They have been popular topics for years – working from home, remote working, taking phone calls anywhere, video conferencing, online presentations, collaborating on documents online. These have also been on the project plan for many organisations for some time. Some organisations had implemented some of these ideas but several just never got around to doing so.
There have been ‘crises’ before which have encouraged such activity. These have included events such as snow storms, local flooding and even terrorist incidents. These probably seemed quite traumatic at the time. Snow storms will have prevented large numbers of staff from making it into the office, but only for a day or two. Flooding may have caused greater disruption but disaster recovery plans could be executed, new equipment could be purchased and life probably returned to normal within a few weeks or so. The London Bridge terror attack in 2019 resulted in the police preventing one law firm in the area from accessing their office for several days. Once again, this was all over within a few weeks.
Covid-19 is on a completely different scale. Suddenly whole organisations are being encouraged to allow all of their staff to work from home. Apart from aligning with government advice this also makes good sense for each organisation as it protects its own workers. Another difference is that the problem is not limited to a few organisations or isolated to one geographic area. Suddenly your clients, your suppliers and all the other third-party organisations with whom you work are also in the same difficult situation.
As a result, this latest crisis has forced rapid change. The need for staff to work from home has forced organisations to provide hardware for home use or to check the security in place on personal home equipment. Staff who have avoided working from home have had to have their equipment configured to do so. IT helpdesks and service providers have been inundated with remote working requests. Organisations have also had to employ software that had been little used or to adopt new software at short notice.
Video conferencing is a prime example. Some organisations had solutions in place and could simply buy more licenses and train staff who hadn’t used them before. Other organisations have had to scramble to find solutions and many have adopted Zoom. There are of course security concerns when solutions are chosen and implemented very quickly but, in this situation, working solutions have had to be put in place to meet immediate needs.
Now more people are working from home and are using tools they have never used before. Some will not adapt as well as others, either with the technology or the isolation or both, and will welcome the day when they can return to a shared office environment. But others will discover the benefits of working from home – flexible hours, no commuting, time to think and plan. Staff have suddenly been trained to use tools within days that might have otherwise been subject to implementation projects spanning many weeks.
Organisations too will see some of the benefits of remote working. Staff may actually work longer hours as they don’t have to commute. If staff are working effectively and efficiently from home then less office space could be utilised in the future. Lastly, while there is no substitute for some meetings taking place face-to-face it will become obvious that many meetings can be conducted remotely, thus resulting in lower travel costs.
So will the current situation become the ‘new normal’? In practice we will probably see a healthy mixture of working methods once life returns to a more usual pattern. People will of course return to offices and meetings will be conducted in person. But it has to be presumed that the new methods of working which have been implemented and which people have now learned to use, and with which many have now become comfortable, will become embedded in the fabric of the organisation of the future.