The impact of working from home
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With the Covid-19 outbreak causing more home working it is pertinent to consider its impact, both in the long term and the short term. In the longer term I think many people and many companies will find that it is much more practicable, and enjoyable, than they had previously thought. As a result, once this outbreak is all over, I think we will see much more home working, whether full or part time. This will be good for companies that require less office space (though bad for the owners of office blocks), for individuals who like that sort of lifestyle, and for the planet because there will be much less commuting (which will be bad for public transport) but good for the environment. In this last case, this not only applies to global warming but also pollution levels. Indeed, The Times has reported (17th March) that Nitrogen Dioxide emissions are significantly reduced across Europe and China because of the current lockdowns and, given that the European Environment Agency estimates that pollution contributes to 400,00 early deaths per year across Europe, an ongoing reliance on increased levels of home working can only be a good thing.
From a technology perspective home working will test company’s adaptability. Here at Bloor Research we have been focusing on the concept of the “Mutable Business” for some years, with the focus being less on digital transformation as a technology and more on talking about business outcomes and value creation. In practice this means that organisations need to be in a continuous state of reinvention. This certainly applies to the current situation and there are many aspects to this, only a few of which I discuss here. My colleagues will also be writing about the impact of home working with respect to the areas that they cover.
Returning to the subject at hand in the short term there will, of course, be teething problems. I know one company that experimented with having its entire office staff working from home last week, just to find what would go wrong. One of the pitfalls it discovered was that the company’s receptionist had not been set up to be able to forward calls when working remotely. This is easily fixed but such problems need to be identified. More generally, organisations will need to trigger a review of unified communication and collaboration capabilities. Many medium and large enterprises don’t have good/strategic solutions in this respect at present, usually having a collection of disparate point technologies that don’t address these issues in a holistic manner.
As it happens software companies are very familiar with home working – it is commonplace – so may be best placed to advise on how to make it work, at least in a general sense. There will be, for example, issues around security. Identity and access management may need rethinking in the light of home working. Given that it is now generally accepted that cloud-based solutions are at least as secure, if not more so, than on-premises implementations, home working could even be yet another driver towards the use of cloud-based software and services.
When considering home working more generally, there are three classes of employees. Those that cannot work from home (plumbers, bricklayers, taxi drivers, nurses and so on); those that are used to working from home or, at least, away from the office; and those that are typically office-bound. It is the last group for whom challenges are likely to arise. As with the receptionist mentioned above, they may not have the necessary access rights to software and services that they need, and these will have to be set up. Moreover, it will often be the case that the software they use on a day-to-day basis is not – and perhaps cannot be – installed on their home desktops or laptops. Companies in this position will need to consider moving to browser-based interfaces, which may be another driver towards cloud-based implementations. A related issue is with respect to licensing costs. If software licenses or subscriptions are user-based, is this by named individual (allowed to use any relevant device) or is it device-based? If the latter, I hope that software vendors will not try to exploit this situation because home working users are now using an additional device. I trust that any company that attempts to do this will be publicly named and shamed.
A further risk associated with not having full access to all your normal software and services is with respect to end user computing and, particularly, with spreadsheets. It is easy to imagine a home worker who does not have full access to his usual reporting tool – perhaps he or she can see it but not manipulate the data therein – copying that data into a spreadsheet running at home. The problem here is that this is uncontrolled. There is the possibility (likelihood) of errors creeping into the data (fat fingers, equations in the wrong place and so on), an increased risk of deliberate fraud, and, perhaps worst of all, lots of people doing the same thing with the same spreadsheets but all in their own way. This proliferation can cause major headaches because you have different versions of the same thing and you don’t know which version is the most recent or which is the most accurate. The more critical the application (budgeting, planning, market trading and so on) the greater the risk you are potentially exposed to. The solution is to have version control and management for these sorts of assets (not just spreadsheets) so that the divergence of data can be tracked, and accuracy checked. In general, I expect that a number of companies will get into a mess over this issue in the coming months, so another result of home working, in the longer term, will be an uptick in companies (outside the financial sector, which is already well aware of this problem) investing in either spreadsheet management or spreadsheet replacement software. Once again, cloud-based approaches may get more traction in this scenario.
There’s obviously a big downside associated with Covid-19, but it is not, and should not be, all gloom and doom. I expect significant long-term changes to life and workstyles that will ultimately be of benefit to the planet as a whole.