Businesses around the world were forced to adopt remote working almost overnight as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the planet. Technology provided the vital link between business leaders, employees, customers and supply chains as the world learned how to adjust to the ‘new normal’. Now, as we begin to emerge from lockdown, it’s clear that the crisis brought some quite essential changes in the way we work & collaborate — today and in future. Our organizations are finally embracing a truly hybrid model of remote and in-office working.
Remote working has been a well-established trend for some time. Many businesses — particularly larger global organizations that need to empower their employees to be able operate in the same way wherever they are in the world — have invested heavily in the technologies and working practices needed to deliver truly flexible working.
Now, the lockdown has seen almost every business in the world forced to suddenly follow suit. Some have thrived — finding new ways to work with technology to improve productivity, enable real-time collaboration and bring anxious, isolated employees together to find solutions to shared challenges. Others, particularly those in sectors where face-to-face physical meetings take place and where the right technologies are not entrenched, have struggled to cope and maintain “business as usual” in these highly difficult times.
Regardless of how organizations have responded to the crisis, they have discovered the shift to remote working. What’s clear is that there will not be a return to the world of before COVID-19. As we begin to think about how the pandemic has changed how companies and employees want to do business moving forward, here are five key workplace trends to consider.
COVID-19 will have changed how many people feel about collaboration and communication
The reaction to lockdown among employees, and their feelings about returning to the office once lockdown is lifted, have been varied. Some, who used to travel extensively for business, may be reconsidering the need in a post-pandemic world and want their company to facilitate more virtual engagement.
Others will have realized that they can work just as effectively from home and want a more balanced mix of office and home-based working. There will also be many who want to return to the office full-time as soon as possible, craving the human interaction that being office-based delivers.
As lockdowns ease, more companies are considering a more balanced “hybrid” approach wherein employees’ time is split between the office and working remotely from home. Having seen that remote working does not necessarily hit productivity levels, while also helping deliver added benefits such as reducing travel hours, business expenses and carbon footprint, most companies are certainly now looking at further embracing this hybrid model going forward.
Technology will define success or failure in the ‘new normal’
Before the crisis hit, virtual meetings were exponentially on the rise. Gartner recently forecast that the proportion of enterprise meetings conducted face-to-face will drop from 60% now to 25% by 2024, driven by remote work and changing workforce demographics. And while we don’t know yet how the post-pandemic world of work will look, there is very little to suggest COVID-19 will have done anything other than accelerate this trend.
Getting the technology right will be crucial for companies looking to navigate this new workplace landscape. Companies are searching for solutions that can enable effective collaboration and communication in both the physical and virtual worlds.
Those hosting conferences from office meeting rooms, for example, are looking at how they can wirelessly connect peripheral camera and microphone equipment to their own screens and stream that rich, audio-visual content to remote workers to enhance their virtual experience. There’s an increased interest in wireless conferencing solutions which merge in-room collaboration technology with the ability to connect with colleagues anywhere in the world, for precisely this reason.
There is a crucial scalability aspect to this. Building a workforce around a hybrid approach, balancing a mix of physical and virtual interaction, provides the flexibility to increase and decrease resourcing according to organizational requirements. Businesses can react swiftly to market shifts and grow workforces and customize digital capacity with minimal investment or disruption.
Security is the other key consideration here. As the use of virtual communication and collaborative technologies expand, businesses will need to ensure their cybersecurity measures are robust as ever-increasing amounts of sensitive content travels across internal networks and the cloud via multiple devices and software solutions.
Employees will want to be trusted to use whatever technology solution they feel comfortable with
While the majority of people do still use company-supplied hardware, the COVID-19 crisis has seen a big increase in the number of employees using their own devices to join conference calls and virtual meetings or exchange documents and data with colleagues. This was on the rise before lockdown, but has been exponentially accelerated by the enforced period of working from home.
The next stage of evolution in this trend is showing — what has been dubbed “Bring Your Own Meeting” (BYOM) — whereby employees not only want to use their own laptop or device, but also their own preferred video-conferencing software. Employees do not want to be forced to use the ‘official’ company solution; they want the freedom to choose the tool they are most comfortable with and which empowers them to perform at their best.
A Future of Meetings research study — compiled in late 2019 by Barco, a leading wireless communications and collaboration firm — identified a clear demand from employees for greater flexibility on this point, even before the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. On average, employees used six different conferencing solutions in the previous six months, while 72% of people were taking their own laptops into meeting rooms. People have also become far more accepting of technology as a way to enhance team-working. In total, 76% agreed that technology should play a central role in all collaborative sessions, particularly where they include remote attendees.
Companies will need to invest in more dynamic technologies
The COVID-19 lockdown has shown us that digital collaboration can be just as productive as physical meetings; however, human interaction can often be what’s lacking. It can be harder for remote participants to engage in a meeting as much those attending in-room: something that was backed by Barco’s own research.
Almost half (45%) of those surveyed feel less important when joining remotely, while 43% feel frustrated or disengaged. As enterprises look to the future, they need to be designing meeting rooms that enable virtual participants to feel part of the action and engage with other participants as if they are there in the room — and it is technology that will facilitate this.
Over the past few weeks, employees have also been discovering things they can do in virtual meetings that they didn’t even know were possible. From webinars to digital whiteboards to virtual breakout groups, a host of creative and collaborative digital assets have come into mainstream use in virtual meetings — and which are going to become more prevalent in face-to-face meetings going forward.
IDL Africa Technologies has a range of collaborative products which facilitate more creative and productive sessions that include moderation tools, audio and screen display control and enriched collaboration via annotation and black-boarding — a design fit to answer the demands of employees for more creative solutions in meetings, whether physical or virtual.
The way businesses structure themselves may change
Companies have learned that they can rely on digital tools to connect their employees effectively. Offices will always be crucial to the way companies operate, and in that sense we will return to ‘normal’. But companies are thinking about how and where they invest in office space, and where virtual interaction can be better integrated.
Instead of operating out of a major headquarters with thousands of employees commuting in at significant expense, and with considerable time wasted, many companies we deal with are already starting to consider having multiple smaller ‘hubs’ where teams of workers can network together and interact with other hubs using virtual tools. The model would provide a more efficient solution for companies that need a localized, national and international presence, and for many it would help to strike that balance between physical and remote working in a way that suits not just their bottom-line but their employees, too.
The collective reaction to lockdown and feelings about returning to the office have understandably varied greatly, depending on the company people work for, personal situations, and a myriad other factors. Some will have experienced a remote working revelation during lockdown and want their company to facilitate more virtual engagement in future. Others will be really craving human contact and want to go back to the office full-time in order to get back to normal.
Whatever happens over the coming weeks, businesses are looking at what’s happened and seeing that remote working can bring real benefits, even in times of crisis. Post-lockdown, a significant shift toward a more balanced hybrid approach arises — wherein employees have much more freedom to choose how they want to work, and work flexibly to meet their and the business’ needs. There will always be a need for face-to-face interaction; they just need to find the right balance, facilitated by the right technologies.