Commentary: COVID-19 could make remote working a permanent feature. That has several implications for firms
Office density may well fall for some organisations, but only for those who robustly embrace the dynamic hot-desking model, says Anthony Oundjian of Boston Consulting Group.
MANILA: The global economy has rapidly transitioned into a world of remote work.
In March, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) estimated there were up to 300 million office workers operating remotely across the world. This figure may already be higher, with more than four billion people globally currently experiencing some form of lockdown.
One curse of commentary in the COVID-19 world is that barely a word is spoken without the pace of this pandemic rendering it dated.
What we can be sure of is that a previously unthinkable number of organisations now operate in an almost exclusively virtual working environment. That poses some fascinating questions for the future of office space.
The current widespread adoption of remote working practice can broadly be defined as a reactive move. A transition to virtual operations was not just necessary, but in many cases mandatory.
This unpredictable transition resulted in early challenges for many organisations, as not everyone had suitable equipment or settings, and as new working habits needed to be formed. There was no on-site IT department ready to fix laptops, call connections, or network issues.
The quality of Internet connection emerged as another early barrier, with growth in home working, along with e-schooling, leading to a renewed appreciation of that ultra-fast office connection that many of us once took for granted.
For instance in Singapore, many who were working from home faced problems getting work done on Apr 15 when Starhub saw major disruption to its Internet services for much of the working day.
It is fair to say that despite these early hurdles; the global transition has been largely successful.
Companies around the world have pivoted to deliver key services through remote work, from the likes of DBS in Singapore to major US tech companies such as Alphabet, Facebook and Twitter.
The collective appreciation of remote working has begun to mature, supported by the adoption of technology and operational practices to enable it to succeed.
Every crisis comes with an opportunity, and it may well be that recognising the potential for home working will be a key business consideration emerging from COVID-19 with companies further upgrading remote working as part of their operational model.
That does not mean the traditional office space is set to become a thing of the past.
A DYNAMIC EVOLUTION OF THE OFFICE ENVIRONMENT
Remote working evidently suits some functions better than others. Customer care can be readily provided remotely with the right IT infrastructure. Remote automobile repairs, on the other hand, are undoubtedly a long way off yet.
Many support functions can be delivered in a work from home structure, without major changes necessary. Human resources, legal, sales support, central marketing activities, all offer examples of such functions.
It is not yet clear quite how far this transition might take root beyond the crisis period.
This may be dictated by just how long and how much the crisis evolves. It seems prudent to anticipate a model where remote practice is embraced as part of a flexible working arrangement for many organisations.
This could include job roles that adopt part-time work at home alongside regular office attendance. Such measures will complement the traditional office space, not entirely replace it.
This new normal may inspire an adaptive office model, potentially embracing a more dynamic hot-desk concept with fluid seating structures.
For instance, BCG adopted a similar model in its own New York office, leveraging digital technology through a mobile app that, amongst other things, provides a simple map-based reservation system and process to easily identify and find colleagues within the office.
Such flexible office space structures are likely to be enabled by, and in turn enable, this fresh focus on remote working.
A more dynamic workforce model could also provide a valuable platform to embrace greater diversity in the workforce.
This could be particularly helpful in supporting participation of caregivers returning to the workforce, helping to reconcile home responsibilities with the standard office hours model.
Human diversity can be leveraged as a platform for resilience, which has been pushed beyond a theory discussed in C-suite meetings to become a critical parameter of the contemporary working environment.
It should continue to be a key priority for corporate leadership once this current crisis has abated.
OFFICE SPACE IS HERE TO STAY, BUT SO IS REMOTE WORKING
Despite these benefits of remote working, the office space is here to stay even though it will not go untouched by the current transformation.
Instead, remote working is likely to be embedded more deeply in our operational environments going forward.
There are key considerations for businesses behind this decision and in managing this transition. Regardless of whether employees are working remotely or in-office, organisations have a responsibility to ensure a safe and secure working environment is maintained.
That is not just a responsibility to people but includes critical cyber security to maintain operational privacy.
Companies may need to invest more in security analysis and information security infrastructure to enable this opportunity.
Research firm Gartner reported that average annual security spend per employee doubled from US$584 in 2012 to US$1,178 in 2018. The company projects that enterprise spending on cloud security solutions would grow from US$636 million in 2020 to US$1.63 billion by 2023.
Investment in endpoint security of employee’s devices will be particularly critical in a world of remote work, with more than 70 per cent of cybersecurity breaches resulting from failures by people or processes.
Companies may also need to invest in building secure meeting platforms with the likes of Zoom recently coming under intense scrutiny for security and data breaches.
Flexible adoption of work from home will also require a more adaptive HR approach to workforce planning, both on-site provision and prescribed working hours.
Over time this may increase adoption of hot-desking and help companies optimise their spaces, even though offices will likely remain an important part of work life for the foreseeable future whether as a front for client meetings or for bosses who still prefer to have some form of face-to-face interaction.
Some cost savings from a more efficient use of office space will however provide companies with an added incentive to embrace flexible work arrangements.
Further economic benefits may well be realised from increasing overall productivity, particularly where remote working flexibility reduces time pressures such as commuting.
This is an acute problem in congested Southeast Asian cities such as Manila and Jakarta, where it is not uncommon for workers to spend hours each day stuck in traffic commuting to work.
The short-term transition to remote working has been a revolution driven by COVID-19.
The long-term adoption of remote working moving forward is likely to inspire a more gradual evolution in office utilisation.
Office density may well fall for some organisations, but only for those who robustly embrace the dynamic hot-desking model.
COVID-19 triggered the revolution. It is up to organisations to steer the office-space evolution to follow.
Anthony Oundjian is a Managing Director & Senior Partner at Boston Consulting Group.