How to Improve Remote Working: Lessons From Lockdown

woman working from home on a video call with colleagues

The Coronavirus pandemic forced the world into a global experiment when lockdown meant people suddenly needed to work from home. Remote working isn’t a new concept; there’s been talk of some companies transitioning to a work from home model for years. The virus meant there was no choice and no extensive testing period. So, what has lockdown taught us about remote working?

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Working from Home is Achievable

The first thing that the COVID-19 pandemic taught us is that working from home is achievable. For years companies had debated the logistics of it. The virus expedited the rollout and left companies and employees with no choice but to innovate and make it work.

While it may not have initially been ideal, both employers and employees found ways to make working from home possible for them. From makeshift desks to juggling homeschooling and the implementation of new processes, people adapted.

Take Zoom, for instance, it existed before the pandemic, but its use exploded over the last year. Zoom became a verb, with people saying, ‘let’s zoom’. It also gave us some laughs with people sharing their hilarious zoom experiences online. Technology kept us connected, allowed us to collaborate, and provided us with productivity tools.

Ultimately it was a mass experiment, with people working remotely and learning on the job, so to speak. Some love it, while others loathe it. The reality is, though, it may now be here to stay in one form or another.

Not Everyone Has the Infrastructure and Equipment for Remote Working

It became apparent that not everyone had adequate provision for working from home. Being thrust into a situation with very little warning highlights inadequacies. Not everyone has a computer. Some people’s internet connections didn’t have the required bandwidth to zoom; others had no camera.

When working in the office, generally, everyone is on a level playing field. The internet connection is the same, the hardware is equal, and the working space is generic. Working from home highlighted disparities.

While some had a dedicated office room, others were perched on the end of a kitchen table with children climbing on them. Those with a company laptop were at an advantage, not having to split computing time between homeschooling and working.

The key takeaway for organizations here is that anyone expecting employees to work remotely may need to supply hardware, software, and perhaps an allowance towards utilities.

IT Security is a Big Concern

One of the biggest concerns for IT departments considering remote working practices before COVID was the IT security aspect. The speed at which COVID spread left companies with very little preparation in this area. That understandably caused headaches for IT departments who were scrambling to protect equipment and data.

When employees work in an office environment, the hardware belongs to the company and is protected on the company network equally. With the shift to home working, it was a nightmare for IT professionals. People were using their own devices on their home networks to access, store and share sensitive company data and documents.

Cyber-attacks increased during the pandemic as criminals knew their job would be much easier. Organizations quickly learned that security infrastructures needed to be extended to cover the home workforce. This includes endpoint protection, security practices taught to all employees, and the necessary tools to protect IT equipment and data.

The use of authentication tools and modified access controls can help to mitigate the risks posed by a mobile workforce. This includes things like 2-factor authentication to verify access to programs, data, or systems.

Collaborative apps came with their own security risks. Zoom was a prime example of this when it was discovered that important security and privacy features were turned off by default. That left inexperienced users vulnerable to uninvited guests.

Of course, once brought to light, the vulnerability was fixed by Zoom, with other video conferencing providers also tightening up security. It was a huge learning experience for all involved, with problems addressed quickly as they occurred.

Cloud Services Were a Lifesaver

Cloud services proved invaluable with everyone working from home. They provided collaborative workspaces, the ability to access and back files up securely, and app access. Ensuring staff could conduct their tasks on the appropriate programs and save their work to be accessed by others in the team.

Cloud apps such as Microsoft Office 365, Google Docs, and Asana became vital cogs in the company machine. Imagine if COVID had happened a decade earlier, the playing field would have looked very different.

The cloud can also help to mitigate some of the security issues posed by remote working. A cloud security broker provides additional security for cloud spaces, making them even more secure. The cloud played a considerable part in the global remote working experiment and will continue to help shape the future.

Remote Working Can Increase Productivity

Contrary to pre-COVID conceptions that remote working would lead to a drop in productivity and output. Studies conducted have shown that working from home can increase productivity.

Research suggests that people found themselves to be just as productive, if not more so, when working from home. A survey of 10,000+ respondents by Barrero, Bloom and Davis conducted between August and November 2020 confirms this. 41% of the respondents said they were more productive working from home, while 44% said they were equally as productive.

Of course, the above data was from employees’ self-reporting, but the data from some productivity assessments also show a rise in productivity. A study by Bloom et al. discovered an increase in productivity of 13% in call center staff working from home.

Productivity was not increased across all industries though, Microsoft found no increases in activity. While there was no decrease in productivity, 38% of their engineers said they felt less productive.

Some employees found it difficult to work in the home environment. It was especially difficult for working parents who had their children at home. A study by McKinsey found mothers were adversely affected. This is due to them being three times more likely than fathers to undertake the household duties such as cleaning, cooking, and childcare.

Do People Want to Continue Working Remotely?

As we have already mentioned, this differs from person to person. It does seem the majority would like to have at least the option to work from home part-time. Hybrid working is the latest buzzword. It’s a concept that seemed slightly alien 18 months ago, but today people are demanding it.

Organizations and employees are at odds with the expectations of any hybrid working agreement, though. A survey by PWC found that 55% of employees wanted to work from home three or more days per week. Executives, however, feel that company culture cannot survive if people work too often from home. 68% of 133 U.S. executives in the survey feel workers need to be in the office at least three days per week.

This is something that will have to be tried and tested in order for staff and organizations to find common ground. This is still early days; only time will tell whether or not company culture is affected.

New Job Opportunities Were Highlighted

The well-being of staff working from home was thrust into the spotlight. This was not purely the result of remote working but also lockdown and isolation. Mental health and well-being are important; happy employees are more productive. That has led to the exploration of new jobs such as Chief of Remote.

The Chief of Remote would be responsible for all things remote working related. That could include the health and well-being of staff, policies, procedures, and management. They could also help to foster company culture across both office and home working environments.

Ultimately this pandemic showed just how resilient we are as humans. Forced into new territories, humanity came together, developed a ‘new normal,’ and got on with it. We reacted in real-time to problems that occurred and developed solutions. For this, we would say the working from the home experiment was a success.

Organizations, employees, tech companies, cloud companies, app developers, and many more came together and worked seamlessly. The work was completed, people continued to earn their wages, and nothing exploded. We learned new skills to develop policies and best practices going forward.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to remote working. The financial industry, for one, has said it will definitely be returning to full-time office work. While admitting the pandemic had helped push digitalization, the CEO of Goldman Sachs said: “It’s an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.” His sentiments were echoed by Jes Staley, chief executive of Barclays.

The tech industry has always been forward-thinking in its staffing policies. It has generally been optimistic about remote working and hybrid working models. CEO of Dell, Michael Dell, says, “We’re not going to dictate the answer for other companies, but what we definitely see is this hybrid, work from anywhere situation is going to continue.”

The way we work is changing. We are transitioning from an industrial age into a digital age. Technology means that more and more industries will be able to offer a remote working model of sorts. For example, 3D printing means people could potentially even manufacture from home in the near future. Digital disruption is here. COVID proved we could adapt to changes in our working practices quickly and effectively.

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