The future of work after COVID-19

With workers being unable or not allowed to come into work, we’re about to experience a seismic shift towards remote working. The tools that enable this change are powerful and likely to transform business as we know it.

Sudden impact of COVID-19

Since December 2019 when Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was first reported in Wuhan, China, over 134,000 cases have been confirmed and more than 4,900 people have died from the disease. So it’s not just you, and some media hype. This really is big. It was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on March 11, 2020. Compared to the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak which killed 774, and the MERS outbreaks of 2012 and 2015 with a death toll of over 400, COVID-19 has come swiftly and already killed many more people. Governments are responding with travel bans, and shutting down events.

A brave new world

Many airlines cancelled all flights to mainland China, and as border restrictions tightened, many other flights were cancelled or combined. As cases popped up in new countries, travel restrictions increased. Today, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cancelled all gathering of 500 people or more. This came close on the heals of United States President Donald Trump banning travel from Europe. Events with more than 250 people, or 500 people are being cancelled in a number of states as well as schools being closed.

Photo by author Tim Marsh, when catching a combined Singapore Airlines plus Scoot flight

With students at home, workers are not able to attend the office. And businesses are taking precautionary measures by either splitting their workforce into groups that alternate between work and home. Or simply requiring all staff to work from home until further notice. Notion, the company behind the shared workspace that blurred the line between a document and a database, have transitioned to a remote worker business model. And because they know they’re not the only ones making this transition, they’ve created a wiki to share their knowledge.

We’ve been waiting for you

The COVID-19 pandemic is a disaster, but if it had to happen, it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Over the last five years there’s been an explosion of Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses that enable online collaboration and remote working. Certainly some like Trello are much older than that, and the concept of a shared workspace was around even before the abandoned Google Wave project. But it is only now that the tools required to enable businesses to work remotely have reached a sufficient level of maturity. And in many countries, bandwidth and Internet speeds are only now becoming sufficient to make the most of them. The companies behind these developments have been preparing for business to take the leap. Now that push has come to shove, they’re waiting with open arms, special deals, and plenty of advice.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

#Slack has been around since 2013 and, despite not being able to indicate if your message has been read, is one of the most popular communication services. As well as group messaging with excellent search capabilities, it also supports video calls with screen sharing, and lots of integrations. They recently announced how they’ve prepared for COVID-19 in a blog that welcomes new remote workers.

We offer a free plan with no strings attached — no credit card required and no obligation to pay. It is a robust offering that will help your team continue working through this pandemic.

Other communication services are also going their bit to promote meeting online rather than face-to-face. Zoom and Bluejeans are competing for the video conference market and have both recently posted about how they are responding to the pandemic. Zoom begins their remote working tips by saying:

With many businesses now encouraging or even mandating that employees work from home amid global health concerns over the coronavirus, millions of people can expect to have their daily routines and work styles impacted.

Bluejeans are also offering work-from-home tips starting with a similar tone:

Recent headlines have shown a growing number of companies asking their employees to work from home. As a video conferencing vendor, BlueJeans is committed to providing best practices for productivity no matter where you work.

Loom, a screen recording and video sharing service, is doing more than offering tips. They’ve announced unlimited sharing and reduced prices to enable people to remain isolated.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has led to a dramatic surge in the number of people working remotely — many of them forced. Like other software products that are especially useful for remote work and asynchronous communication, we’ve seen a sudden and dramatic increase in usage where schools are closing, in-person events are canceled, and businesses are asking employees to work from home.

GSuite is offering premium meeting features to all of its customers.

As more employees, educators, and students work remotely in response to the spread of COVID-19, we want to do our part to help them stay connected and productive with G Suite.

Even Microsoft 360 is trying to come to the pandemic party.

Microsoft is making this special E1 Trial license available in response to the increased need for employees to work from home (WFH) in response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak.

The above is not an exhaustive list of remote working services that are responding to this outbreak of disease. It’s just a quick sample of how seriously they’re taking it, and the sort of support they’re offering. The SaaS industry is welcoming this new wave of remote workers with open arms, and cash registers.

Counting heads was always a bad practice

How active someone looks while sitting at their desk for 8 hours, is not a useful KPI. Unfortunately it is such an easy way to assess how productive someone is, that it is often mistaken for one. In fact, it is such an easy KPI to gather, that many workplaces don’t measure anything else. But we all know that busily playing MineSweeper or Solitaire doesn’t contribute to the bottom line. But nor does updating the font on spreadsheet headings, or rearranging desktop icons. Encouraging busywork like this, generates more busywork, and it can choke a business.

Organisations have seen great success with digital transformation. And there are a lot of real benefits, from opportunities to automate, to increased business intelligence. But when digital transformation is taken as an opportunity to reassess what gets down and how, the discoveries can lead to far greater profits. And a lot of that comes from eliminating the busywork that became routine. Shifting to a remote working model forces some level of digital transformation. And not being able to rely on the bums-on-seats KPI forces businesses to look for meaningful ways to assess what their out-of-sight workers are accomplishing.

Incomes for outcomes

When you can’t tell how much time an employee is spending at work, you start to look at what you’re paying them for. To do that you need a clear picture of what they’ve got to do, and what success looks like. Remote working doesn’t require better systems, they were always needed. What it does do is inspire a better way of collaborating, getting things done, and communicating what has been achieved. And when employees are acknowledged for getting things done rather than time spent at work, they quickly shift to more efficient practices. They’re also more likely to point out things that are blocking their progress or suggest ways they can get results more easily.

Phantom business costs

Once you start looking at the many tools that help organise and manage workloads, enable communication, and provide collaborative environments, you’ll soon notice they’ve all got a price attached. Subscription models are very popular, and often charged per user. But as the Coronavirus pandemic draws out, and people begin to settle into their remote working routines, businesses will realise that they’re paying a lot of money for empty offices.

Image by Predra6_Photos

These phantom costs include owning or renting the premises, security, power, networking, air-conditioning, cleaning, and insurance. Then there’s the computers, printers, stationary, and all the little things like light bulbs, refrigerators in the lunch rooms, and managing bathrooms. Unfortunately those staff that are looking after these things will no longer be required. When these phantom costs are removed from the accounts, there’s plenty left to pay for all the remote working tools you could need.

Businesses might wonder where all that extra cash flow comes from, and worry that it must be costing their remote workers more. But most this is duplicated expenses because staff have computers, internet connections, and manage all of their other needs at home already. Cutting the office expense does not shift it to a new home expense. And staff gain benefits like not needing to commute, and not needing to buy or prepare lunches, as well as time saved, makes working from home cheaper.

Just until the rest of your life

Image by Qimono on Pixabay

Businesses avoid risks. And shifting from an in-house workforce to a remote workforce is a risk. And there are many changes required, which no business has the time to implement. But for many it is no longer an option. And once businesses see all of the benefits, reduced costs, and new opportunities, it is quite possible that many of them won’t go back to the old ways even when they can. This is much more likely if offices have been shut down and emptied. As for staff that are feeling more organised, being more productive and spending less time commuting, they’re not going to want to return to the old ways either. So while we don’t know how long COVID-19 will be keeping us from congregating together, we might well be experiencing a seismic shift in the way we work that lasts forever.

How far away is remote?

It won’t take long for many people to realise that working from home does not actually mean doing the work in your home. Once this pandemic has run its course, and travel is an option again, there will be a whole industry coming out of shock and looking for income from travellers. What they’re likely to find is a lot more of those travellers bringing their laptops with them, staying in one spot for much longer, and balancing sightseeing with work.

Image by Matthias Zeitler from Pixabay

When workers don’t have to turn up to a building, the HR department will also start considering applicants from further away. The gig economy which has done so well with replacing taxis and delivering meals will make inroads into the corporate world. Small tasks, and odd jobs, will be easy to hand out to once-off workers when the whole business is structured around doing its work in the cloud. And one of the oldest tasks, building a strong team and company culture, will still be with us. But the challenges will be very different. Welcome to the post-COVID-19 world.

Making sense of a complex world.