By Ved Sen, Digital Evangelist, Tata Consultancy Services

If there is a runner-up to ‘coronavirus’ and its permutations for ‘Word of the Year 2020’, it has got to be ‘pivoting’.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, we have pivoted in so many ways: office workers switched to home working within days; manufacturers shifted from their usual product lines to medical devices and consumables; and large swathes of consumers moved from the high street to the information super-highway.

We don’t know how many of these trends will develop once the viral threat abates, but there is one area that is unlikely ever to pivot back to pre-COVID-19 times: remote working.

This is according to a new survey from Tata Consultancy Services (TCS).

Before the pandemic, the average billion-dollar enterprise across the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific had only 9% of its workforce working mostly from home. When the virus struck, this percentage increased seven-fold (64%). And it is expected to remain elevated through 2025, when companies predict that an average 40% of employees will work mainly from home.

And even beyond the middle of the decade, it will not be possible to put the remote working genie back into the bottle.

The hybrid office

According to the TCS survey, Asia will have the most workers likely to work from home (45% of the average workforce) closely followed by Europeans (41%) and North Americans (37%).

It’s not just the statistics that point in that direction: many organizations have already made a firm commitment to remodelling – or even cutting down on – their existing spaces.

Nationwide Insurance, market researcher Nielsen, engineering company Siemens, Twitter and Barclays Bank have all announced that large swathes of the workforce will be able to work remotely in future.

Here at TCS, our ‘25 by 25’ Vision, means that by 2025 only 25% of our workforce of nearly 450,000 worldwide will work out of TCS facilities at any time. And even then, only 25% of their workweek will be in the office. Many offices are being converted to a mix of hot-desking and meeting rooms, underlining this transition.

But if anyone thinks that this emergency ‘pivot’ to home-working has readied organizations for a long-term move to a distributed, location-independent work model – think again.

We cannot rest on our laurels.

Remote working is here to stay. Source: Shutterstock

Packaging resilience and agility

To start with, technology needs to evolve significantly beyond where we stand today.

Keeping employees productive, secure and working in agile teams from wherever they are has driven, and will continue to drive, technology investments.

The TCS survey shows that the most common areas of technology investment are those that support the efficiency and safety of remote workers – collaborative tools (65%), cybersecurity (56%) and cloud-native technologies (51%).

But the current trend towards implementing point solutions for a range of different purposes will only ever be an interim step: to enable the high levels of resilience and adaptability businesses need in uncertain times, a much more integrated approach must be taken.

Current technologies are likely to transition to much more integrated packages, as exemplified by solutions such as TCS Secure Borderless Workspaces™ (SBWS™).

These will combine the disparate number of tools we currently use and allow us to manage a remote operation in a much more organized and centralized way.

They will bring together data and application access for remote workers via the cloud; cybersecurity cover for systems and individuals; project management and communication services that close the gap with face-to-face interactions to a much greater extent than is possible today.

Digital platforms also have the advantage of making everything measurable, and by switching to highly analytics-based models, managers at all levels will have a much better ‘dipstick’ for gauging what is going on within their distributed organization.

Cloud technology has made working from home considerably easier. Source: Shutterstock

More than just technology

Also included within this will be a wide range of human functions, including talent management and employee engagement, along with process tools and governance mechanisms.

This is because HR and functional managers need to find new ways of interacting with their staff, task-managing, developing and motivating employees without the benefit of them physically being in the office.

For instance, managers must look beyond the ‘9-to-5’ principle. Workers will increasingly work in small, remote but tight-knit teams focused on the quality rather than the quantity of their output or working hours. More like artisans in their approach, these teams need to be empowered and accountable for the success of their projects – not micromanaged.

At the same time, organizations must learn how to care for their workers’ wellbeing with fewer physical touchpoints, to protect them from upending their work-life balance and from burnout. Again, analytics – for example of working hours logged – can help here, but there are two other critical elements to this.

The first is creating a responsible working culture that draws the line between work and non-work time. Technically, these lines can be made visible in staff calendars and collaboration tools but what is more, is that staff respect them.

The second is fostering communities remotely. This means being in each other’s lives a little more than we traditionally would, but in our experience, during the lockdown, this increased proximity was an important source of human support.

Communities become even more critical as organizations hire more and more from ‘Talent Clouds’ where candidates could be anywhere in the world and face-to-face interaction will be naturally limited.

Fostering communities remotely is essential. Source: Shutterstock

Unleashing human talent

Technology needs to do its part to facilitate a new working culture that is more resilient and agile – and built around empowered, artisanal employees who work towards the company’s purpose, without the need for micromanagement.

The TCS study finds that organizations with well-developed digital capabilities saw less revenue decline and if they did were expecting to bounce back much faster. This suggests that driving the transition to a distributed working culture could allow them to stand head and shoulders above competitors who linger in the past.