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This is a watershed moment

The evolution of the digital workplace that successfully enables remote or distributed working has been going on for a long time. Up to now, progress has been steady and considerable, both in terms of the capability for us to work from home or in any location, but also in terms of its cultural acceptance within organizations. But there’s always been further to go and a feeling that we’re not quite there yet. The employee experience of working outside the office in terms of access to digital channels and services is still generally inferior than being on site. More significantly, there are still leaders, managers and employees who believe that working from home is somehow a slightly less legitimate working day than one spent in the office.

Many of us within the digital workplace industry are feeling that the COVID-19 crisis will be a watershed moment for the digital workplace and the acceptance of remote working. In many ways, it’s an extraordinary and unprecedented catalyst for a trend that was already happening, but with a likely impact that will be deep, long-lasting and significant to working patterns.

Working from home in response to past disasters

In the past, natural disasters and security threats have prompted working from home for shortened periods. Organizations with a more mature approach to remote working have been able to establish business continuity with minimized disruption.

For example, the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) is considered a pioneer for distributed work (“Telework”), with nearly 90% of employees working remotely, mainly from home, most of them for four or five days a week. During office closures between January and March 2018 caused by winter weather, business continuity was easy to achieve; some departments were even able to exceed their normal output on comparable days. (Source: USPTO’s 2018 Telework Report).

Successful experiences such as this, as well as planned agile or smart working initiatives, have meant that home working is already firmly embedded into the business continuity planning of most large corporates, at least for knowledge workers, and has been executed at some stage. However, there is nothing on the scale of the COVID-19 crisis that has happened before.

Will remote working become normalized after the crisis is over?

With many organizations responding to the crisis by immediately stopping travel and ramping up remote and distributed working, predominantly from home, one likely outcome is that distributed working will at last be fully normalized within organizations and become far more relevant.

Paul Miller, DWG’s CEO and Founder, believes this will very likely be the case, both for the way employees experience work and how large organizations operate.

“The way people work will be changed forever. There’s going to be a fundamental change in how people travel and therefore how they think about travelling for work. For many of us, things are going to become a whole lot more local.

At the same time, while organizations are thinking tactically now how to deal with the crisis, they’ll also be looking to the future. Senior management will be realizing the future involves more and more distributed working. Businesses now know they need to be ready to flick a switch and move into alternative forms of work at will. Businesses that can’t do this will be increasingly fragile.”

Why this is different

There are multiple reasons why the impact on the long-term future of remote working will be far more profound than the lessons learned from past natural disasters.

  • This crisis impacts a far greater proportion of the workforce than anything ever before.
  • New working patterns will be impacted for far longer – at the time of writing, this could be until a vaccine is produced.
  • Some senior executives may experience the benefits of working from home for the first time and, as we know, personal experiences can impact strategic decision-making.
  • The ability to work from home in this situation is likely to directly influence the bottom line.
  • Product evolution and acceptance of cloud-based tools like MS Teams has been able to do more of the “heavy lifting” for remote work at scale than in the past.
  • The collective experience for the whole world is unprecedented and the impact, whatever this will be, is going to be far-reaching.

How the crisis may impact remote working in the enterprise in the medium to long term

While it’s impossible to know how the crisis will pan out, there are a number of key areas where it is likely to have a lasting impact:

  • remote working as a strategic and risk issue
  • better support for remote work
  • more acceptance of the legitimacy of remote work
  • attitudes to the physical workplace
  • management practices
  • bridging cultural divides.

Remote working as a strategic and risk issue

Business continuity has always been a priority risk issue, but it’s likely there will be more emphasis on the longer, sustained ability to handle distributed work as part of business continuity planning. The strategic value of distributed work in terms of cost reduction, increased productivity and as a positive in an employment value proposition is also more likely to be prevalent. However, in the past when distributed work has primarily been driven by cost, it has not always been implemented correctly. We would hope that it is now carried out in better ways.

Better support for remote work

If remote working or the ability to work remotely is now a strategic priority, there should be much better operational support for it. Some of this is likely to be a direct consequence of elements put in place during the current crisis with relevant tools, infrastructure and policies. But with it now a strategic focus, remote working should also be supported with proper budgeting in place.

More acceptance of the legitimacy of remote work

Remote or distributed work has not always been wholly accepted by all organizations. Somehow it is regarded as a “perk” or a less legitimate working day than working physically on site, even though often productivity is increased. There are also issues with trust between managers and employees, although sometimes this is due to the challenges of new ways of working with a lack of familiarity or processes that haven’t been fully optimized for remote working. With such a sustained period of home working likely, the greater acceptance of the  .

Attitudes to the physical workplace

Attitudes to the physical workplace may also change. When something you do that is routine and even taken for granted is taken away, then it’s perhaps easier to appreciate its value. Remote working can be lonely and it’s not for everyone; there are many of us for whom this episode will actually reinforce the value of going into the office, or appreciate more visits to the office, even if this is not every day. The full value of being together face to face after periods of social distancing may be realized.

Management practices

Management practices will almost undoubtedly change and probably for the better. Micro-management is much harder across virtual teams and performance needs to be judged instead more on the quality of output rather than presence in the office or the ability to follow instructions. Again, this is management based more on trust, which is both engaging and more efficient for everyone. It also means that measurement of performance may start to shift.

Bridging cultural divides

We currently cannot estimate what the full cultural impact of the crisis will be. Extreme situations can bring out the worst in people, but they can also bring out the best – and we’d like to think that generally a more human-centred approach to how we work and live will be a positive outcome. So far, even in these very early days, most large corporates seem to be doing their best to protect and support employees in what are extremely difficult circumstances.

One cultural impact, particularly in larger enterprises, may be to flatten hierarchies and also to bring global and local functions together. With everyone working from home, suddenly   and facing many of the same challenges. Similarly, the cultural divide between HQ and location is bridged as there is no physical global HQ. The empathy and understanding that global teams are gaining by working together in such testing conditions can also influence organizational culture from the bottom up.

Uncharted waters

Of course, we are in uncharted waters, many of which are frightening. There is not only the stress of the situation but also the economic consequences for businesses, with many people fearful for their jobs and some organizations likely to be fighting for survival.

If there is one reassurance in the context of the way we work, it is that organizations, functions, teams and individuals are both highly adaptive and resilient. We’ve already seen people coping and adjusting to an extraordinary situation by being able to carry on working, despite all that is happening around them. We’ve also seen people wanting to come together to help each other. There may yet be many other outcomes from this, but we must hope that we will come out of this on the other side, stronger and more human-centred.

Is it worth acknowledging somewhere that people’s current experiences of remote working (eg having children at home all day) isn’t ‘the norm’ for homeworking, and so there may be issues impacting eg productivity that wouldn’t normally be an issue?

Although there are still differences eg based on how large your home is / quality of experience at home

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About the author

Steve-BynghallSteve Bynghall is a freelance consultant, researcher and writer specializing in the digital workplace, intranets, knowledge management, collaboration and other digital themes. He is DWG’s Research and Knowledge Lead, a benchmark evaluator and research analyst for DWG. Steve previously worked at accountancy firm BDO in a variety of knowledge roles, including managing its global extranet programme.

Connect with Steve on Twitter: @bynghall or on Google +.

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