How the Pandemic has Permanently Changed the Workplace
Despite our desire for things to return to ‘normal’, it is inevitable that some of the changes to our working lives brought about by the pandemic will remain permanently. In this article my aim is to inform leadership teams in small to medium businesses to help them plan for the future. I lay out some logical (some might say “obvious”) predictions and the impact this will have on technology priorities in their business.
1. Shift to home working
Historically, there were several key barriers to shifting staff to a remote working model:
- Reluctance of management to relinquish control of staff
- Disruption to business operations
- Cost of implementation
- Anxiety about behavioural change
As lockdown forced businesses to quickly adapt to working outside a central office, these objections have been mostly overcome.
We now know that it is possible to run our businesses with staff working remotely:
- The necessary reduction in perceived control of employees has had significant benefits
- The disruption of transition has happened and the new way of working is OK
- The money has been spent to get everyone up and working and in many cases it wasn’t that expensive
- Familiarity with the tools needed and the changed ways of doing things has been achieved
Most importantly, this has been achieved across entire sectors. The new ways we work, communicate and use technology have become a common language – everyone knows how to use Teams or Zoom, we are tolerant of pets and children interrupting meetings, formal workwear is no longer essential. That has removed the friction of early adoption and continues to fuel uptake.
While working in one central location will always have its benefits – and for some businesses it’s a necessity – with the traditional barriers removed and a raft of benefits realised, a significant shift to home working will remain.
2. Accelerating online activity
With the continued need for social distancing, and resulting reluctance of people to interact, use public transport etc., online working and social interaction will increase.
As online audience and their technology competence increases, so organisations will adapt to enhancing and creating their services to be accessible access across the Internet.
I see a circle of accelerating online activity – increased demand fuelling growth in services resulting in further demand.
3. New relationships with customers and prospects
Unable to meet face-to-face with existing customers and new prospects, we have grown accustomed to video calls. For some, especially sales professionals, there is no replacement for ‘pressing the flesh’ but this will not be an option for many.
Video calling will remain a primary mode of sales engagement, particularly for those that are at increased risk from illness, and for businesses relying on a reduction in their travel and entertaining budgets.
With the advancing capability of video meeting software – such as screen sharing, online presentations, and break out rooms – It will not be good enough to simply replace face-to-face interaction with technology. There is an opportunity to adapt to provide even higher levels of engagement with prospects and existing customers. Not only for the benefit of the relationship but also to stand out from competitors and gain commercial advantage.
To achieve this it will be essential to provide an impression of competence, responsiveness and knowledge.
4. Focus on business efficiency
We’ve all seen the predicted impacts on the economy, and even with the most optimistic outlook there will be money to pay back and a slow return to an economically scarred new ‘normal’. Businesses will be focused on reducing costs and doing more with their remaining resources because there is less money to go around.
The Impact on Technology Priorities
From a technology perspective these changes will have impacts in several areas:
1. Virtualise office technology in the cloud
As work patterns change, the need to maintain a permanent office is reduced. The drive to minimise costs will make this an attractive fixed cost to dispense with.
To achieve such a change the centralised technology (servers, firewalls, VPNs) currently residing in the office, will need to be moved to an alternative location or virtualised in the cloud.
The longer term return on investment of this capital project will be enhanced efficiency through further simplification of remote working.
2. Increased importance of the home office
With the shift to home working, the resilience of the home office will need to increase for key employees.
Desktop and laptop machines will need to be fit for purpose:
- powerful enough to keep staff productive
- managed to ensure they run optimally
- dedicated for work use so that the organisation retains control of data.
Older webcams and omnidirectional microphones create a poor impression in a web meeting, especially in group meetings where blurry video and background noise are apparent in comparison to better equipped attendees.
Residential connectivity packages compromise resilience to keep prices down. They experience more dropouts. It take longer to resolve problems . The helpdesk support services of the big home Internet providers are notoriously frustrating to use and slow to resolve problems. Sharing a connection with home users can also disrupt communication during working hours.
As a result, equipping the home office with dedicated business equipment will improve productivity, reduce frustration, reduce risk and maintain perceived professionalism:
- Correctly specified workstations and laptops
- All devices professionally managed and secured
- A business grade Internet connection
- Separate robust Wi-Fi
3. Closing gaps in cyber security
Whenever there is a change to a system or a way of working, gaps in cyber defences open up. Those gaps allow the potential loss, theft, corruption or compromise of business data. It’s a big risk and one that every business needs to keep on top of. Examples of vulnerabilities that are exacerbated in the new working model are:
- Lack of password management
- The use of personal devices
- Changes to access permissions for sensitive data
- Loss of control of company data
- Forgetting backups
- Unencrypted hard disks on laptops
4. Demonstrate competence
A robust and reliable system goes a long way to creating the right impression in the eyes of customers, prospects, investors, and suppliers. It is not, however, the whole story.
Your staff need to demonstrate their competence in the use of their system. They need to be able to take advantage of extended features to help them stand out. They will need to be adequately trained and supported to do this.
As an organisation, new ways of communication will bring a greater need to demonstrate that you are adhering to good business practise. This is particularly important around areas such as privacy, data protection and cyber security. Demonstrable certification such as Cyber Essentials, ISO27001 and adhering to the requirements of GDPR, will help achieve this.
5. Automating repetitive tasks
Microsoft’s recent purchase of Softomotive is evidence of the growing importance of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in small businesses. This is a wide ranging technology, but at its simplest it allows the automation of regular repetitive tasks, carried out by a person or group of people. This frees up key staff to work on more interesting and valuable projects for the business.
6. Outsourcing non-core activity
With a significant downturn in income for many, cutting costs and focussing key employees on core activity will become a necessity. The outsourcing of technology management in particular will become more attractive.
At it’s most basic, outsourced IT takes away the tedious management and support of technology from expensive and highly skilled employees. The resulting benefits to a business are reduced costs and increased agility. A good IT provider will offer flexibility of service options, short notice periods, 24/7 support, access to a wide range of skills and an in-depth understanding of the technology and budgetary needs of small to medium businesses.
One of the most important aspects of an outsourced IT relationship is that your objectives are aligned. Your provider is motivated to reduce the disruption to your business by fixing problems permanently; finding efficiencies and simplifying the overall solution.
There is no doubt that many of the changes to our working life will remain in this new world. They will consign some businesses to a painful contraction or even put them out of existence. For most, though, the order of the day will be adaptation – adjusting expectations, balancing spending with income, redefining processes and business models, retaining customers, finding new business.
As far as technology goes ensure that you:
- Budget to enable cost saving measures such as getting rid of the office
- Equip, train and support your staff
- Maintain cyber security defences as your ways of working change
- Demonstrate good business practice in your use of technology
- Use technology to enable your team to enhance business relationships
- Enhance business efficiency through automation and outsourcing
If you are an owner or in the leadership team of a small to medium business based in London, and would like to discuss any of these subject further then please do not hesitate to get in touch with me.