A man works from home with his wife and children in the background. Source: AFP

A man works from home with his wife and children in the background. Source: AFP

A remote working future? Maybe ‘flexible working’ comes first

Ninety-eight percent of Goldman Sachs’ workforce is now working remotely, said CEO David Solomon in an interview on CNBC. “When you go through something like this COVID-19 outbreak, it forces you to ask questions, and think about things differently.”

Indeed, the COVID-19 outbreak has forced many to ask questions, and rethink the nature of work.

Workplaces are mandating employees to work remotely and, for now, that seems to be the mainstay.

Craig Malloy, CEO of Lifesize, believes that there will be a complete U-turn in the ‘hows’ and ‘wheres’ of normal work: “This is a massive shift in how we work that has happened almost overnight”, he said, “and we’re never going back.”

Will telework be the go-to working style after the crisis dissipates? This will be the biggest post-pandemic question that all employers will have to ready themselves for.

Of course, while many businesses will already offer some form of flexibility, many with more concrete working styles will have found the jump much more of a struggle.

Given the question over lockdown timescales, it’s difficult to predict whether we’ll see a widespread move to remote working, but there are a few clues that suggest that full-time telework may not happen any time too soon.

# 1 | We don’t have the right technology – yet

Take the video conferencing tool Zoom as an example. What became an overnight corporate hit (within the first quarter, its daily user base soared from ten million to 200 million), is now bearing the repercussions of poor data privacy practices.

‘Zoom-bombings’, lack of end-to-end encryption and data mishandling shed light on how ill-equipped the application was to handle large-scale remote workforces that assumed privacy of their business conversations would be assured.

As its number of users grew rapidly, Zoom’s rival Microsoft Teams wasn’t having a smooth ride either: users experienced two massive blackouts within three months, affecting up to 44 million users.

Will there be enough time for these videoconferencing leaders, or even up-and-coming rivals, to prove there’s a truly reliable solution to keep up face-time with our teams?

# 2 | Infrastructure is not ready

Most network providers would argue otherwise, claiming to have enough bandwidth. But bandwidth isn’t the issue, it’s about how long this surge in demand could last.

Even with enough bandwidth, limitations of devices will be a bottleneck.

Company VPNs, for example, can only accommodate a limited number of people, and not an entire workforce. Remote work would also mean no access to corporate grade networks, which many business tools would require.

# 3 | People are not ready

Remote working will not fly if employees are not ready for it.

Career planning site Zipia.com recently reported that only 51 percent of respondents prefer working from home, and 60 percent do not expect it to be permanent. This is highly suggestive that almost half of the workforce are not prepared for such a change.

If so, pushing for telework could become a waste of time and resources that results in an overall loss in business productivity.

Successfully implementing remote work is difficult, and definitely time-consuming. To expect companies to go fully remote after the pandemic might be wishful thinking, but only time will tell if remote work could become the new normal.

While the current situation may push some businesses who were on the fence around the arrangement to commit wholesale, others may be looking forward to returning to a physical, tangible workspace – a center of operations and place to bring everyone together.

What we can be certain of is that the tools we need for remote working will develop and flourish throughout this period, while businesses will continue to adapt and gain crucial experience in remote working strategy and its advantages.

As such, it may be more likely that businesses become more comfortable with a degree of flexibility, which could allow them to down-size office space and accommodate a slightly more mobile workforce.