Online collaboration, digitalization, automation and integrated supply chains: all these concepts have been floating around in the ether for years.

But until the novel Coronavirus struck, real-world progress toward ‘Business 4.0’  – leveraging disruptive technologies to drive behavioral shifts in business – had remained rather immature. 

That is according to Marc Hardwick, Research Director at industry analysts TechMarketView. He was introducing a webinar co-hosted with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) on the topic of “Navigating New Beginnings: Future of Workplace & Workforce,” which brought together business leaders from diverse sectors to discuss the future of work.

“Much of the early digital development was undertaken in a fairly anarchic environment. Digitalization has been much more focused on point-based solutions, resulting in relatively disorganized IT estates that need to be harmonized,” Hardwick explained. 

The virus has shifted the focus away from longer-term initiatives to the ‘here and now’, forcing firms to provide rapid solutions for safety, security and business continuity issues. 

As a result, digitalization and automation has picked up at an unprecedented pace, and senior decision-makers have suddenly seen the benefits: greater productivity, more collaboration, faster innovation and enhanced flexibility. 

The borderless workplace

One immediate impact of the crisis is the move away from presenteeism to what Ashok Krish, Global Head of Digital Workplace at TCS, calls “borderless workspaces”. 

This is because the future of work will not just be about working from home, it will be enabling working from anywhere. 

And key to this will not be the much-debated robotic process automation, but “humanized automation”, which aims to make employees more productive in their work and interactions with their teams, partners and customers. 

There are fundamental questions associated with this move, as Krish pointed out: how do you juggle doing your job and, for example, taking care of kids? How do you avoid the workday regularly extending from 7am to upwards of 10pm? How do you ensure that employees achieve their targets without either burning out or underperforming?

Krish made the case for new protocols and new behaviours to be put in place to resolve these issues, which would simply not have occurred in a traditional office setup. 

New technology will be required to support remote workers, while continued – and more stringent automation – will help create more resilient, adaptable ways of working over the long term. 

New tools needed

One example Krish cited is an app to ‘nudge’ people to help them complete tasks in a timely manner when they don’t have the daily, organic face-to-face feedback loop that they would have had at the office.  

So, just as workers have embraced video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, it’s now time to look out for the ‘next big thing’ in collaboration. 

According to Mark Hall, Group IT Director for Legal & General, integrating different tools for ease-of-use is the next step on this journey. 

“From our perspective, we’re looking at this as an opportunity for technology to improve people’s lives, responsibly fuel growth and change the way we work,” Hall said.

In this context, it’s important that collaboration tools do not stop at a company’s front gates but extend into the supply ecosystem to facilitate joint innovation, helping the supply chain adapt to market needs. 

Closing the communications gap

Most speakers agreed that the days of 100% office working were numbered. Offices will cease to be the place where you get your work done, they will be meeting venues for occasions where a conference call won’t suffice.     

This, again, means substantial changes to our interactions, which will need to be accommodated, as Stephen Hender, MD and CIO Credit Risk at Deutsche Bank explained: 

“We want the remote working experience to be as close as possible to being face-to-face with colleagues. As we move to agile working processes, we will prototype products to enable everyone, whether at home or the office, to collaborate effectively.”

Digital products are essential to enable everyone to collaborate effectively.

He suggested that recordings of meetings and regular ‘news flashes’ for team members could replace some of the missing face-to-face interaction, and highlighted the critical role of onboarding to help new recruits establish themselves into a new organization.  

Beware of phishing

The raft of changes following the pandemic outbreak has, of course, not been without its fair share of challenges.

First and foremost, the ‘opening up’ of the traditional office is an enormous challenge for cybersecurity. To facilitate remote working at short notice, companies have had to extend the perimeter of their networks beyond the office.  

“Incident response typically requires access to the most confidential and privileged information within an enterprise,” said Santha Subramoni, Global Head – Solutions and Centers of Excellence, Cybersecurity, at TCS. “So, from a trust-based network, we were moving towards a zero-trust approach.”

One of the most aggressive threats during the lockdown were phishing attacks trying to exploit the opening-up of the corporate network perimeter. 

The perimeter has now effectively disappeared completely. And so, endpoint protection and monitoring is, and will continue to be, a prime focus for organizations. 

And protecting the physical endpoints – PCs, laptops, mobile devices – requires not just technology but relies on remote workers being aware of the increased risks and how to handle them. 

Integrating the new and the old

The discussions underlined how the fundamental changes required in the ‘post-COVID’ world stretch far beyond technology itself. They have much wider cultural, procedural and educational implications. 

This has significant implications for the job profiles needed to drive digitalization, automation and new ways of working forward. Companies need to recruit for a growth mindset rather than just technical ability, they need to be able to bridge new and old technologies and methodologies – from mainframes to DevOps.