The impact of the pandemic on the world of work has been enormous and looks set to be long-lasting. ‘Hybrid working’ has the makings of a contentious topic as employees seek to retain access to remote working set-ups, choosing to return to the workplace for only a few days a week, while employers run their SWOT analyses as the peak of the pandemic (hopefully) recedes into the distance.
Dependence on the tools that were used to power remote work during the pandemic caused some technology providers’ market values to soar. At the height of Covid, Zoom’s revenues quadrupled, due in part to the huge surge in work-related video calling. In 2020, cloud technology accounted for 15 percent of the $1.56tn expenditure on corporate IT, and that looks set to accelerate as the ‘new normal’ continues to take shape.
Indeed, it’s not simply that remote work is changing the face of many established enterprises. For businesses which were founded during the pandemic, remote and distributed working are operational cornerstones. In the early months of COVID-19, around 85,000 businesses launched online stores or joined online marketplaces.
And, far from being deterred by the impact of Covid lockdowns, entrepreneurs decided to put their business ideas into practice with nearly half a million companies launching in the UK between March and September 2020, an increase of 44,500 compared to the same period in 2019. These businesses were forced to take a technology first approach, managing HR, onboarding, communications, sales, design and collaboration all remotely.
What’s interesting about this, though, is that the underlying experiences on which we all came to rely during the various lockdowns were nothing new. Video calling has been around for years; the pandemic simply drove higher volume usage and ushered into the enterprise a few consumer-tech touches like novel backgrounds and overlays.
And this raises questions about the kind of experiences technology needs to deliver if it is to provide a more effective substitute for in-person presence and interaction for a wider swathe of job types. Video calling is great but it doesn’t scratch the surface when colleagues or contacts within organizations and ecosystems need to share complex views of objects, and collaborate on a product’s value, function, operation, maintenance, and more. Think about some workflows which can no longer be taken for granted:
This kind of communication is about interaction as much as it is about verbal or video communication.
As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that this is not entirely a new problem. Paper manuals as the primary information resource for maintenance teams working on highly sophisticated machines remain widespread. But as technology has been introduced to solve practical problems caused by the pandemic, it can now also be used to update a lot of archaic processes.
Software companies need to deliver high quality interactive user experiences that meet these requirements and more. Augmented and Virtual Reality are high profile sectors and are both very powerful but, again, they are not new and application growth has been somewhat slower than we might have expected (perhaps in the case of VR due to specialised hardware requirements which aren’t always easy to accommodate).
For professionals working in the engineering, manufacturing and technical design sectors, communication has been cited as the top challenge when working remotely, followed by delayed feedback and unsatisfactory tools. Give them the right tools, of course, and it will be easier for teams and stakeholders to communicate effectively and provide feedback.
To truly empower distributed and remote workforces, businesses need to think about the physical experiences they need to replicate as well as the operational outcomes, and that means working to really understand the collaboration and communication barriers employees now face.
Crucially, these systems have to be accessible to everyone, no matter what their level of technical expertise.
Of course all of this brings with it the potential for ‘software sprawl.’ Purchasing a large number of ‘point solutions’ geared towards single processes or outcomes can easily result in companies having too many software tools, risking duplication or expensive software redundancy. A more economic and user-friendly approach is to simplify and work with tools that can meet all the requirements of those in the fields of complex work.
The last 18 months have been a challenge for many businesses, with the steepest of learning curves negotiated just to remain operational. But, crucially, we have learned a little more about how the future of work may look. And we know there is a need for a broad range of new digital working experiences beyond the mainstays of video calling and chat if companies are to stay productive, innovative, and competitive. And if we can transform stubbornly outdated workflows at the same time then we will drive additional improvements as well as overcoming the new challenges we face as a result of the pandemic.
This article originally appeared in The Evolving Enterprise