Few “Game of Thrones” fans would miss the irony of references to sweet summer children these days. The show’s experienced characters warned the naive children that winter was coming, and nothing in their previous lives could truly prepare them. Like sweet summer children ourselves, we could not have imagined the economic and social disruption that the COVID-19 outbreak had in store for us and the entire world.
As just one example, the traditionally rare chance to work from home as an employee has suddenly grown so common that The Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, referred to remote work as the new normal. Like most disruptions, the remote workforce can offer employers and employees both benefits and challenges. In fact, if this crisis can generate anything positive, it might be the way that it forced people and organizations to test their agility.
Take a moment to learn how remote work suddenly grew more common than anybody anticipated just a few months ago and how businesses can use this sudden shift to improve workflows, protect valuable data, and ease the transition for themselves and their employees.
How COVID-19 Blew Up the Remote Workforce
Both companies and governments have encouraged social distancing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. In response, millions of workers abandoned their company offices. The current population of remote workers represents a drastic spike on the charts from just a few months ago.
For example, see that even last year, few employees had to chance to perform a significant portion of their jobs from anywhere but their office:
- In October of 2019, just about six months ago, a study from Owl Labs found that only about 4.5 million U.S. employees did their jobs from home as much as half the time.
- While the number of people who worked out of their homes increased by 140 percent since 2005, analysts still forecasted single-digit growth each year, particularly for the full-time, permanent-employee workforce.
With the onset of the coronavirus crisis in the spring of 2020, SHRM reported upon a very recent study that found about two-thirds of businesses had encouraged at least some of their formerly office-bound staff to move their offices home. Over one-third of these companies encouraged all of their office staff to work from home.
Takeaway: In just a couple of months, the number of remote workers has multiplied exponentially and in a way nobody predicted even earlier this year.
Overcoming Obstacles for Businesses Employing Remote Workers
It’s fair to notice that some businesses had prepared better than others for this abrupt and unexpected shift following the coronavirus outbreak. Even companies that already had the business culture and tech infrastructure in place to smoothly transition may face some surprising challenges both during and after the pandemic. Almost every company has had to confront at least some issues.
Remote Working Removes Physical Barriers
Almost everybody brings up Microsoft and Google as examples of tech-based companies that already had workflows and technology in place to empower remote workers. As such, these were among the first companies to send employees home in early March.
To understand the impact on these famously agile and tech-oriented businesses, look at the example of one 25-year-old Google engineer who decided to leave San Francisco to ride out the stay-at-home orders at his parents’ house in Maryland.
He decided he liked the arrangement enough to consider moving to his own place on the East Coast if Google lets him keep working remotely after the outbreak passes. If they don’t, he might even decide to leave his job for a company that will.
According to a Business Insider article, he’s not the only one prompted to make a move because of their experiences during the pandemic. For instance, real estate professionals have seen a quick trend towards moving away from the largest cities and back out to suburbs, exurbs, and small towns.
When employees can work remotely, they don’t have to live in the same city as their company headquarters or even their direct supervisor. Businesses could use this experience to consider the advantages of accessing a nationwide or even a worldwide workforce by offering remote jobs. On the other hand, some companies who used their physical location as a competitive advantage could lose that talking point for a new generation of work-anyway, live-anywhere employees.
Takeaway: With a remote workforce, physical location becomes less of a selling point or detraction. At the same time, employees who learned to enjoy the work-at-home lifestyle may not be eager to return to the office, so companies could offer remote work as a perk.
Why the Dramatic Increase in Remote Working Concerns Cybersecurity Professionals
Even though most companies have learned to rely upon digital resources in the past couple of decades, some still lacked the technical infrastructure and company culture to execute a rapid, graceful deployment of their employees. As one glib tech writer put it, sometimes, the digital transformation wasn’t quite ready for the digital transformation.
Employees and departments rapidly looked for ad-hoc solutions for video conferencing and collaboration tools to replace the face-to-face communication and sharing they had relied upon before. Even though it’s easy to find plenty of tools to perform these functions, haphazard choices can lead to security threats and corporate misalignment. As reported by CISOMAG, 85 percent of organizations expected an increase in remote working to result in an increase in cybersecurity threats.
Consider some of the typical security hazards that concern IT professionals:
Shadow IT refers to using technology for work that IT hasn’t approved and may not even be aware of. Increasingly, employees have turned to products like Slack and Zoom for collaboration and video conferences. These may provide convenient and even inexpensive solutions, but it’s important to make certain they conform to business security governance policies and in some cases, to government privacy regulations.
As one example, Zoom has struggled with hacked passwords and even installers, resulting in meeting disruption and even remote PC takeovers. While the company has taken measures and worked with users to provide better security, it’s important to ensure that any software used by teams conforms to corporate or project security standards.
Phishing refers to fake but official-looking emails that encourage victims to either click links that start malicious downloads or ask for login credentials for a website. These days, phishing may show up in text messages as well. These schemes have caught plenty of experienced internet users, and it’s only prudent to protect against them.
As a first defense, businesses should educate their employees to confirm website addresses and sender information for any emails that encourage them to offer private information or even click an embedded link. Many companies even require employees to watch training videos on this topic.
Requiring two-factor-authentication to access sensitive information works well too. Instead of just logging in by entering credentials, users also have to key in the passcode from a message sent to their cell phone. This also prevents cybercriminals from using stolen IDs and passwords.
Ask employees to only log in to business systems through a secured network, such as the one they will need to have at home. Free networks in coffee shops won’t ensure encrypted data and have been a prime target for information thieves. Remind employees to make certain they’ve applied the latest updates to their firmware even while they are at home.
Offering employees a VPN to use for access to corporate networks will add an additional layer of security. On the business end of the network, corporations should use security programs that control access, keep audit trails, and monitor the system for suspicious activities.
Takeaway: Remote work offers the chance to dress casually; however, it shouldn’t provide an occasion for businesses to get lax about security.
Easing the Transition to Remote Work
Both businesses and employees may still need to adjust to the sudden transformation to remote working. To ease this transition, companies need both tech- and human-oriented solutions.
Managing Remote Workflow
Naturally, the easier that companies make it for employees to do the right thing, the fewer temptations workers or teams will have to violate company policies or in some cases, even government regulations. While businesses need to emphasize security, they should also ensure that their people have the tools that they need to work, communicate, and collaborate.
Businesses that lack these tools encourage misbehavior; however, organizations that provide these tools encourage compliance and just as important, efficient workflows and alignment. For instance, they won’t need to have to deal with one department using one information silo and standards and another department relying upon another.
Takeaway: Secure, scalable, and affordable technology exists to create a remote work environment that will ease the transition and in many ways, make businesses more efficient and agile than they were before.
Coping With the New Work-Life Balance
Josh Fest, the CEO of Cogito Corporation, admitted that many business leaders had resisted remote work in the past because they feared distractions might make employees less productive and perhaps, less connected. While studies haven’t really supported that idea, recent events have made home and even the news much more distracting. They’ve also created an environment that may lead to stress and loneliness.
As an example, even full-time remote workers could depend upon such services as school and daycare before the outbreak. They could take more breaks to socialize with people outside of their immediate families or even to experience different environments with their loved ones. Now, everybody’s home, even spouses, partners, and sometimes, adult children who had their schools or businesses close. Because of the virus, many people also have concerns about loved ones and may need to care for them.
The special circumstances surrounding the novel coronavirus has left many telecommuting employees to deal with extra distractions and stresses that they may not have had while working from home pre-pandemic.
On the other hand, he said that seeing some of his employees cuddle fussy children or even having cats walk across keyboards during online meetings has helped improve his awareness and empathy. Technology matters. But so does making sure that supervisors exercise patience and offer supportive resources for team members who may struggle to adjust.
Takeaway: Businesses can find tools that empower remote workers and make business processes more efficient. In addition to tech, they also need empathetic resources to help employees cope with their sudden transition and other impacts of the pandemic.
Is Remote Work the Future of Work?
For some companies, adjusting to remote work took some scrambling and a period of adjustment. The COVID-19 crisis created a tough business environment; however, companies that adapt should find themselves stronger, more agile, and in a better position to meet future disruptions.
As an example, Yong Zhang, the CEO of Alibaba, noted some benefits to companies of empowering a flexible, remote workforce:
- Reduced travel expenses: In the future, businesses will need to justify travel when compared to meeting and collaborating remotely. These companies may often choose visual conferences, webinars, online training, and document sharing over face-to-face meetings.
- Better automation: Very often, modern systems to manage information and communication also provide an introduction to business automation, including AI features. Not only can these systems help create better workflows, but they can also automatically send alerts, reduce manual labor, and even improve analytics and data quality.
- Lower overhead: Businesses can reduce their overhead for physical space without reducing the quality of their workplace environment as more team members move to a home office. Reduced space also means a reduction in other expenses, such as insurance or even cleaning. Choosing to grow and scale a business won’t necessarily mean having to add more offices and support people.
- Fewer HR requirements: It’s possible that having fewer employees in one space can also reduce the burden on HR departments for certain kinds of investigations and other issues. This can free up resources for human resources professionals to help employees adjust the realities of maintaining their work-life balance while working at home.
Many employees have found they adjusted so well to working remotely, they want to continue after the outbreak passes. They can work where they please, without worrying about draining commutes, high local housing costs, or adjusting to a new culture. With some jobs, remote work also gives employees more flexibility to plan their workday around other responsibilities and not just plan everything around their workday.
Takeaway: While some executives may think remote work only benefits employees, the situation can also give employers a competitive edge for attracting and retaining talent with a remote and flexible, 21st Century workplace. An empowered remote workforce can function effectively at headquarters, at home, or in an airport lounge or customer’s job site.
Has COVID-19 Changed the Future of Remote Work?
While it may be difficult to say for sure whether or not COVID-19 has changed the future of remote work, it is without a doubt that the pandemic has changed the way that we are currently working, communicating, and collaborating with our teammates. Those who worked remotely before the pandemic are likely to adapt to these changes more readily than others. And our individual ability to adapt may depend significantly on our personal circumstances.
However, with the right tools, resources, and support from their employers, the modern workforce will be able to get through this unusual period of work-life. From conference calls to collaboration tools, there are many systems available that make it easier for remote teams to work together effectively, even if they won’t be remote forever.
Frequently, WriterAccess clients call upon Marilyn K. for thought-leadership and look-ahead pieces in marketing, tech, business, and finance. She looks for both the tech and human angles to help manage and benefit from business disruption.