The future workplace in an uncertain world: how can businesses adapt?

In the past decade, innovations in digital connectivity coupled with employee demands for flexible working conditions have inspired a reevaluation of the traditional business model. Many companies are now embracing a culture that welcomes remote working to increase productivity and staff morale – a trend never more relevant than now as millions have spent recent weeks working from home to control the spread of Covid-19.

As lockdown restrictions begin to relax, businesses are starting to consider what a return to the office might look like. Employees’ reactions to home working have been varied. Some have benefited from the flexibility of remote working as they have been better able to manage their work-life balance, while others have struggled with the isolation and are looking forward to an opportunity to physically interact with friends and colleagues again. What they all have in common is a realisation that technology is able to provide the vital link between co-workers, customers and supply chains when physical contact is not possible. As the world begins to open up, many people will be expecting their employers to adopt workplace policies where they can choose how, where and even when they work.

Although models will likely vary from one firm to the next, many companies are now focused on finding a more balanced, ‘hybrid’ approach that offers staff a mix of home and office working. This structure is best able to deliver the physical interaction that humans need to thrive, with the convenience, flexibility and cost-efficiency of remote working. Advancing technologies are facilitating this, empowering unprecedented collaboration in the workplace and revolutionising the way that colleagues and clients communicate and share data with each other. Team working, in many cases, can now be effectively maintained regardless of location: a benefit well suited to the spread of globalisation, international business practices, and now, the requirement to maintain social distance for the foreseeable future.

Company leaders are being told by their respective governments worldwide to reduce staff numbers in the workplace to ensure physical distance is maintained. Consultations with employees are ongoing, but many workers are likely to be asked to continue to work from home while others will be requested to attend the office on designated days, and in smaller groups. For most, communication will continue via video conferencing and virtual meeting tools, technologies that have already proved their effectiveness during lockdown. Having fewer staff permanently based in an office has additional benefits. Office space can, over time, be stripped back: lowering financial overheads, while hours wasted on crowded commutes can be put towards more productive endeavours. A reduction in travel and international business trips will also have a positive effect on the planet, as show over the past months with a noticeable reduction in carbon emissions globally.

This more fluid workplace structure also lends itself to the popular freelance economy where workers are brought in as and when required in response to market demands. Contractors largely work from home as they are a temporary workforce and readily engage with technologies that enable remote collaboration. In this way, businesses will also be able to react swiftly to market changes and manage human resourcing investment or disruption as they meet the challenges of a troubled economy.

The pandemic has also seen a big increase in the number of employees using their own devices and software solutions to interact with co-workers. The ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) culture, fuelled by an explosion of personal hardware ownership, has resulted in a growth in efficiency as it delivers a more agile workforce where employees can use their own laptops and mobile phones to work on the move. While this trend has already been firmly embedded in many companies prior to the pandemic, lockdown has seen it gather momentum as employees have been forced to source alternatives to office hardware.

There is also a rapid proliferation of people using not only their own devices but wanting to choose their own conferencing software solutions – what people are calling ‘Bring Your Own Meeting’, or BYOM. This has been gaining traction with the recent explosion in popularity of solutions like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and many more. People often have a preference for a particular solution, and do not want to be told they can only use the ‘official’ company system. Businesses must now build flexibility into their technology frameworks to enable employees to interact with each other using the conferencing and virtual meeting tools that they know and trust.

Of course, security is a key priority for all organisations as sensitive data is being transferred across networks and being accessed by external devices and software solutions. There needs to be a mindset shift around this potential security threat. With the right technology, security measures and training of employees, the risks can be mitigated. Apprehension surrounding employees using their own devices and software solutions to access internal infrastructure are justified, but there are strong cyber safeguards that can be implemented to protect company networks and safeguard the integrity of those devices logging on. IT systems can protect themselves from cyberattacks by ensuring that appropriate identification and authorisation steps are taken during set-up and all transferred data is encrypted. Personal devices are often lost or stolen providing opportunities for unauthorised access to sensitive company data. Remote device management software can help to negate this threat. 

Without a vaccine, the threat of a resurgence of the virus remains ever-present. Committing to a hybrid model where employees can work remotely if and when required will deliver the necessary agility should there be a second wave. A business which has the flexibility to fine tune its infrastructure to the needs of its people and to events beyond its control will be at a distinct advantage. The disruption to normal working life from Covid-19 has been huge, and technology has become even more vital in recent months. But it must be remembered that these trends were happening long before Covid-19. As people return to work, they will expect a structure where remote working plays a bigger role in their working week. By meeting this demand, empowered by digital collaboration tools, companies can give their employees the best possible chance of doing their job effectively, safely and productively, no matter what the next few months might hold.

Lieven Bertier is the Segment Director, Workplace at Barco ClickShare

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