A move towards working from anywhere means there is a need for tech that works in any location. Dominic Black explains the points to consider
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A radical change, enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic, has taken place in the world of work. The number of workers forced to move away from the traditional office environment has outstripped even the most extreme forecasts.
Although this trend was caused by an unexpected external catalyst, we are unlikely to see a reversion back to the previous model of working. Work from anywhere (WFA) is here to stay, and employers and employees are making plans for more permanent structural changes.
As a result, many organisations will now have to fully embrace hybrid working models. They will need to offer technology solutions that can cater for remote working requirements, but that also allow staff to return to the office when required for face-to-face interactions, customer meetings and social events.
What are the benefits?
Research also demonstrates that there are a number of benefits associated with more flexible working practices. For example, you might assume that productivity would suffer as staff move away from their on-site office environments, but various studies now show that this might not be the case.
Morale and well-being can also be improved. Giving staff the opportunity to work flexibly enables a better work/life balance, more time with family, and less commuting, which saves employees time and money. This is particularly relevant for groups such as parents or those with a disability who may have previously been limited by office-based work and traditional hours.
There are potential cost savings to be had, too.
Fewer people in the physical workplace means less office space is required, which cuts leasing costs. This, combined with other savings related to building management such as heating, cooling and lighting, can create a substantial saving.
Flexible working practices can also help with recruitment and retention. Enabling WFA gives potential employers access to a significantly larger talent pool from which to recruit. Traditionally, both employees and employers have been restricted by geographical constraints. Now organisations can hire the best talent regardless of their location. On top of that, millennials and Generation Z place a larger value on flexibility in the workplace. Companies that embrace remote working are seen as more in touch with their employees’ needs and are more likely to attract more diverse talent who might have previously been unable to apply for positions without flexibility or unable to work to their full potential.
What are the challenges?
There are a number of key issues that any organisation has to overcome to enable staff to effectively work from anywhere. Cavell’s research has highlighted some of the more common challenges that businesses face when exploring the technology solutions necessary to enable flexible working.
Security and compliance presented the most common challenge: we found that 45% of companies of all sizes struggled with this during the pandemic. Issues such as ensuring secure systems access, enabling remote customer contact agents to process data or payments, or maintaining data privacy have added headaches to already complex business procedures.
Businesses have also faced key cultural challenges. How do you best manage a team when they aren’t all working in the office alongside you? Organisations have embraced immersive technologies that allow them to stay connected with their user base while maintaining the company culture. Collaborative tools and enterprise social networking platforms have become more valuable in helping organisations to connect disparate teams.
Hardware has been another major challenge. If you don’t have access to a portable device such as a laptop, a tablet or a mobile phone, then working from home is much more challenging. Businesses without the required hardware were forced to quickly deploy solutions that might not have been the most efficient. Moving desktop computers into employees’ homes was a common occurrence.
More than a third of businesses reported that employees did not have reliable network access to allow them to work from home. Domestic connectivity packages were tested to the limit, with homeworkers suddenly competing for bandwidth alongside the rest of the family. Those businesses that were able to quickly assist staff with networking and connectivity solutions – such as business-grade fibre connections – were able to adapt to the new scenarios quicker.
What factors should employers consider as they seek to future-proof their workforce?
First, evaluate your existing technology. Making sure you have the right solutions in place is key to future-proofing your business. Many companies had to hastily deploy solutions during the onset of the pandemic to ensure their businesses could remain viable – and now is the time for a full review. Are the solutions you have in place really suitable for a business? Do they offer the security, compliance and analytics features that your business needs?
It’s time to explore market-leading, business-grade solutions and move any users away from consumer platforms that might have filled a gap but aren’t going to be suitable for the long term.
Second, fill in any gaps. Once an evaluation has been completed, it’s vital that your users have the right tools and solutions in place to help them remain productive, and to ensure they can stay in touch with colleagues and customers – wherever they are located. Collaboration applications are a great way to consolidate multiple communication mediums – like voice, video and chat – so ensuring you have an enterprise-class collaboration solution could be a great place to start.
And third, Make sure your staff are up to speed. Even if you have the perfect technology infrastructure in place, it’s useless if your team doesn’t know how to use it.
Ensuring that users have access to the right training is vital in helping them stay productive. This is where technology partners come in.
Using specialist providers to not only implement the right solutions but also to help your users maximise them is key – so ensure the partners you choose are the right ones for your business.
Steve Denby, head of sales enablement, Node4
As we all paused for a minute’s silence on 23 March to commemorate one year since the first COVID-19 lockdown, a few of us were probably looking back at the past year and contemplating the massive changes that have happened in our working lives. Many of us have now been working from home for more than a year, and my personal experience is that this has brought new freedoms and challenges in equal measure.
Perhaps the most important change has been a rapid shift in senior management perspective. Suddenly the argument about whether remote working was right for their organisation was resolved. It was a case of either evolving immediately, or accepting that competitors may leave them behind and mop up their customers before lockdown lifted.
Let’s consider a few of the more personal changes to our working lives. We’ve become much more comfortable with video technology. Some of us are spending more than five hours a day on calls, and a new world of online meeting etiquette is moving into our working lives.
Work and home life have had to live side by side. Finding a quiet corner in a busy home or being isolated for days at a time is challenging, and it’s far too easy to slip into working longer hours unintentionally.
So there has been lots of change – some good, some not so good. But which of these changes are here to stay? We all now know that it’s possible to work from home, and there are upsides here for both employer and employee. Any housing provider looking to go back to an office-only workforce will probably struggle to retain their best and brightest people, and customers may even question the logic of doing so.
Working from home a few days a week is going to become ubiquitous. While video conferencing is here to stay, face-to-face meetings still feel more productive to many. Also, it can’t be denied that an office atmosphere is desirable for great culture and team relationships. The office isn’t going anywhere – but depending on the role, it might be the exception not the rule for some, and vice versa.
In the not-too-distant future, it won’t matter where you are. You’ll be able to access applications and communicate as if you’re sitting at your desk. In short, it will be easier to get more done while on the move.
Steve Denby, head of sales enablement, Node4
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One of South Yorkshire Housing Association’s developments
In December 2019, South Yorkshire Housing Association moved into a new head office in central Sheffield. It wasn’t just its old home that South Yorkshire Housing Association had outgrown, however. It had also outgrown its IT. “As the business changed and grew, so did the technology. We got left behind a little bit. We were trying to work in a modern way with old technology,” says Adam Collin, head of IT at South Yorkshire Housing Association.
South Yorkshire Housing Association’s managed network infrastructure was being looked after by several contracts with outside suppliers, all of which were up for renewal. South Yorkshire Housing Association’s IT had also been centred on a single server room in its old offices; its outdated hardware had served as the primary data centre and primary internet router for South Yorkshire Housing Association’s more than 25 branch offices. It was a chance South Yorkshire Housing Association could not pass up.
“We decided to take advantage of the [office move and contract expiry] dates roughly lining up and modernise our infrastructure,” Mr Collin says.
Most crucially, South Yorkshire Housing Association decided to do away with its server room and migrate to a co-located infrastructure. The potential benefits were significant. Upgrading the network would improve its stability and reliability, and this was key to improving the capacity of South Yorkshire Housing Association’s staff to work remotely, something that – in December 2019 – was about to become vitally important to organisations of every stripe.
The move would also eliminate South Yorkshire Housing Association’s dependence on its server room, and by removing the need for one, free up more space in the new HQ. And this could all be achieved without increasing costs, thanks to savings generated by using the shared infrastructure of a data centre (such as back-up generators, redundant uninterrupted power supplies to keep things running in case of an outage, and fire suppressants).
South Yorkshire Housing Association also wanted a new kind of relationship with its IT partner. “Historically, we had a provider that used another provider to do X, Y and Z,” says Mr Collin. “That meant we were going through a middleman. We were never part of the conversation.”
There were significant downsides to this approach. Mr Collin and his colleagues in South Yorkshire Housing Association’s IT department have plenty of know-how and experience – but this outsourcing approach meant their expertise was not being fully leveraged. Furthermore, South Yorkshire Housing Association wanted to have those conversations itself: “We were looking for a partner that wanted to hear about what we were trying to do, and not just upsell whatever technology was the best margin,” Mr Collin adds. “I don’t expect any business to have the same values as us – but coming up with solutions with that in mind is important. It’s about understanding what we do.”
There were risks associated with the move. South Yorkshire Housing Association had a short window of time in which to migrate its systems to a hybrid infrastructure – and it had to do so while remaining operational throughout. South Yorkshire Housing Association chose Node4 as its new partner, removing those intermediaries at a stroke. The two organisations worked collaboratively to design a bespoke solution tailored to South Yorkshire Housing Association’s needs and values. The migration went without a hitch; Mr Collin’s team did not receive a single ticket from South Yorkshire Housing Association staff during the process.
Today, the benefits of this move are clear. South Yorkshire Housing Association saw an immediate decline in network stability issues following the move – and when the pandemic hit, it was able to continue delivering services remotely thanks to the redesigned and strengthened network.
Moving to a dedicated offsite facility, meanwhile, has eliminated previous concerns around associated infrastructure such as power supplies, cooling and a lack of redundant systems.
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