Staying home is the new normal and there’s no way around it. COVID-19 has forever made its mark on humanity’s rich history book, but it might not just be as doom and gloom as we might think. Don’t get us wrong, a pandemic is never a happy memory for anyone but if there’s something positive we could take from this extended quarantine, is the seismic change in the way we work.
An old English proverb says that “Necessity is the mother of invention” and it could not be more fitting in describing the way businesses have tackled the current situation. Most businesses were following the traditional ‘come to work, swipe your card’ model with no intention of even considering remote work. The idea of having people in the office had a notion of check and balances to it – people gathered in the same space working on the same thing, makes absolute sense.
Well, it used to for so many years. What COVID-19 has done is give companies no choice but to adapt to remote working. Given the strict quarantine measures, businesses were faced with a very simple and straightforward dilemma, go remote or close shop. Their adaptation has been swift and seamless and results are proving the theory that working from home is not only a cool concept, but it’s actually working.
People are able to deliver their tasks from the comfort of their homes without the back and forth to the office and it breeds the question of whether people need to go back to the office once this is all said and done. What strengthens the case in favour of remote work, is the total buy-in of tech conglomerates like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. These companies are not only considered to be industry leaders regarding the products they put out to the market but the overall way they conduct business. The fact that they are backing this movement is something that will trickle down to their respective industries.
The proposition for remote work is beneficial and challenging for both the employee and the employer. On the one hand, they will both benefit financially – the employee will no longer have to travel to work, diminishing cost and winning back time lost in the commute whereas employers will no longer have to rent offices for extravagant amounts of money. It’s not all that simple though. Remote work will make it increasingly challenging to maintain a corporate culture, and keep the motivation and focus of employees high. The function of the office was in many ways the same as a sports locker room, the place where people built relationships and bonds that made them a team and helped them be more productive. With everyone being at their own house, that becomes increasingly hard to achieve.
Tech to the Rescue
How do we address the challenges? Using the same way that has brought us the benefits – tech. Remote work technology has been around for quite some time. Apps like Slack, Jira, Trello, Monday and so many other communication and project management tools are prime examples of tech that was built for remote scenarios but has been primarily used in a traditional office environment. These apps are finally showcasing their true value and potential under these strange times we live in. They have made working from home possible in terms of tracking work, keeping teams working in sync and keeping company goals aligned.
Particularly noteworthy is the case of video communication app Zoom, and its meteoric rise in the past couple of weeks. It’s 2nd only to TikTok as the world’s most downloaded app in the last week, adding “close to 20 million new mobile users,” according to data provided by mobile data analytics firm Sensor Tower.
“Globally, first-time installs of Zoom’s mobile app increased 213% last week compared to the preceding week of March 9, and 728% compared to the week of March 2,” Sensor Tower’s Head of Mobile Insights Randy Nelson told Business Insider.
Every situation has two sides and Zoom’s nearly flawless video calling abilities might be coming at a price. An investigation by The Intercept clearly questions the company’s claims for end-to-end encryption of video calls. The discussion about the ambiguity in Zoom’s privacy policies has sprung from Harvard blog posts to more general scrutiny but relevant online news outlets. Going forward, this is something that will definitely be under the microscope. REmote work implies that all company comms exist online, making them liable to stealing, intercepting or manipulating. Whether companies choose to go with a third party provider like Zoom or build their own interface, the threat of losing sensitive data will always be at the back of their mind.
Internet is The Solution, Internet is The Problem
You would think that in the year 2020, almost every single place on earth has a resemblance of an Internet connection. Facts do back up this notion as a 2019 survey by The International Telecommunications Union found that 97% of the planet’s population do have access. What the survey also found is that only 53.6% are connected to it.
The issue of digital divide is not something new as we know that the “Internet Gods” are not fair to everyone. What the pandemic has done, is highlight the problem even more. The dream of remote work will remain a dream until we have the proper infrastructure to support it. Students in China hiked for hours to find decent signal, women are still playing catch up in benefiting from the Internet whilst the elderly have yet to embrace it.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development published a paper comparing the digital landscape today, to the one of 2008’s financial crisis. Whilst we are more equipped and ready today, inequalities still exist.
“Inequalities in digital readiness hamper the ability of large parts of the world to take advantage of technologies that help us cope with the coronavirus pandemic by staying at home,” said UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director, Shamika Sirimanne.
Unless we address the issue of Internet infrastructure, remote work will be an option for companies, but never a concrete reality.
Maintaining a Team Spirit
To say that once the quarantine ban is lifted, all companies will maintain their working from home policy is unrealistic. What will most probably happen is that businesses will become ‘remote work-friendly’, including it as an option in their employment contracts. The idea will no longer be alien as it’s proven it can work. The road to a fully remote working world will be now open and it’s up to tech to make it a reality.
What this crisis has shown, is that tech needs to work on the HR aspect of remote work. How can you recreate the office environment? How can you emit the feelings of unity and camaraderie in a remote setting? How can you create and build a corporate culture? These are the challenges and questions that need to be answered before remote work becomes the norm. We now have a sample size for how tech can support people in a home environment, but do we have enough sample size for how this situation would develop over a longer period of time? No.
What COVID-19 has managed to do is open the discussion of remote working, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. How can a company get consistent productivity out of a remote worker without diminishing their satisfaction, motivation and sense of value to the team? That is the question technology is being tasked to answer at the moment.