The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a huge transformation in the way that we work, but is it only the beginning?
Remote working is here to stay. So how can business leaders improve the employee experience and optimise this new normal?
“In 2020, Covid became the chief digital transformation officer for every company on the planet” – that’s according to Marc Howells, VP and head of global talent and learning at AstraZeneca, and it is a sentiment echoed by business leaders the world over. In the months that followed the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, companies repositioned and reinvented themselves in totally unforeseen ways – and in doing so, they found numerous opportunities for innovation.
This is particularly true in terms of the way we work. As lockdown conditions took hold, organisations rethought IT systems and rolled out previously unused or underused technologies to equip their remote workforces. For many organisations, their way of working has been completely transformed.
Yet, if we think this transformation is complete and that 2021 will be a year of embedding change, we should think again. There remains considerable scope for continued innovation and reinvention and, if 2020 was about moving fast and doing things out of necessity, 2021 will be about doing things better. That was the view from the tech magazine WIRED’s recent roundtable which brought together senior leaders from a range of sectors to discuss new digital tools that could support the evolving world of work.
‘A tale of two offices’
After 12 months of uncertainty, it now seems clear that, alongside remote working, hybrid working – where people split their time between working from home and the office – is set to become the norm. It’s a situation that has the potential to become what Natasha Bernal, business editor of WIRED, terms “a tale of two offices” – a disparity in the new world of work, in which home workers miss out.
While remote working is generally considered more productive than office work, as it allows for greater focus (domestic distractions allowing), the office is still the best place for collaboration, sparking innovation and creativity – not to mention the camaraderie that can be hard to replicate via videoconferencing. In a recent survey by Cisco of 10,000 workers across Europe, 98 per cent said they believed that in the future, at least one person in meetings will be calling in remotely.
Workers who are at home not only miss out on opportunities to collaborate but can also end up feeling excluded and ignored, says Bernal. Those who only dial in from remote locations may find it harder to build relationships, contribute ideas or even get noticed, let alone stand out – things that, in turn, may impact their career progression. This is a scenario that must be mitigated. It’s vital that office video technology is optimised for remote callers, says Vaughan Klein, Cisco’s director of collaboration EMEAR: “Just because they're not there, it doesn’t mean you get to treat them like second class citizens. They're going to expect the technology to be able to incorporate them as best it can.”
Klein believes that the key to making advances in videoconference technology lies in reinvention, adding features that enhance the remote experience, rather than simply trying to replicate an office meeting: “The challenge is, how do we produce a remote networking collaboration platform that brings additional elements?” One answer, he says, is real-time on-screen translation for meetings in which participants speak different languages – a clear example of remote technology offering advantages over the face-to-face alternative.
Another is to push the boundaries of the conventional video-conferencing format. London-based startup Hopin, for example, is an online events platform that allows users to move in and out of rooms almost as if they’re in an office, encouraging better virtual collaboration.
The wellbeing of home-working employees has become a major concern for organisations. The opportunity to disconnect from work is compromised when individuals are reachable 24/7, and the lack of a daily commute can mean it’s hard to draw a line between domestic and working life. This can lead to burnout and negatively affects mental health.
Yet the move to digital has created a range of opportunities in this space. Like many face-to-face activities that moved online to the virtual sphere, personal coaching has benefited from increased popularity in the newly digitised world of work. And, crucially, it has become democratised. As Nick Goldberg, CEO of digital coaching platform Ezra points out, “in a pre-pandemic world, coaching tended to be the preserve of those in the upper echelons of corporations – this has changed over the past 12 months as more organisations connect their wider workforce with virtual coaches.”
Increased opportunities for personal development can only be a good thing, and it’s possible that the wellbeing of home workers, as well as their professional career development, could also be addressed by these digital platforms.
Startups are leaping into the remote-working fray: FocusMate and Caveday allow home workers to enjoy the company of a virtual co-worker, who helps to ensure they meet their goals. The idea is to recreate the sense of being in a shared office, surrounded by colleagues. According to Bernal, new time-saving technologies are being developed that can summarise video calls and give you the best snippets, meaning you can spend five-minutes where you would normally spend half an hour.
There are also wider ramifications to working from home, as the pressures of domestic life can have implications for diversity and gender equality. Howells points out that AstraZeneca discovered more female employees than male employees were taking on homeschooling responsibilities during lockdown. The company’s solution? Hire 90 teachers and deliver online classes for AZ employees’ children.
Into the future
It’s clear there are still many challenges ahead – but also opportunities to rethink how we work. Take the inflexible daily regimen of the working week, which many find incompatible with the new landscape. Perhaps one answer is to bin it completely. Asynchronous working, where employees work according to their own agenda, is “the Holy Grail of remote working” for Raman Bhatia, COO of Ovo Energy, claiming it offers workforces a much greater degree of flexibility.
Corporate real estate has been one of the big losers since the arrival of the pandemic, as HQs sit empty and companies look to downsize their office footprints. For those that choose to keep some office presence, reinvesting real-estate savings in collaborative technologies will be vital if we are to overcome the “tale of two offices” predicted by Bernal.
Technology will be a key enabler in this and offices will need to deploy the right solutions to allow remote workers to join in, feel connected and have parity with their office-based colleagues.
Videoconferencing technology will continue to evolve. It’s been invaluable for keeping teams and projects going, and has taken centre stage in much daily office business – but there is room for improvement. Injecting informality into a formalised meeting is one hurdle; “I’d love to see some technology to do that without it being the little digital hand that comes up to say, ‘Can I speak next?’” says Howells.
The events of 2020 triggered a huge transformation in the way we work – but it was just the beginning of a longer journey, much of which was begun in haste and reactively. The next steps in ensuring businesses are fit for the future of work will require further and more purposeful innovation, greater flexibility and a host of new digital tools that place workers at their heart. From coaching apps to virtual coworking, improving connectivity and fostering positive employee experiences regardless of location, the evolved workplace offers support through new embracing new technology.