Remote Work and its Evolutionary Transition
IT now sits firmly at the heart of businesses, making up a remote working ‘Business Hub’ of remote work- however flimsy or sophisticated it is. Coronavirus has enforced nearly every organisation to embrace virtualisation, however, research suggests that many businesses have layer cake operational and divisional models where IT has been bolted on (the spoke) to help create efficiency. The future, however, is far simpler; every business is a business modelled around the technology (the business hub, or just the hub) from the ground up.
This is going to take some organisational design work for traditional businesses reluctant to positively disrupt themselves. The Coronavirus has just given business a real crisis that actually catapults this thinking, with a common solution seeming to either be a hybrid mix of remote and office work or simply fully remote. For better or worse, not many employers are suggesting a return to the pre-Covid situation. To examine some specifics:
The Business Hub/Remote Work Transition During the First Lockdown Week – Short-Term Survival Mode:
Last week we spoke to quite a few UK Managed IT Service Providers (MSPs) and the message came back the same from all of them: their IT help desks were overwhelmed by service requests to set up, migrate and provide change management for huge volumes of their customers’ employees who were for the first time going to have to work from home.
The switch to remote work has brought innumerable issues, ranging from no IT hardware, limited home Wi-Fi connectivity, company security policies blocking remote access and a lack of knowledge of how to use software tools to access centralised applications/databases. This level of exceptional workload will certainly continue for at least this week/next week, as IT departments and MSPs gradually work through the mountain of urgent change requests.
One specifically interesting piece of feedback was in respect to the lack of IT hardware available in the global supply chain. Suddenly there’s a huge demand for new workstations/laptops for employees that have never worked from home before, and the availability of these devices in the supply chain is under significant pressure, exacerbated by the fact that Chinese/Asian production has been in ‘lock-down’ for the past two months. Simple laptop/workstations that were once next business day delivery are now being quoted with 12/16-week lead times.
This situation brought in by Covid and its remote working repercussions might right itself temporarily as Chinese production starts to come back on-line again, but it will potentially re-tighten on a second cycle as Intel wafers currently ‘on the shelf’ in Chinese factories are exhausted and Intel factories in the US (Oregon /New Mexico) are unable to supply due to the US lockdown. These cyclical supply chain issues are already being modelled by investors through 2020 and possibly longer – customers beware..
The Transition From Office Work to Remote Work Through the Rest of 2020 – In the Medium-Term:
We must assume that short-term problems will be resolved (mostly), business will roughly function albeit inefficiently and/or disjointedly. To use a technology phrase from the early 90s, this could be a return to a landscape of ‘Islands of Information’.
Strategically, organisations will need to solve most or all of the following issues regarding remote work in the medium term to survive, then thrive:
1. Information Productivity
IT systems must allow information flows between remote worker groups for levels of acceptable productivity and to remove these newly created ‘Islands of Information’ This is not simply a connection to a system, it is how employees use/manipulate/create information, and disseminate information without creating corporate-wide information overload and/or paralysis. Some IT applications call this Groups (Google/Microsoft), Teams (Microsoft) or Channels (Slack). Whatever you call it, if it’s not working properly a business is inherently inefficient as individuals try to share information without structure.
Working from home provides employees with an opportunity for a little extra ‘me time’ and whilst this is might be reasonable, too much is dangerous to an organisation’s productivity especially when in survival mode. Management dashboard solutions are already available to solve these concerns but are not widely used throughout the remote working business hub, at least not yet. Sensitivities have traditionally existed around these types of solutions, but the world just changed and so will employers/employees’ attitudes. However, the deployment of these solutions to remote work will need some thought, sensitive communication and changes to organisational operational and internal IT privacy policies.
3. Parallel Communication Channels
Unwittingly, office-based companies naturally run parallel communication channels. These are for the most part informal verbal/email communication channels covering a massive range of topics such as: the five-aside-football team, informal car sharing arrangements and requests for non-work-related assistance (children school pickups). These parallel communication channels can be lost amongst a remote worker community but can be successfully recreated within Slack communication channels (for example), and without ‘blasting’ the entire organisation with communications on nonrelevant issues.
The successful companies who emerge from this situation will understand and will embrace the concept that parallel communication channels are valuable to the employee community and ultimately to the wellbeing of the company.
Many organisations’ IT security provisions have logically/physically been built around an office(s) with the majority of the employees protected behind a layer of security (Firewall/Intrusion Detection System IDS). In the remote work from home world, every single employee now becomes a potential point of attack for hackers and this situation is particularly exacerbated if the business has been forced to allow the employees to use their own IT hardware both for business and personal use (please see short term supply problem above).
Attacks perpetrated via a personal email account on a laptop/workstation at home can be exploited by a hacker to piggyback onto remote access security communications to gain access to a business’s core applications/databases. VPN’s and encryption are no protection when the hacker is already on the remote PC/device, leading to a serious weakness in the remote working business hub model that will need serious attention to in order to rectify.
Many organisational compliance models were never built for the current situation. BS27001 (information security) and GDPR policies are at this very moment being thrown into the file called ‘review later’, as companies quickly hunker down into survival mode. However, this will eventually come back to the top of the pile, as their customers and regulators will turn the spotlight of their attention to these matters.
6. Core Business Applications/Databases
Many organisation have built (over a period of years), and continue to retain, their core business applications/databases on a physical IT infrastructure that resides either at their offices or in a ‘bespoke’ datacentre that was never designed to be run as a purely distributed remote work application. The management, performance, security and usability of these ‘legacy’ application infrastructures will now be exposed and the migration to hosted cloud services (G Cloud, AWS and Azure) will accelerate, but now in competition with the vast array of other business rushing to do the same and join the remote work fray (join the back of the queue please).
7. Automation Tech
Automation tech does not have to be complex and it certainly does not mean robots or Artificial Intelligence (although it can do). Some really simple examples (as an illustration only) that make business and thus a remote working business hub more efficient would be: technologies that allow companies to automatically enforce email signatures (so that no employee can ever send an email without the correct signature) or technologies that allow co-workers/customers to automatically book meetings/time in your multiple electronic diaries (against certain simple criteria) and without any need for a ‘stream’ of emails negotiating when you and other people have availability.
Automation does not have to be complex but it must be effective and deliver a tangible ROI; numerous companies simply do not make use of automation yet. In the newly emerging remote work world, however, automation will no doubt play centre-stage.
Employees failure rates in respect to their uptake of new concepts/technologies/remote working practice and ideas is generally down to a lack of undertaking on behalf of the employee. Just because the CEO, IT Manager, Office Manager or whoever sends out an email telling employees what to do (with a link to a webpage for some help) does not mean that an employee will understand or embrace the situation. Remote employees need even more personal one-to-one guidance and an understanding of why change is important to them, their customers and the business. This is a cultural change, not a technology issue that can be fixed with a more streamlined and effective remote working business hub.
The Long Term and Its Impact on Remote Work:
There is no reason why anything should just revert to how it was and for those progressive organisations that come through this period of extreme uncertainty regression it might not be what they need or desire. Simply reverting to a centralised office environment following weeks/months of building a distributed employee infrastructure might not be logical, might in itself seem regressive and of limited appeal (cost base, flexibility, portability, eco credentials).
Avondale are EME business advisors. Through our management consultancy, we support growth and scaling up. Through our M&A and corporate work, we secure investment and finance for EME businesses, help people buy and sell companies and enhance shareholder value. We recognise ambitious owners who require ambitious, specialist advisors.