Remote working mtime20200722154006

Where do we go from here? The future of remote working

When COVID-19 first upended Australian businesses in March— a lifetime ago in pandemic time—the immediate concern was about how to transition a largely office-based workforce into one completely working from home.

Even organisations with solid business continuity plans found themselves scrambling to get their technology in place; many workplaces had contingency plans for short-term impacts, like bushfires or civil unrest, with temporary solutions, such as working in different locations, in order to reduce risk. Very few companies had a plan B in place for a months-long disruption like the world is experiencing with coronavirus.

With the mass move to working from home, businesses invested in tools to make remote working easier, like cloud infrastructure, collaboration systems, and data centres. But as different places come of COVID at different speeds and scales, many businesses are struggling with what next—what does the COVID normal really look like?

We're no longer in this together

Once COVID reached Australia, stay-at-home orders affected the entire country at the same time. But four months in, things look different. Restrictions are being lifted—and reimposed—at different paces.

For some states and territories, life is already largely back to normal. In other areas, lockdown has been reimposed and a return to pre-COVID times seems more tenuous. And then there is the human element. We're all living through a once-in-a-lifetime health crisis, and many people will feel anxious or uncertain about returning to an office environment full time.

It's highly unlikely that one day, a switch will flip, and the entire workforce will be back into the office. Just as unlikely is the idea that all office buildings will now be vacant, and everyone will be working remotely forever. Instead, we're already seeing signs of what the next few years will look like. What will be required isn't absolutes, but rather resiliency and flexibility. Business requirements will flow with whatever the health requirements are at the time.

Even in those areas where it feels like COVID is in the rear-view mirror, readiness and a nimble mindset for businesses is key to going the distance during this new normal.

As we've already seen, situations can change drastically in a short amount of time. Employers need to have systems in place to ensure that they can respond to changes at the drop of a hat. Investments made to enable secure and productive remote working will need to be factored into prudent IT plans, because a safe place today may be tomorrow.

In-office culture isn't easy to replace

At the beginning of the pandemic, workplaces were forced to embrace remote working—there was no alternative. Now, the initial fears of whether it would work have largely been dismissed. It's worked so well, in fact, that some businesses may be wondering why they'd ever bring people back into an office again.

The issue is that no matter how many Zoom happy hours or catch-ups are scheduled, the face-to-face interactions people have with each other in the workplace are irreplaceable.

Casual chats in the lunchroom or debriefs with colleagues after a tough meeting are the cultural glue of business. Everything is much blunter when done virtually; there's less nuance, particularly when people are drained from sitting in Zoom meetings for hours. Even job descriptions that appear like they can be performed entirely from home in reality are social jobs.

Sure, you can set up virtual meetings, but anyone who's worked in an office can tell you that often the real value doesn't happen during the meeting, it happens in the off-the-record conversations before and after. Brainstorming ideas on a whiteboard with colleagues or having an unplanned encounter that leads to a great idea is near impossible to replace via video, and that doesn't even account for how drained people are after sitting in Zoom meetings all day. It's clear that while collaboration apps are wonderful and have a solid place in every business plan, but they are not a panacea; technology has its limits.

The COVID way of working

That's where the flexibility kicks in. Instead of working from home Monday through Friday from 9-5, businesses should instead be looking to bring in people on a team basis. Planning meetings, workshops, and training sessions all benefit from face-to-face interaction.

In this new living with COVID world, workdays need to be organised around what our tasks are. The way forward will be understanding when to bring people, with an emphasis on teams, into the office, and when staying at home is a better option.

If you have a day where you'll be doing a lot of writing or need to push through a to-do list, it's likely you'll be more productive at home. But if you need to hash out ideas or work through something that requires reflection and input, those interactions are best face-to-face with colleagues.

This means that yes, you're still going to need your cloud setup, and your employees will still require Zoom. But you will also still need real-life meeting rooms and collaborative working spaces. The tools available to staff—both digital and physical—will need to always be on and ready to go.

This new way of nimble working is likely to stick around even if COVID doesn't. Though it may be a challenge initially, businesses may realise it's the best of both worlds.

Written by Craig Coffey
Group Manager, Platforms & Security