Rebuilding the foundations for an anywhere workforce

Organisations adapted rapidly to distributed working, but inevitably there were holes in their approach. Building for the future will require them to revisit security and increase visibility

A year on from when organisations were catapulted, practically overnight, into a world of distributed working, many are realising there can be no return to pre-pandemic workforce models. Workplace practices deemed normal just 12 months ago now appear archaic and nonsensical. The future of work is already here. 

Research from enterprise software firm VMware, The New Remote Work Era: Trends in the Distributed Workforce, published in October 2020, revealed a 128 per cent increase in the proportion of UK employees who see remote working as a prerequisite rather than a perk. For Generation X workers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, this is the view of 53 per cent. Having realised the benefits of distributed work, seven in ten employees said their company cannot return to its old ways.

Since working remotely, 73 per cent of workers said personal connection with colleagues has improved, 62 per cent felt more empowered to speak up in video-conference meetings and 60 per cent had seen their stress levels decrease. Distributed working can also help deliver environmental, social and governance goals, with 63 per cent of companies finding it easier to recruit talent from minority communities and 79 per cent disabled candidates. Three quarters of respondents agreed innovation now comes from more places within the organisation than it did before.

The research also exposed concern, however, that management teams aren’t adapting sufficiently to offer workers greater choice and flexibility. Though the pandemic forced them to adapt quickly and accept remote working, many overlooked the strong culture and leadership required to really execute the workforce model successfully over the long term.

“For organisations to truly embrace the ‘work from anywhere’ model, managers will have to move away from monitoring inputs to focusing on output, all from within an environment of mutual trust,” says Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, director of the Future of Work Programme at Oxford University. “Striking the right balance will be key to ensure employees are motivated and while being in an environment where creativity can flourish.”

Véronique Karcenty, digital workspace director at Orange Group, France, adds: “The unprecedented shift we’ve seen in the last year undoubtedly offers many advantages to employers and employees alike. However, we should not underestimate the required change in people management strategies to keep employees engaged and productive. While executive leadership is important for setting the tone, it’s middle management that needs to constantly demonstrate trust, energise the team and build a sense of shared purpose.”

The challenges don’t stop at people and culture, either. More than a third of those surveyed by VMware also said IT is not equipped to manage a remote workforce. The scale of today’s distributed workforce has proliferated the number of digital technologies and platforms in use, but the whole experience is fraught with challenges ranging from remote employee onboarding and visibility through to compliance, security and employee safety.

Driven by their desire to remain operational and productive, organisations are moving additional applications to the cloud and adopting more flexible bring your own device (BYOD) arrangements, which are creating new information silos. Every new device connected to an enterprise network represents a possible attack vector for would-be hackers. All these factors have broken down the enterprise security perimeter, amplifying the need for zero-trust security models.

“It was great companies were, by and large, able to get their people up and running quite quickly and easily when we first went into lockdown, but the reality is security was not being designed into the distributed working model,” says Spencer Pitts, digital workspace chief technologist at VMware. “An enterprise network was always linked to a physical workplace. A lot of companies gave up some security controls to adapt to remote working and when revisiting them they’re finding many are just not designed to work outside the office.”

While most organisations have largely been in a light-on scenario for the last 12 months, vaccination programmes are presenting a way out of the pandemic and so it’s crucial companies are now thinking about their optimum workforce model in the new normal. Whatever balance of physical and virtual working they land on, a modernised application approach will be essential to continuing to deliver distributed working well in the future. The challenge will be scaling that up and down, with minimum cost and maximum agility.

“When we think about what happens next, it’s about flexibility, choice, reducing technical debt and regaining visibility, though not necessarily control,” says Kyle Davies, practice lead of integrated technology architecture at IT service and solutions provider CDW. “IT has always had a fixation with control, but that’s not the way tech needs to be delivered today. We need visibility for compliance and maybe a bit of control, but it shouldn’t be a control-first methodology. Security is a big play in reducing technical debt and gaining visibility is the foundation.”

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Put people first in the new world of work

Spencer Pitts, VMware’s digital workspace chief technologist, and Kyle Davies, practice lead of integrated technology architecture at CDW, share their vision of IT in the world of distributed working, where people, culture and collaboration define the digital experience

Many companies have found productivity has risen, or at least stayed the same, during the pandemic. Will distributed working be a permanent shift?

KD There have been significant productivity benefits from distributed working, though there have been drawbacks too. In VMware’s study, 59 per cent of employees said they feel more pressure to be online than ever before. We might think presenteeism has been eliminated in the traditional sense, but people still feel the need to overcompensate by attending more virtual meetings, being online more and sending emails late at night. Equally, as soon as they’re allowed to get back to their usual activities, hobbies, sports and so on, they will return to the lifestyle habits they had before the pandemic, which means the extra hours of work they’ve been putting in, potentially, will not continue. Distributed working is here to stay, but the future of work is more likely to balance old and new in a hybrid way.

SP In the early days of lockdown, I did unfortunately get calls from people asking “can your software show if people are in front of the machine and doing what they’re supposed to?” A lot of that comes down to the fact organisations mostly pay people for their time which is rooted deep back in history. That’s one of the big changes from the pandemic: people now realise we need to move more to an outcome-based way of working, measuring output and not just time. The problem was they didn’t fully understand how to measure productivity from different perspectives. You need to be able to quantify digital employee experience, which basically means, can I measure if you are OK at home, or your workplace, and do you have what you need to get your job done effectively? If you can’t quantify and understand employee experience in a distributed workforce, how can you see if there are problems and make changes? Agility has to be at the heart of everything.

Who should be leading the charge with reimagining workforce models?

SP There are many different stakeholders, but ultimately the chief information officer (CIO) has to play a huge role and that means evolving IT as we know it. The traditional IT department’s job was to provide devices with some collaboration and office productivity tools on them and then make sure users could access them on any device, within reason. But they can’t just sit in that mode of providing basic services anymore, they need to be working with other stakeholders. Onboarding is now on their list, for example, and understanding if employees are happy. Originally these tasks would have sat solely with human resources, but in a distributed workforce they rely on technology. Lines of business also now rely on digital applications more than ever to perform their duties, and the CIO’s presence at board-level has been elevated because technology is so integral to running the entire business.

KD It has to start at the top. If your leaders are not going to lead by example, from a key stakeholder point of view, then your IT consumers aren’t going to adopt it either. Have you engaged with your users? Do you know what processes they need to follow? Will technology save them time doing this or is it going to make their life harder? The new digital workforce experience has to be a very collaborative engagement and it has to start with the top and then filter down from there. Without proper collaboration and communication, it fails every single time. Think people, process and then finally the technology.

What in your view is the future of work?

KD It’s a hybrid-by-design model that gives us the utmost flexibility in where we work. It allows companies to realise savings on real estate and other areas, and then reinvest capital into their people, processes and technology. Central to the model will be security, digital experience management and abstraction of the different layers of the workplace out into different services. You have to understand what your users are consuming and why, the availability and how it is all delivering remotely. Having all that as an abstraction layer is the end-goal. Change must happen without impacting the underlying experiences to users.

SP If you took a step back and removed everything about how we used to work from your memory, how would you design workplaces today? You certainly wouldn’t have your people commuting into a massive office every day. I think most people would envision the office as a collaborative community, a place they visit to get the best engagement out of their precious time. You would design for a distributed working methodology with modern, secure applications and you’d make sure everybody had what they need to get their job done effectively. By not viewing work as a rigid nine-to-five, time-based concept, but rather based on outcomes, you can also extend your talent pool around the world. Companies are faced with a unique opportunity to redesign their workplaces just like this. We work with CDW to help take organisations through all the practice steps from where they are now to that ultimate nirvana.

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