appetite for networking and buying is still there.
The cyberrisk of home working must also be factored in, particularly where people are sharing with house-mates. In all cases education around good laptop hygiene is required, he says. It includes not leaving customer information around, having a clean desk policy just as at work and having cable locks which prevent stolen laptops being opened.
Data on mobile devices should be encrypted and, while employers have no power over is the broadband or service provider that homes workers use, a virtual private network can create a secure tunnel back to the office, he says.
By far the biggest cyberrisk, however, is simply down to remiss human behaviours. Just as Covid has shown in relation to washing hands, socially distancing and coughing into your arm, “if you explain to people about the importance of good laptop hygiene, they will do it”.