‘Digital transformation’ used to be just a buzzword, but in a global pandemic, it’s become very much a reality. Companies that have been forced toward large-scale remote working arrangements have had to rapidly adopt new technologies to help manage their workforce or automate processes.
According to Gartner, more organisations intend to continue with remote work, with 48% indicating plans to have employees work remotely in at least a part-time capacity even after the pandemic has cooled off.
And employees seem to be happy with this arrangement. 59% of new remote workers indicated a desire to continue working remotely after COVID-19, whether part-time or full-time.
But while the short answer is: yes, remote work is here to stay, this in no way signals the demise of the physical office—merely a shift in its shape and form.
So what does that mean for the future workplace, and how will technology help us navigate these changes?
The future workplace will occupy a hybrid physical-virtual space
Brent Capron, design director at New York architecture firm Perkins and Will, believes that more Americans will be splitting their working hours between office and home. So instead of a single centralised office, companies will likely choose to have smaller offices in various cities where their workers are concentrated, to better accommodate a more distributed workforce.
But in order for workers to thrive in a hybrid workspace, companies will need to ensure they provide the right tools to keep communication and collaboration flowing seamlessly between physical and virtual spaces. This means a greater need for workflow management tools and collaborative platforms that allow managers to have better oversight and give remote workers better clarity on day-to-day priorities. Having visibility over their colleagues’ contributions is also important to avoid resentment caused by disproportionate work distribution among remote teams.
And there is no running from digital transformation—companies that cannot adapt to the demands of managing a remote workforce will fall behind. Nadjia Yousif, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, calls the pandemic “a technological equaliser of sorts” for the way it has forced people to adapt by picking up new skills and “building new muscles to work virtually”.
Employee health and safety will become a top priority
The pandemic has made us painfully aware of health and safety issues, both physical and mental. In Europe and Asia, where offices are slowly re-opening, we can already see more stringent hygiene and safe-distancing measures being implemented—including the use of technologies like infection-tracing lanyard devices, fever-testing thermal cameras, and tracking and surveillance software.
And while there is hot debate in the US about instituting mandatory paid sick leave, there is no doubt that gone are the days of being forced or feeling obliged to come into work even when you’re feeling unwell.
But in addition to physical health, companies are also realising the importance of caring for their employees’ mental well-being, especially since it has an effect on their physical health and workplace productivity. In promoting positive mental health in the workplace, more companies may look into regularly measuring the mental well-being of remote workers, implementing anonymous channels for open and honest dialogue, and providing education and training on mental health issues.
Cybersecurity will become everyone’s concern (and responsibility)
In the last few months, there has been an estimated 600% jump in the use of online collaboration platforms like Zoom, Slack, and Cisco WebEx—and with it a rise in cyberattacks targeting these tools.
With large-scale remote work, ensuring that every employee is practicing good cybersecurity hygiene at home is now a necessity, not an option.
More companies will be looking into strengthening their cloud security, expanding VPN infrastructures, and implementing encryption for online correspondences. Employees should also be taught how to be vigilant against phishing attacks, check their home Wi-Fi security, and avoid insecure passwords.
There will be an overall shift in company culture
The pandemic will forever change the way companies approach productivity, accountability, and inclusion. There are three trends that will drive this:
1. With remote work, we can expect a more diverse workforce.
Flexible work arrangements can be a game-changer for women who have to juggle the demands of work and home—long-term remote work gives them access to uninterrupted career opportunities, even after becoming parents.
It also opens up employment opportunities for people living in all parts of the country, not just in one state or near the city centres.
Just remember—diversity does not automatically mean inclusiveness, but it is a crucial first step.
2. In the course of preparing their organisation for the new era of remote work, employers will necessarily come to realise that the traditional models of work are no longer feasible.
This means companies and managers will be forced to re-assess how they think about productivity and trust. Managers who want to build effective remote teams will need to eschew the “old school” belief that keeping your eye on your workers is the only way to ensure productivity.
Ideally, the pandemic will encourage managers to find more meaningful ways to evaluate their employees, such as ability to submit timely, quality work and meet KPIs, rather than how much time they spend in a physical space.
3. In managing a distributed workforce, greater emphasis will be placed on effective communication.
Distance has made us more mindful about the quality of our time together – because communication is more inconvenient now, more care has been put into ensuring that whatever time we do have together is well spent.
This has resulted in more effective meetings, more engaging conferences, and more efficient town halls.
Not just in meetings, remote work has also made us re-think how we connect and build relationships with our colleagues, and how we give and receive feedback (especially upward feedback).
This means companies changing the way they manage communication in the future workplace, whether it involves establishing new rules of engagement, providing alternative channels for feedback, or building a culture that champions openness and transparency.
The sands beneath our feet are still shifting. With the many gains of remote work also come some losses, whether it’s the comfort of a desk mate or the buzz of an office Christmas party. Some companies’ work-from-home policies may even come with a catch.
But as we move forward, one thing becomes clear—we shouldn’t waste this opportunity to create a better way to work.