Covid-19, Technology and the shift from Traditional Work Environments
An industry worth over $31 trillion has been rendered virtually redundant this year as countless organisations scurry to remain operational amidst a global pandemic. Individuals desperate to prove productivity and personal value as record global unemployment levels soar. Organisations activate crisis control measures, some unable to make new revenue for consecutive months, very few thriving and most treading water, desperately adapting to the current climate in order to stay afloat. The enabler for this delicate game to continue is around 12 cms in width and 24 cms in length and is found in your home. That dusty, neglected little box, hidden out of sight, scrambling data in and out is blinking its tiny lights more than ever before. The domestic wifi router is saving our jobs, keeping organisations functional and preventing our economies from complete collapse.
There is no doubt that there are pros for an organisation to have a physical presence, they go hand in hand with branding, prestige and of course some business conversations are preferable in person, but is that really worth the $31 trillion price tag? The current pandemic has left business leaders contemplating that very question, particularly as business, from a corporate point of view, is still being conducted while employees are working from home.
Although the wheels have been in motion for some time, as office space has been shrinking globally since 1990, the current shift to adopt either a pure or hybrid work-from-home model is the most significant change in the workplace we have seen since corporate off-shoring.
Some organisations have swiftly evolved to remain viable. With contact centres closing due to lock-down in the Philippines and India, Singaporean owned telecommunications organisation Optus has wasted no time adopting a permanent work-from-home model for most call centre employees. Not only allowing staff to stay safe at home during the crisis whilst retaining jobs, but Optus is also throwing in an allowance to cover the resulting increased employee spending on their utilities.
As of 2019, only 7% of the US workforce worked from home on a regular basis, compared with 15% in the UK. The pandemic has seen that number soar, Nationwide, an American insurance company, now has 98% of its staff working from home. Twitter has announced staff can work from home ‘forever’. Morgan Stanley’s CEO also sees ‘much less real estate’ in his company’s future, with around 90% of staff working from home during the pandemic. British bank Barclays’ CEO Jes Staley also vows a long term adjustment in work location strategy, saying that cramming thousands of people into a building is now a thing of the past.
The ability for organisations to react so rapidly in adopting a work-from-home model, would not have been possible without the technological infrastructure already in place both at work and in the individual’s home. In many cases, all that was needed to enable this rapid strategic pivot of relocating staff to work from their homes was the distribution of some basic computer hardware. System access for remote use was organised through pre-existing processes and expedited on an individual level once the crisis hit, a moment ought to be taken for those who set up these smooth processes and for those who processed these millions of access requests, which ensured business continuity with little lag, disruption or security breaches. Similar to decorating a cake after it’s been prepared and baked, the infrastructure and process have been pre-baked, the rest was just icing. This episode demonstrates the importance of investment and the continuous management in technology and technological processes to ensure an organisation remains nimble and to be able to quickly respond even to unpredictable events such as this.
The overhead reduction associated with forgoing some or all office space will not only save costs in the short and long run, but help bridge organisations through the immediate hurdle of surviving the pandemic, by keeping staff safe and able to fulfil their responsibilities to their organisations and focus on satisfying and retaining precious customers. It is hoped that companies will share these mammoth savings responsibly and devote a fraction towards providing a little financial assistance to cover the increased internet and electricity expenditure encountered by their staff.
Working from home obviously doesn’t only benefit an organisation’s bottom line. Research suggests that 93% of employees prefer flexible working conditions and as long as staff can remain disciplined and productive at home, apart from ensuring immediate safety, they can capitalise on less time and money spent commuting to the office and more time where it counts – binge watching programmes on Netflix and maybe even spending more time with their families.
Permanently working from home has a large effect on the individual as it touches many facets of their day and personal life. Imagine no travel time, no parking costs, no transportation costs, and no extra cost for lunches or barista made coffees. Imagine not having to live in a large city or near a train station, unless you really want to. If I were a commercial real estate agent right now, I’d certainly move into the domestic game, although the commercial real estate market will surely take a dive in the upcoming months and beyond, UK Estate Agent Savills is reporting a significant increase in London residents planning to relocate to the country. It is clear that domestic real estate will still see significant activity in some markets. Why wouldn’t you swap your cramped studio in the city for a cottage in the country or your dream Chateaux in your favorite French wine region? Particularly after this wake-up call.
Now that we are moving towards a consultant-like model with a dispersed workforce, individuals can compete for the same job and work out of their home offices whether they are in Sweden, Yemen or anywhere in between. Theoretically this new arrangement should make offshoring the golden option, however, the global inequality in internet speed may in fact have the opposite effect. As unfair as it may seem, another factor which will make or break your offer letter may be your county’s internet speed. Internet speed ranges immensely from Taiwan with the fastest with 85 mbps, the US and UK above the global average of 11 mbps with 32 and 22 mbps, respectively and Yemen has the slowest with 0.38 mbps. This means that Taiwan can download a 5 GB file in just 8 minutes, while in Yemen the same file will take 30 hours to download. The variance in internet speed puts developing countries at the bottom of the list and thus much less appealing staffing options, it seems that this vast global variance could make the rich richer and the poor even poorer, adding salt to the wound of this pandemic.
Whether pioneering organistaions have paved the way for others to follow, or this shift is just a temporary fad which will eventually revert back won’t be clear for some time, however one thing is very apparent, the Covid-19 pandemic is challenging the way we think and changing the way we do business.
Sources to further expand your knowledge:
Savills, 02/03/2020, Industry value
World Economic Forum, 02/05/2020
CNBC Article, 02/05/2020
Optus Article, 02/05/2020
Internet speed, 18/05/2020