What’s COVID-19 teaching us about the way we work?

What’s COVID-19 teaching us about the way we work?

COVID-19 triggered an overnight change in the way most organisations operate. But how much of that will prove temporary, how much will be permanent and what does it all mean for IT? In this two-part blog we’ll consider the changes we’re likely to see to the way we work and how these will impact on IT expenditure.

But let’s start with a virtual ‘clap for IT workers’. Many performed miracles to convert office-based staff into home workers, in a matter of days – I doubt they’ve all got the recognition they deserve!

It was interesting to hear Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella say, “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.” Interesting, not just in terms of scale but because it also suggests permanence.

Although we’re starting to see some things reopen, with restrictions, others seem to be talking about 2021. Increasingly, it seems highly likely that many will be home working for some time to come. Social distancing requirements preclude widespread use of both the transport infrastructure and most office buildings. Never mind desk density, lift and stair use is a limiting factor in many buildings.

But what of the longer term?

All the time, once ‘new’ ways of working are becoming normal and, in many ways, they’ll be no going back.

When you can achieve so much in a virtual meeting, they’ll be an increased reluctance to spend time travelling to and from meetings. I think many, especially regular, meetings will remain virtual – even ones between people in the same building! – and device manufacturers will soon be adding noise cancelling software to enhanced AV capabilities.

Overall, I think there will be a dramatic increase in home working after COVID-19. But I also think there will be big differences between organisations and those will probably be determined by a combination of the organisation’s culture and the experiences of those at the top.

If your organisation has expensive office space and is cost-focused, then expect to see far more home working. A survey by PwC in America found that a quarter of chief financial officers were already thinking of cutting back on property. In the UK, we’re already working with several ‘household names’ that want to move most staff to home working. Although many organisations’ property leases will have years to run, if you’ve got hundreds or thousands of people occupying costly office space, eradicating some or all this cost has clear appeal. In heavily regulated sectors, this directly translates into requirements for enhanced information security.

In a more people-centric environment, staff preferences will have a say – and home circumstances and personality both feed into this. It is easy to see the appeal of home working to those with unpleasant commutes, that are now spending more time with loved ones. But for others, work is also a valuable source of social interaction. Stereotypically, salespeople are social animals, but we have several account managers that have been successfully working from home for years. Conversely, technical people are often stereotyped oppositely, yet it is one of our third line analysts that is the keenest to get back to the office.

While some people thrive in their own space, others value a group dynamic. So, where individual choices are allowed you can expect a range of outcomes. But, I suspect, with most choosing a bit of both, and this too has IT implications. Office layouts will change (more hot desks and areas for informal interaction?) and many people will require both office and home IT kit – while you can reasonably expect a laptop to be carried between home and office, not so separate monitors and keyboards. Will some staff need printers or other hardware at home too?

Management culture will also influence what your organisation does. Home working is highly compatible with a culture of trust and staff that have clear responsibilities and measurable output. But if management approach is based on physically seeing what people are doing, it may be much less likely. Not only would home working call for some change in management style, but it may also result in an IT requirement to monitor staff log-in times, application access, call times and so on.

The home working that so many people are currently doing is a temporary response to a national crisis. But if it becomes more permanent employer obligations will increase. There isn’t a huge amount of legislation to govern this but there are a few things to be aware of.

HSE legislation requires the provision of a safe working environment (think ergonomically). Organisations must also provide people with the tools they need to do their job, and while this will be largely the concern of HR, it is likely to translate into additional hardware.

If you operate in a regulated sector, or have ISO certifications, you’ll already be familiar with the requirements these bring. They’re likely to relate to information security and while regulators seem to be fairly understanding of the situation at the moment, there will come a time (next year?) when your home workers will need to be as compliant as office workers.

All this should help you to understand how things might go in your organisation. But, there’s no substitute for having a pre-emptive chat with those at the top, especially since they might be a bit more accessible now than usual. If your executive leadership have had positive experiences of home working, both personally and in terms of departmental/divisional performance, then you need to start thinking about what technology changes are required to make this a permanent success.

Next week, in part two of this blog, Kevin Goodall will look at some of the technology considerations.