Homework: how we coped and what can we do better?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced rapid digital transformation. With no end in sight, how can we improve our approach to the new normal? Homeworking will be essential to future operations, requiring improved broadband and more trust in employees.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently described the migration to homeworking as “two years of digital transformation in two months.” Logitech estimates a billion people now work from home. Survey after survey says remote working is popular, productive and here to stay.

Gartner data reveals 47% of business leaders say their organizations will let employees continue working from home in the future. Tej Parikh, Chief Economist at the Institute of Directors, observed: “For employers and workers, remote working has worked better than expected. Many will be reluctant to return to the daily grind of commuting.” A recent report from Cardiff and Southampton Universities in the U.K. says 90% of those who have worked from home during the crisis would like to continue to do so.

However, the European Commission believes the most damaging impacts of lockdown were concentrated on the most disadvantaged workers, particularly those in low-wage, precarious industries where remote working isn’t possible.

First responders

Some nations were better prepared. Advanced European economies such as the Nordics, Germany and Estonia were already encouraging remote working. While just 4.7% of U.S. workers usually worked remotely pre-pandemic, 14.1% of the Netherlands workforce did so, forming a “brains trust” of local support to help less tech-savvy workers get online during the crisis, easing the transition. Workers with strong digital skills were better positioned, an E.U. report claims.

The transition also exposed cultural differences: while some nations already supported remote working, others focused on presenteeism. Germany now plans to give workers the right to work remotely, while Dutch workplace culture sees more trust placed in workers, assessing value by achievement rather than time served. Aukje Nauta, Organizational Psychology Professor at the University of Leiden, told the BBC: “Employers…are now learning employees can be trusted to work from home.”

National response also impacted performance. The data suggests that those nations that locked down hard and early are experiencing fewer casualties and are maintaining stronger economies than those that did not. New Zealand is the poster child of this approach.

Infrastructure is everything

Homeworking effectiveness is partly to do with where you live. Workers with good Internet connectivity got productive quickly. A study by Tufts University Fletcher School of 42 countries found that those nations that entered the pandemic with robust digital infrastructure and enacted measures to encourage remote working and social distancing experienced less economic damage and fewer outbreaks than those that did not or those who moved too slowly.

The World Bank noted that businesses in nations with poorly-developed broadband provision suffered economically, as newly-remote workers struggled to get online. This is particularly visible in otherwise advanced economies where broadband deployments in remote and rural areas may lag, leaving communities in those places at a disadvantage. According to the World Bank, “Social distancing measures may widen existing economic gaps between and within countries.” In some cases, this meant essential tasks that could be handled remotely in nations equipped with robust network infrastructure could not be in others.

During the lockdown, workers grappled with challenges, including mental health, domestic violence, childcare, and the need to set expectations with others around work and family time. The change has also exposed challenges in housing design, particularly in shared homes.

Virtual business contacts

Gartner believes in-person meetings will account for just 25% of all corporate meetings by 2024, down from 60% pre-pandemic. Trade shows have become virtual: Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others all swapped major conferences for online events. While this made it easier for people to attend, it also added to the level of damage suffered by the travel, hospitality and other service industry sectors.

Social distancing means people have chosen to use collaborative tools such as Zoom and Teams. This is driving innovation in that space: Zoom recently introduced new tools to integrate third-party applications within Zoom meetings and support training and events via its platform.

Remote working is also impacting the office rental markets as companies reposition these spaces as resource hubs for the future remote workforce. In the UK, Barclays boss Jes Staley says his bank is rethinking its location strategy in this way: “The notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past,” he said. Many other large companies are thinking similarly, reprising offices as places workers visit when they need to, not because they must.

This is changing footfall patterns in central business districts, damaging service industries there. Meanwhile, locally-based, socially distant coffee shops/co-working locations equipped with secure, robust broadband are emerging to service the needs of new remote workers. Workers are also taking the opportunity to become digital nomads.

Preparing for even more waves

The pandemic exposes challenges around employee onboarding, telephony, network bandwidth, data and endpoint security for remote workers. There is a need to develop best-practice models to help guide the management of complex workforces comprised of remote, flexible, part- and full-time workers, based on- and off-site. At least one listed company has explained its approach to employee onboarding– remote communication and direct contact with the CEO.

The Netherlands may provide a little insight. Even before the pandemic, its workplace culture favored autonomy and personal responsibility, values employees took home when they went remote. This enabled the local economy to remain relatively strong compared to less well-prepared nations

Trust and flexibility have become business essentials in the new normal.

The COVID-19 pandemic is allowing businesses to discover the full potential of working remotely. Listen to this Orange Silicon Valley on-demand webinar to hear about emerging technologies to empower a distributed workforce and examples of “Remote First” policies and how they work.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.