It is just over a year since the US and major European nations declared lockdowns and stay-at-home orders as part of their strategies to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. The bleak picture of spring 2020 is now a lot brighter as vaccines are distributed, infection rates begin to track downwards and life seems to be in the long, slow process of getting back to some kind of normality.
In the world of work, getting back to normal, or at least business as usual before Covid-19, seems highly unlikely. Some companies are preparing for a return to the office, others not at all. The vast majority are prepping for a future based around hybrid working. The bottom line is that companies will have to accommodate these differing needs and create an IT and networking infrastructure to do so.
What will supporting this new normal mean in the world of the new hybrid workforce? And, more importantly, what are the likely key challenges and pitfalls to be avoided, both in terms of technology and support for the remote workforce, because businesses and workers may not be on the same page of the hybrid working playbook.
Precise data as to how much change has occurred over the past year is hard to obtain, but a great metric can be found in looking at the state of business at Zoom Video Communications. This once small-time video-conferencing supplier was the undoubted breakout star of the last year, keeping businesses ticking by providing a cheap and simple way for remote workers to stay connected and collaborate effectively.
And performance can be assessed Jerry Maguire style: “Show me the money”. At the end of a year when the world seemed to pivot to remote working almost overnight, Zoom showed extraordinary growth.
At the end of its financial year on 31 January 2021, Zoom announced fourth-quarter revenue of $882.5m, up 369% year on year, and full-year revenue of $2.65bn, up 326% year on year. Its fourth-quarter income from operations was $256.1m, up 2,327% on a yearly basis, and full fiscal year income from operations was $659.8m, up 5,097% year on year.
The key driver to the company’s remarkable financial growth was a commensurate increase in acquiring new customers and expanding across existing customers. At the end of the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020/2021, Zoom had about 467,100 customers with more than 10 employees, up a staggering 470% from the equivalent quarter in the 2019/2020 fiscal year, with 1,644 customers contributing more than $100,000 in the previous 12 months, 156% up from the same quarter the previous year.
So people are obviously using collaboration technology, but is it being deployed effectively? This has been a common consideration for businesses tasked with addressing virtual fatigue among remote workers as they continue to support the hybrid model while planning for a return to the office for some. Simplifying the implementation of a hybrid work strategy is something firms will have to face.
But putting into practice the hybrid concept that many have talked about is no small task. Companies will need to carefully consider how they manage and operate their workspaces, wherever they are, and develop more fluid work schedules and business models.
It seems that a year after fundamental changes occurred in how they work, UK employees have been propelled into a brave new world and may actually fear going back to the “bad” old days and ways of doing business.
Digital transformations accelerated
An April 2021 study from the the Workforce Institute at UKG revealed that as a result of the pandemic and subsequently adopting remote working and adapting to the new hybrid model of working, 87% of UK employers had accelerated their digital transformation projects and 86% said they were enjoying the benefits of these new technologies.
This was evidenced by more than three-quarters (76%) of those surveyed saying they had used at least one new technology or application during the crisis. More than one-third (36%) had used mobile applications to complete some work activities and nearly a quarter (24%) were empowered to use more self-service systems. Asked to what degree they felt the pandemic had accelerated these transformation projects, three-quarters said by between one and three years.
Looking at how IT departments had prepared for the new working environment, their actions varied during the crisis, with 34% accelerating a critical technology deployment, 30% deciding to replace a software supplier, and 29% saying they had “found” budget to pursue a technology improvement that was previously thought too expensive or unnecessary.
And 44% of all UK workers, regardless of level, said their company’s pandemic response would have been smoother had they implemented modern technologies as part of their standard strategy, instead of waiting for the pandemic to unravel. A slightly smaller percentage felt their organisation had been slow to embrace new technologies before the pandemic.
Another study from Avaya suggested that it may be a little premature to expect to see the office experience return to something approaching normal, even though the same process is now happening with UK shops, bars and restaurants. Indeed, the communications technology provider found that UK workers had no great desire to return to the office and were finding happiness in the ability to work from anywhere.
Hybrid model of work
In its study Life and work beyond 2020, Avaya attempted to take the emotional pulse of the nation as it moves beyond the pandemic and found that 46% of UK employees said they loved the idea of being able to work from anywhere in the future, while only 10% strongly disliked that concept. This means a key requirement for business success in 2021 and beyond will be building a hybrid model of work that suits the needs of every employee.
The research also found that UK workers are among the most appreciative of work-from-anywhere models, with 44% saying that the ability to conduct hybrid work – from a home or office – would contribute to their happiness and almost three-fifths (57%) saying they have felt happier over the past year as a result of working from home.
However, there were a number of concerns among UK workers as they navigate the new world of work and look to what the future will bring. One-third were found to be worried about having to go back to meeting people in the work environment, although the study also revealed a strong motivation to address such employee concerns. Nearly three-quarters said their productivity improves when they are happy.
One hugely important revelation from the Avaya study concerns the technology remote workers depend on. More than half of UK workers (55%) felt they had the right technology to work from wherever they wanted and were equipped for remote working, but 45% cited frustration when their employer did not use technology that would make them more productive. This rose to 61% for those with a partner and children at home.
Assessing what these findings mean for businesses and technology providers, Steve Joyner, managing director, UK and Ireland, at Avaya, says the study highlights the need for employers to provide clear guidance on what their future of work might look like. “We all know that a happy employee is a productive one, and technology, where it’s needed to support an employee to do their tasks well, is critical,” he says.
“Today’s home office is a mishmash of various technologies, and employees are trying to do the best they can with the communication tools available to them – but bear in mind that often these aren’t as efficient as what they had in the office. I would encourage employers to move towards what we call a more ‘composable’ technology architecture, delivering a set of communication components that can be easily leveraged and combined to deliver a more effective employee experience, even when working outside the business office.”
Awareness among IT leaders will be absolutely critical for maintaining what will be the fundamental business model for virtually all companies in the new hybrid workplace. And given how successful people have been in adapting to the routine of remote working since the outbreak of Covid-19, it may be wise for IT leaders to assume that organisations plan to adopt a different operating model than they had before the pandemic and focus on ensuring a new and productive employee experience.
However, an April 2020 study from Unisys warned that as a hybrid workforce becomes the new business reality, organisations must look beyond simply providing access to enterprise resources. The study showed that concerns about remote working differ significantly. Overall, employees were far more positive about the new remote working model, with one-third not seeing any, or just a few, noticeable challenges that come with remote working.
For example, although 55% of business leaders said access to the most up-to-date technology for the task at hand was key to an ideal employee experience, only 43% of employees found this important. Similarly, business leaders appeared to show much more concern around the practicalities of remote working than employees did. For 38% of business leaders, difficulties communicating and working with other team members was a concern, but only 24% of employees felt the same.
Using unfamiliar or new work-from-home technologies was seen as a challenge by 41% of business leaders, but only one-tenth of employees. And although 38% of business leaders were concerned about the lack of management oversight and visibility as a result of home working, only 7% of employees had such concerns. The same percentage of business leaders were worried about potential difficulties in accessing data, but only 11% of employees saw this as a challenge.
No return to 2019
These challenges cannot be ignored. Some permanent patterns of work have now been established, and Holly Muscolino, research vice-president for content strategies and the future of work at analyst firm IDC, says it is clear that, for most organisations, there will be no return to the business models of 2019.
Holly Muscolino, IDC
“One of the outcomes of 2020 has been the rapid technology, process and policy adjustments that most organisations have made to support hybrid ways of working,” she says. “Across the globe, almost 40% of the workforce was forced to shift to remote working almost overnight, while the remaining 60% continued to adapt and find new, safer ways to do their jobs.
“Now we know that, for most, there will be no return to the business models of 2019. Remote employees will continue to comprise almost one-quarter of the global workforce, albeit with some variability across industries. The hybrid workforce – remote, on-site, in the field and transitioning between locations – is here to stay, and the temporary changes that organisations put in place throughout 2020 must become permanent going forward.”
The bottom line is that workers’ computing environments need to be agile and flexible enough to enable people to work and collaborate with colleagues wherever they are based, while remaining secure and manageable. And despite the lack of certainty over the past year, this new permanence is one that IT leaders may well have to take to the bank.