Published in BusinessLife, June 2020. Original article p 59-61.
When the world locked down in March to fight coronavirus, most knowledge-businesses already had the technology in place to disperse their workforce. People created makeshift offices in their kitchens or bedrooms, propping up their laptops to resume office life via video: “The technology of remote working and cloud-based computing have been around for years,” says Chris Clark, Founder and CEO of technology consultancy Prosperity 24/7 in Jersey. “The mental and the cultural impact – that’s where people have been struggling.”
Remote working has been on the rise for years, but suddenly, every company has had no choice other than to embrace a fully remote workforce. It’s been a steep learning curve, but lockdown has catapulted the workplace into the future: we’re realising it’s very possible to do business remotely and be productive colleagues while working from home. “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in April. So how will this experience change the workplace once the lockdown is over?
Work used to be a place you went, but at least for those working primarily with computers, it’s quickly becoming a thing you do. Olly Duquemin, CEO of technology outsourcing specialist Resolution IT in Guernsey, says this situation has forced businesses to speed up the journey to embracing digital technology: “We’ve definitely seen an increase in people wanting to digitise their processes. That cultural change has happened very quickly, because it’s had to. In the past there might have been more resistance,” says Duquemin, who’s seen an increase of digital workflows, conference calls and digital transformation processes – all necessary for people to work efficiently from home.
While some of this has made companies more efficient, coronavirus has been a harsh teacher: this experiment in mass remote working has been hampered by the mental stress of dealing with a dangerous illness, and isolating from friends and family. But especially for parents, who have to handle childcare and homeschooling alongside their jobs, this has been a chance to trial working untraditional hours. Flex work has often been challenging to pull off in the office without being perceived as unserious, but perhaps this will prove that people can be trusted with this freedom? Duquemin expects staff will want to keep some of this flexibility after lockdown: “Leaders and organisations can now see that people can be fairly efficient and do their job well, provided they have the right technology in place. So why not?”
Clark at Prosperity 24/7 argues that remote work can actually make it easier to measure productivity: “There’s far more scrutiny on outcomes in this new world. … People who’re unproductive may have been able to hide in an office environment – you may have been the cool person to chat to at the coffee machine, and able to hide in plain sight.” But getting by on charm isn’t possible if everyone is remote, says Clark: “The people who’re productive are being recognised with far more ease.”
Improved facilities for – and acceptance of – remote workers could be very positive for a skills-shortage area like the Channel Islands: you could potentially hire experts who can do the job from anywhere. During the lockdown, companies have taken some of their team-building exercises online too: virtual coffees are now a feature of remote office life. Alongside the chairman, the 500 employees of trust and fund services provider Zedra had the opportunity to cook alongside master chefs in company-wide initiatives: “The staff’s wellbeing is important [in the pandemic], and we have to manage that as well and not just look at productivity,” says Stuart Esslemont, Global Head of Legal and Compliance at Zedra in Jersey. But while social initiatives are important to replace some of the lost serendipity of wandering about the office, Esslemont has also found that in some cases, productivity has gone up with remote working: “People don’t have the daily interruptions they would have in the office.”
Coronavirus led to the cancellation of 99% of business trips by European companies in April, according to a survey by the Global Business Travel Association. In the face of 14-day quarantines at the border, video conferencing may replace travel for some time to come. While the loss of face-to-face contact is a concern, several of the people we spoke to reported that clients were actually more available now, possibly because they’re saving so much time by staying put.
“We’ve had to embrace different ways to communicate,” says Brian Carey, Director of Private Wealth at Intertrust in Jersey. Carey is used to frequent travel to the UK, Europe to the Middle East for sit-downs, but since lockdown he’s relied on video, phone calls and email: “You have to follow up with different methods of communication to ensure you’re all communicating and [understanding] what the expectations are.” Until we know more about how the aviation industry will handle social distancing, it’s difficult to speculate on the future of business travel. “But I don’t think travelling is going to be as intense as before. … People are becoming accustomed to seeing faces on screens and having a conversation in that manner,” says Carey. And while the methods may be different, the culture of business meetings are much the same, says Carey – the reason you sit down with people is to establish trust: “[Even via video] it’s still very much a face to face conversation.”
Frequent business travel is both mentally and physically taxing, studies have found, and now that we’re doing all our meetings remotely, do we really need to do all that travelling? “Some of the meetings we’re having remotely now are having the same impact, or if not better impact,” says Nick Vermeulen, Partner of Innovation & Technology at PwC in the Channel Island, based in Guernsey. “So you look at it and think, does it actually make sense to travel so much? [At least] for internal meetings with people you already know, maybe not.”
You can get a lot done over video when you have to: Vermeulen says PwC are currently doing a series of remote client pitches, alongside a new staff member who was hired after the lockdown and did their entire onboarding remotely. “Most of the business stuff you can actually do. But it can be difficult to be empathetic over video,” says Vermeulen, who thinks we’ll still want to sit down in person together, at least occasionally.
The lockdown has forced companies into realisations they might otherwise never have made. Some are unfortunate (who knows when it will be safe to do tea rounds again) but others are revolutionary for the move towards flexible work: Barclays CEO Jes Staley said in April that “the notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past”. Vermeulen thinks there will be a rethink of the physical office: “Hopefully you’ll still have an office, but the shape of it, and what you actually do there, might be different.” The office may become a place for meetings and client encounters, rather than a default place to just sit.
Stuart Esslemont says that Zedra has always been supportive of flexible working, but the tendency has been for people to come into the office and work traditional hours. He now expects this may start to change after the lockdown: “For some, this has been very positive in terms of how they’ve bonded with their partners or their children by being at home. I definitely think a lot more people will be approaching us to work from home more frequently and be in the office maybe a couple of days a week.”
Chris Clark is now considering repurposing the Prosperity 24/7 office space: “We’ve always been [set up] to work from anywhere, and we have a high ratio of meeting rooms to workspace. But we’re now talking about possibly converting more space so it can become a hub for collaboration.” As the world starts to open up again post-lockdown, no one we spoke to was in a rush to fill their buildings again – social distancing is still too tricky. We won’t stay isolated at home forever, but some of the new habits from this era of enforced home-working will likely become permanent. After all, now that we know that it’s possible to have a little more flexibility and still be productive, it will be hard to argue why not.