Remote Working series: Is remote working a boon or bane for the modern world?By Ryan Noik 8 April 2020 | Categories: interviews
In our latest entry in our remote working series, Dell Technologies' client solutions director Chris Buchanan (CB) talks to Ryan Noik (RN) about the benefits and disadvantages of working remotely. He furtheroffers advice for organisations prepared for enabling a remote workforce and those who were caught by surprise.
RN. Can you speak about the relevance of remote working with regards to COVID-19 and the current lockdown?
CB: The pandemic has created fear and uncertainty. Still, one silver lining is that many industries can operate remotely. Even in sectors where the main work lines have stopped, digital connectivity is still making limited administrative and operational activity possible. At a time where every effort counts, no matter how small it is, we can be thankful that remote working is practical and has had a little time to mature as well.
RN. Do you think that beyond this pandemic and the need for social distancing companies will continue with remote working?
CB: This period is interesting because we can put remote working theories to the test. If you listen to conversations on the topic, there are already many new ideas and a lot of misassumptions have been disproven. I believe the organisations that are paying close attention will calibrate their workforce in new ways, taking advantage of remote working. It doesn’t mean we’ll all work from home even after the pandemic, but I expect there will be more creative and robust adoptions of the concept.
RN: To what extent has it brought to light the need for enabling a remote workforce - not just talking about one?
CB: There wasn’t a need to enable a remote workforce. Those needs are still being defined. For example, can a remote workforce save you significant money on office rental? The current need is to keep the world’s economies going as much as possible, and for that remote working was a good fit. But we live in a time where the real value of remote working is now being pursued, and that will change conversations around the need for remote working, judged on a company-by-company basis.
RN:.There is some speculation that even once this pandemic is brought under control, there may be a need for further lockdowns for the next 12 to 18 months. What is needed in your opinion to make the transition between working onsite-at home and back again smoother?
CB: I would rather not speculate on the extension of the lockdown. One thing the current climate has revealed is how much overlap there is between remote working and on-site working. It involves the same devices and the same networks to gain access to the same systems. If you have a proper digital foundation in your business, you can handle the technical demands of remote working.
The real changes need to happen at the cultural level - how to manage workforces and motivate them. It’s that flexibility that will determine a company’s success in such uncertain times.
RN: What advice can you offer for those organisations that have not been prepared for remote working and enabling a remote workforce?
CB: They must first define the needs of their workforce. At Dell, we use four workforce personas: Desk Centric, Corridor Warrior, On-the-go-pro and Remote Worker. We look at the types of devices and accessories (eg. Displays, docking stations, VOIP headsets) they need to do their jobs, as well as the access and network requirements so they can securely use company resources.
Once you have this view, you can look at extending support and services for everyone. Don’t neglect matters such as management tools and IT support. You will want to have collaboration platforms, define clear channels of communication, and look closely at your security strategy.
RN: And what tips would you offer those companies that are prepared but just need to optimise their remote working strategies to ensure business continuity?
CB: Operations and management are most likely to be stuck in ways counter to remote working. Ask the hard questions: do your managers know how to manage staff and projects from afar? Are the deadlines and KPIs you use compatible with remote working? What are you doing to ensure continued synergy in remote teams? Is any part of your organisation under extra pressure because of remote working, such as IT?
Are departments without the right tools potentially less effective during remote working, such as HR? Technology is just a small part of effective remote working - the biggest impact is on the how and why of operations and line of business.
RN: What is your vision for remote working in the future? Do you think for example it will propel virtual reality into the mainstream, lead to a more popular adoption of headsets and greater affordability in these?
CB: The utopian vision is that there is a seamless transition between your home and corporate office and any other remote space you may work in. Security and connectivity are the two governing factors on the technology side at this stage. However, the biggest obstacle is the cultural shift – humans are social creatures and I believe it will take a while before we are able to accept pixels over presence. I think the lockdown experience will make people more comfortable with the idea of remote working and make it less intimidating.
Already a lot of organisations are insisting that meeting participants switch on their video feed to improve the quality of the meeting and the morale of remote workers. Employees will have a better expectation of remote working and companies will adopt it in different ways. But current experiences also reveal that remote working has its drawbacks. Many employees might not miss the commute, but they miss the community created by an office environment.
The lockdown in South Africa happened so fast that the priority was to ensure all remote workers had a device, laptop or desktop. The additions of docking stations, external monitors, headsets etc. will most likely follow as remote workers realise how much time they need to spend collaborating with other remote workers.
RN:.Can you speak to the concern that remote working will result in no social/in person contact?
CB: I think it’s an overrated concern. Remote working isn’t superior to on-site working. It has advantages and disadvantages. The reason why we are using remote working right now isn’t due to its appeal, but to mitigate the damage of the pandemic. There is a chance that remote working might be abused to the level that it causes social problems. But I believe that businesses that take that path will not succeed.
RN: What do you think of the downsides of remote working?
CB: In Japan, where the culture is famous for little to no human contact, a lot of emphases is nonetheless placed on physical meetings. So even in such a stoic society, personal contact is held as very significant. Social contact is important, and a society with only remote working will lose a major advantage. We can’t only have remote working, but we can admit that the current model of everything on-site is not effective anymore either. The problems occur when we go too far into one or the other.
RN: Finally, what in your mind are the primary benefits now, and in the future, to enabling a remote workforce?
CB: One thing people noticed during this current period is how much more efficient they are. There is less idling, meetings are shorter, and there appears to be more clarity around information. I think the major benefit of our current remote working experiences is seeing that how we’ve been doing things is not efficient. Up to now, we’ve been paying a lot of lip-service to such arguments.
Companies have not been taking remote working seriously, other than to keep individual employees happy. But now that many people, including executives, have been forced to experience this way of working, the benefits are much more tangible and open to realistic discussions.
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