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Covid-19 is dragging companies into the future of remote work

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Tristan Marot holds a BA in law, political studies and international relations as well as an LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand. He is awaiting examination on his Master’s which analyses the legal impediments to the commercialisation of outer space, also from Wits. He is completing his articles of clerkship at Norton Rose Fulbright in Sandton.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many companies which had been hiding their heads in the sand to face the new reality of a 21st-century workplace head-on and address their vulnerability. Those who come out on the other side of this lockdown with the least negative effects will be those who embraced this months – if not years – ago.

Our world looks dramatically different. The entire country is under a mandatory lockdown, which was initially supposed to be for three weeks, but is now five weeks with indications that it could be extended even further. Offices are closed and with the exception of a limited few designated as essential service workers, everyone is to be at home.

The ramifications of this, we hope, will be to slow down the infection rate of Covid-19 in South Africa – but in so doing, we are taking a massive economic hit. Many businesses will close permanently because of this lockdown and many individuals will be out of employment, unable to support themselves and their families. 

However, not all the effects on business will be negative. The lockdown in South Africa and similar restrictions imposed in other countries across the globe may confirm to many companies something that start-ups have been doing for years: That it’s possible to keep a business productive, to keep relationships intact and to have meetings, all without requiring the physical presence of employees at the company’s office. 

Months ago, I interacted with a company whose entire model was to have no physical offices, to conduct meetings via Skype or some other teleconferencing method and to try to keep overhead costs as low as possible, all in a market where their large corporate competitors were busy building extravagant and state-of-the-art (i.e expensive), new offices. They were thriving, with their partners able to better manage their work-life balance and perhaps most impressively, still getting paid similarly to – if not more than – their colleagues at the large corporates because of how the company was able to reduce expenditure through their remote working programmes. This also meant that they could outcompete their large corporate counterparts as a reduced overhead results in reduced costs to client, making both the client and partners happy, and the economic forecast of the company boundless.

Now, it is unlikely that companies that were operating on traditional work from office models will see those benefits over this lockdown as they will still have overheads such as rent, even when no one is in the office, but what it will show is the feasibility of implementing such remote working programmes and to manage client relationships without having to have actual face-to-face meetings, the combination of which I would call a technology-assisted workplace.

Covid-19 will prove to companies that this is indeed possible and potentially force the rollout of these strategies – something which business consultants and conference talks have been unable to achieve despite years of discussion. Even though the virus will hopefully only be around for a couple more months, and the economic repercussions for a few months more, the effect of the virus on work culture and practices will stay with us long after all other impacts are gone.

There are, however, some key factors that every business, whether 500+ employees or just a few dozen, will need to take into consideration when shifting from a traditional office-based set up to a more flexible technology-assisted set-up:

Cybersecurity

cybersecurity has recently become a major risk to companies – globally ranking as the top concern along with business interruption by the 2020 Allianz Risk Barometer as well as being ranked the risk that companies are least ready and able to manage by the Institute of Risk Management South Africa in 2019. The cybersecurity of a company is arguably even more crucial now than the physical security of an office. Even in South Africa, with its very high incident rate of break-ins and theft or robbery, cyber threats to companies pose a bigger risk. No matter the model used, this key risk must be planned for and mitigated as much as possible.

Cyber threats put at risk that which we always thought of as “more secure”. Money in a bank account was always perceived to be more secure than cash on hand. Email was believed to be more secure than post. Cloud storage of project plans or client documents was thought of as more secure than hard-copy files. This is no longer the case. The rise of ransomware, phishing attacks and cyber-based identity fraud has put all of these “more secure” options at as much of a risk if not more so than the “old-school” methods. Technology-assisted workspaces make this all the more critical.

To enable remote work, everything needs to be accessible via an internet connection, meaning all of a company’s systems need to be accessible from off site. Companies also need to be able to filter connections to these systems to ensure that only legitimate members are able to access the systems – all while having as little an impact on productivity as possible. This all puts an increased load on security systems – something hackers are acutely aware of and try to exploit. Just in these past few weeks, we have seen an increase in attempts by hackers to compromise both the firm I work for and our client’s systems – thankfully, all of which have been unsuccessful.

Technological needs

Companies are not homogenous in the products and services needed to enable their technology-assisted workspace. Careful consideration needs to be given to the products available on the market and whether they adequately address the needs of the company. This is daunting for many companies – especially the small- to medium-sized companies who have constrained budgets and often limited IT teams for support or set-up. 

The plethora of solutions, all with their own unique feature set, does not make decisions any easier. It is this which has been perhaps the largest stumbling block in the past: The pure lack of knowledge about products and their ever-evolving features with so many potential options, results in taking no option or postponing the decision often becoming the easier choice to make.

The reality is that one needs to consult with a suitably qualified professional to analyse the company’s needs and from that to assess the solutions on the market against those needs. There are some basics which companies can, however, in the meantime start considering themselves, which generally fall into one of four categories:

  1. Communication

Companies at their core are communication management platforms. It doesn’t matter the industry, if the company cannot communicate, it ceases to operate. One has both internal communication and external communication to consider. The basics companies will already have sorted with email, however, this is typically terrible for collaboration and discussions. Instead, looking towards platforms like Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack or even Discord may all help in facilitating discussions and collaborations within your company, and communication with your clients. Depending on the solution, they may also help with some of the categories below, allowing for a more integrated solution.

  1. Productivity management

Decades of having specific spaces set up for work has resulted in many people struggling with being productive outside of those dedicated spaces. Beyond this, the most effective teams are often those where members have defined and manageable goals to meet, which allow them to more procedurally approach their work and allows managers to better monitor workflow and outcomes. This could be addressed simply with one of the above programs and a weekly team meeting – however, there are also dedicated software solutions currently available such as Scoro, Impraise, Asana or again Microsoft Teams, all of which allow teams to allocate tasks and manage the progress thereof on a collaborative basis. There are also industry or team-specific solutions such as Buildertrend or ProductPlan and SalesScreen or People HR.

  1. Data management

Before approaching this concern, one should always be cognisant of the first point that was raised on cybersecurity. That being said, it is essential for teams to be able to collaborate and in so doing, not only communicate but share the work they are doing and any associated data. A lot of the platforms mentioned above also offer some sort of file sharing service and for those who use Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel etc.), it has built-in collaboration tools.

These options, however, are not always sufficient for a company’s specific needs. Options such as network drives with VPNs, cloud storage or another more specific solution may need to be looked at depending on the amount of data needing to be shared, the sensitivity and confidentiality of the data and crucially, appropriate security protocols which need to be followed. An example of the latter here is that the firm I work for does not use Dropbox because the terms of service require one to relinquish ownership to Dropbox of any data uploaded, something which is not acceptable to us considering the confidential and potentially privileged nature of the documents we are likely to be working with on behalf of our clients.

  1. Access

Of course, having all of these solutions implemented with all of the appropriate security measures in place is all for naught if your employees are not able to access these systems. Considerations here around the physical hardware employees will require and importantly, internet accessibility, is crucial for any remote work system, as well as for systems where one merely aims to make the traditional office space more technologically assisted. 

Once again, the specific solution will depend on the need of the company and many companies will have learned practical lessons on how to address these concerns over this period of lockdown. Ensuring your employees have access, in the form of hardware, connectivity and training on the systems they now need to use has therefore been proven to be fundamental in allowing a company to succeed in any technology-assisted workspace.

Covid-19 has forced many companies which had been hiding their heads in the sand to face the new reality of a 21st-century workplace head-on and address their vulnerability. Those who come out on the other side of this lockdown with the least negative effects will be those who embraced this months – if not years – ago and are therefore more resilient to workplace disturbances. Those who have not, might not come out of this at all – something which will merely serve to reinforce the necessary ubiquitous adoption of these solutions.

This is not to say that all meetings will now be via Skype or that everyone will now have home offices. Far from it. Depending on the industry, offices will still be required and the value of face-to-face consultations in relationship building, and maintenance with clients should never be discounted. However, in the ever-present reality of keeping costs low, this is perhaps one of the most underutilised strategies, especially among large corporates. Not to mention the benefits it can have to employees in allowing them to better manage their work-life balance and the results this can have, with Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and telecoms giant BT finding that happy workers were as much as 13% more productive.

C0vid-19 will have a profound effect on society, the scale of which can be compared to 9/11 or the 2008 market crash. But just like those events, with the scars will come new strategies for how business will operate. We will likely see less business travel and more working from home as companies implement these strategies which have now been proven to be possible – all while having an effect on their bottom line by reducing their operating overheads – all while not reducing productivity.

The key is to implement such strategies with the appropriate considerations. DM

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