Believe it or not, the current pandemic will eventually pass. And when it does, offices will return in some capacity and at some point soon.
But what's not returning is the idea that white-collar work begins and ends with packing everyone into the same building for eight hours a day, five days a week. In the not-so-distant future, that concept could be as outdated as the three-martini lunch.
But will we replace it with a concept of work that's easier for workers, or one that's just easier for the company? And what other permanent changes has a full year of dramatic global upheavals introduced? Here's what a variety of experts across a range of tech industries have to say.
The post-pandemic changes:
Let's address the obvious and biggest change first: the white-collar workforce isn't going back to required physical presence in an office any time soon. Employees have mastered new tools to help them work remotely and employers have piloted the concept, whether they originally wanted to or not.
Interestingly, companies were already trending towards digital work before the pandemic, with all the tech and security upgrades that such a shift entails.
“It's worth noting that 70% of companies have been working on digital transformation before the pandemic hit,” Candace Helton, operations director at Ringspo, tells me. But the pandemic tipped their hands, and the resulting change in work cultures around the globe will push even more businesses to accept remote options as the new normal.
“Employers will find it hard to demand a nine-to-five regiment after a year of people working without the stress of rush hour, and realising just how much it was tiring them out before they even reached work each day,” says Ethan Taub, CEO at Creditry.
In fact, a recent Cato Networks survey of enterprise IT leaders found just seven percent of respondents indicated that everyone will move back to the office, an incredibly low number by any measure. Another survey hinted that it is the lack of a commute that workers really love: 79% of respondents named it as the main reason they preferred staying remote.
And, the move helps more than just the average worker:
“People of all kinds have been advocating for the option to work remotely at least part time for years now,” says Nerissa Zhang, CEO of The Bright App. “The pandemic forcing so many companies to adopt systems of remote work has vindicated the calls for remote work from parents, people with disabilities, those with long commutes.”
Still, there's something to be said for getting everyone together in the same physical location. It eases communication, adds a sense of camaraderie, and aids fast decision-making due to impromptu get-togethers.
Don't expect office spaces to completely disappear, even if many employees visit just once a week, rather than five times.
There will be a few repercussions to a remote work boom. If you're in the travel business, you'll likely never see quite as many business-suited travellers again. In addition, job seekers won't be able to look locally.
“As businesses become accustomed to working with a remote workforce (and reap the benefits), it will become harder for job seekers to find work locally, which means that they'll have to broaden their search,” argues Lance Wilkins, founder at Call Outdoors.
There's also the possibility that work and life can become too integrated. Sure, it's nice to put a load of laundry in the wash between meetings, but the psychological result of fully blending the two modes could wind up increasing work stress by creating an environment where your next deadline (or next domestic chore) is always in the back of your mind.
Not everyone sees it that way, though. I have to admit that it fully depends on how a business chooses to enforce its remote work policy.
“Co-workers are now invited into each others’ homes, and we get to meet their pets and family and see more of their own surroundings,” says Diane Gayeski, Ph.D. and thought-leader in business communications and performance improvement. “This actually has led to more open and trusting relationships, especially breaking down some of the barriers between departments and levels of management.”
Can the workforce of the future truly benefit from the permanent flexibility that we'll likely see in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic? Or will these new company policies coalesce into an always-on distributed workforce that's even more omnipresent in our lives? We're going to find out.
Company cultures everywhere have already taken plenty of hits across 2020, and will suffer for the foreseeable future as well. Office snacks? Can't eat them remotely. Pool tables? Can't play. Stipends for gas? Forget about it. If everyone stays remote once the pandemic's over, the old ways of boosting morale and rewarding hard work will need to evolve as well.
One potential solution to encouraging team spirit that you might not have seen coming? Intracompany podcasts.
“Podcasting helps to deliver memorable and engaging content that impacts your corporate culture, gets people talking and sharing, and has them asking the right questions,” says Jen Grogono, CEO at uStudio. “And with media streams, every minute is measurable, so you can better understand content impact and employee satisfaction.”
The solution is already popular in the consumer world, Grogono notes, so it can feel natural in the workplace as well, all without requiring employees to sink their short supply of energy into learning new behaviors. And spoken audio experience brings with it an immediacy that helps businesses securely connect their teams.
Sure, we have digital events today. But it's a safe bet that they'll stick around even if everyone's safely vaccinated.
The biggest indicator that virtual events are here to stay is that the concept was gaining popularity even before the pandemic made them a sure thing. Now that we've been forced to try them on for a year or two, we'll have a chance to iron out the kinks.
“Events are trending towards more digital, personalized, and targeted attendee experiences. This is a transformation that had been happening, and the pandemic just accelerated the timeline,” says Bob Priest-Heck, CEO at events company Freeman. He notes that the shift opens up new opportunities: New audiences, geographies, data, and the chance to test out new verticals in a digital space.
“It will be important to approach the in-person component with a quality over quantity mindset by looking at smaller and more regional gatherings, initially, with a larger audience participating online,” he adds.
In the end, anything that aids in “portability, flexibility, ease-of-use, and integrated support” is a key tenet of technology in the newly reimagined workplace, as Andrew Gross, Director of UC Enterprise at Crestron puts it.
Online security was never exactly iron-clad to begin with, but our accelerated shift to remote work brings with it a new level of security vulnerabilities.
Those working from can suffer from phishing attempts and hacks that will expose their work information to bad actors, raising two big security concerns in 2021 and on: identity access management (IAM) and identity governance and administration (IGA).
“According to the Identity Defined Security Alliance,” says Avatier founder and CEO Nelson Cicchitto, “94% of organizations have suffered an identity-related breach including 79% in the last two years. The most common form of attack is phishing, according to 66% of those surveyed, and there was a 667% increase in phishing attacks in March 2020, the first month of the pandemic, and most of those attacks targeted remote workers. It’s no wonder that improving IAM and IGA has become a priority.”
Cicchitto sees identity management as a growing concern for everyone, and cautions that mobile devices and web browsers are just as important to secure as remote laptops.
Some of the tech changes might not be visible to the casual observer, but they'll further entrench cloud-based software as the future of the world. Take digital signs as an example.
“More organizations are opting for cloud-based software over traditional USB sticks,” says Alistair Cousins, marketing executive at TrouDigital. “With cloud-based software, the user can stay at home and control a screen network.”
The practice ups efficiency, saves money, and reduces on-premises employees. Sure, every company adapting to a hybrid or fully distributed workforce will also need to look into traditional cloud collaboration tools like remote access software or video conferencing, but a whole host of other applications will benefit from going remote as well.
With more remote workers everywhere, certain tasks will become trickier. One big challenge is in cross-company collaboration, which required keeping a lot of plates spinning even when people largely worked in-person. When it's all remote, the stakes will get higher.
“In the past year, the world has seen a rapid rise in the demand of technology that integrates different applications and software in a cross-company environment,” says Francis Martens, CEO of Exalate. “After things go back to ‘normal' this technology will remain in place which will result in a world where companies are interconnected and information and collaboration becomes easier due to this technology.”
In short: The future will be more connected than ever. But it will be more remote and distributed than ever before as well. There's a chance we'll get more disconnected and more impersonal in the process, but with the right new software and the right business practices, we might all wind up more connected and effective than ever.
Hopefully the tips and foresight included in this article can help point businesses towards the right solutions as they find their own way of evolving in a post-pandemic world.