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The Covid-19 pandemic is challenging us all - individuals, families and businesses - to do things differently. But while some of this may be difficult and frustrating, other aspects are actually proving themselves to be transformational, speeding up changes that may have happened gradually over time anyway and, in that sense, propelling us into the future.
One of those aspects is remote working. The speed with which Covid-19 has forced companies into universal remote working has moved us forward to a place that, in my view, we will never return from.
Almost overnight, entire workforces are operating from home, connecting to work systems via Virtual Private Networks (VPN) or the cloud, and speaking (and waving) to each other on video conferencing facilities like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype.
The traditional barriers to all of this - such as not having the appropriate software, not feeling personally confident about appearing in a video chat/meeting, worrying about how your kitchen table will look on screen - have now essentially been removed. It has been a real tipping point in how, and where, we work.
I don’t believe that this will just melt away post-crisis.
Looking forward, I think that we can expect a significant proportion of what used to be carried out face to face moving to an online environment - people have got used to working this way and many have had a ‘ta dah!’ moment realising that it actually works.
What’s more, employees may question why they need to put up with a long daily commute when things have reverted to normal, when they can work as effectively from home for large parts of the week or month.
I can see some valid push-backs to this. Some may say that we are all looking at remote working through ‘rose tinted spectacles’ at the moment.
It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s happening in extraordinary circumstances - everyone is available at home, all united by a strong sense of purpose to get things done. Will it all gradually wear off post Covid-19?
Well, for one thing we just don’t know when exactly we’ll be able to talk about ‘post Covid-19’ - that may not be for a considerable period of time. And secondly, my feeling is that the acceptance of the principle of remote working is with us to stay.
Of course, people will generally return to offices when it’s safe to do so, but there seems little doubt that nearly all of us will spend more time than before working remotely. Indeed, we may come to stop talking about ‘remote’ working altogether. It could become just ‘working’ - part of the normal mix of how things are done.
Nevertheless, the virtual world will not entirely replace the real one. In fact, face to face meetings will arguably become even more important - because they will occur more sparingly and so will mean more. Our city centres and business districts will not disappear after all.
Critical face to face meetings will still take place and key business decisions and agreements will still tend to be made in person.
Socially, meanwhile, having a drink with friends on a WhatsApp channel may work when we’re all socially isolated, but you soon realise that you need to actually meetup with each other for a proper social experience.
Overall, however, I have no doubt that what we are experiencing right now will have a long-term effect on how we work in the future.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the case if the technology had fallen over during this period.
But in fact it has stood up remarkably well and proven that it can work (albeit there have been some security issues reported - with instances of video calls being hacked into - that certainly need addressing).
At Harvey Nash Group, online collaboration tools have been very supportive to our business, and scalability has not been an issue.
The real scaling issue for us is how we grow our use of the collaboration tools now that they have become a ‘must have’ in this newly remote world.
For some parts of the business it’s pretty much business as usual, for others - often the ones that have strong face to face social networks - we are having to apply the tools in different ways.
All of these factors mean that technology will be even more central to how businesses work, and we can expect to see an increase in investment in hardware, software and automation technology. Businesses will need to invest even more in laptops, mobile devices and soft phones.
Offshored IT services will rise in demand as businesses realise the advantages of this over self-run systems. Demand for cloud services will hugely spike to provide the bandwidth and capacity needed.
Pressure on on-premise servers will increase exponentially while the cloud offers a scaled, reliable and secure environment with fail-over safeguards.
Through this crisis, businesses are needing to think about every aspect of how they operate, and technology is crucial to that.
Technology firms need to rise to that challenge and think about how they can help organisations adapt: innovation must accelerate, not decelerate.
These are extraordinarily difficult times for people and economies on a global scale. We owe it to ourselves that the creativity and innovation coming out of the crisis should not go to waste.