The COVID-19-inspired digital workplace: one year in

By William Smith
We look at the changes wrought by COVID-19, and why the advent of the digital workplace is opening up changes in not just where but how we work...

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought changes that, prior to its impact, many would have said to be impossible. One of the most visible of those changes is the precipitous uptake in remote working as offices closed in the face of the virus. Now, a year since many first felt its impact, it’s worth looking back at the changes COVID-19 has wrought and the future of the newly minted digital workplace.

Even once the pandemic eventually recedes, for many that change will become, to varying extents, permanent. As Kalyan Kumar, CVP and CTO, IT Services, HCL Technologies, explains: “There will definitely be long-lasting impacts from a remote working perspective, even after the pandemic’s immediate and urgent effects have eased off. Of course, there will be situations requiring face-to-face meetings occasionally, but the majority of employees will continue to work from home at least some of the time going forward.” Partly that’s down to the investment in remote working that companies have been forced to make, such as training in the various communications platforms that have risen to the fore. “Organisations must have the foundations in place to allow employees to access their workspace in any location and from any device,” says Kumar. 

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The persistence of remote working means companies will have to change their approach and do away with the accepted standards of just one years ago. “Organisations must also regularly review applications to ensure they’re as user-friendly as possible, because technical problems are much harder to rectify when employees aren’t all in one place,” says Kumar. As part of that, a focus on security and compliance procedures must prevail. “Traditional security solutions won’t always offer the right protection when employees are accessing data from a new location or device, so ensuring only the people who are authorised to access information can do so is vital. Ensuring all systems and devices are compliant as per the organisation’s policy is another important aspect to be dealt with while remote working continues.”

While admittedly there are downsides to working remote, both employers and employees are seeing the benefits, as Andrew‌ ‌Duncan,‌ ‌Partner‌ ‌and‌ ‌UK‌ ‌CEO‌ ‌at‌ ‌Infosys‌ ‌Consulting, explains. “In 2021, organisations will look to create seamless working experiences regardless of employee location. Rather than considering offices vs. remote working, leaders will seek to find the best of both worlds, creating more flexible hybrid models of co-located and distributed work. These new work practices will prove their worth in multiple ways, from increased resilience to a better work-life balance for employees. For example, a virtual working model can offer a unique opportunity to tap into different pools of talent, which may have traditionally been harder to access due to location and geography restrictions.”

That rapid digital transformation of where we work has increased the pace of progress in how we work too, with automation a particular area of focus. Far from software and hardware robots taking our jobs, instead the emphasis is on doing away with the drudge work and unleashing our collective productivity. “If you look at the reality of the day to day work in many organisations, the value that people can deliver is not constrained by their lack of intellectual capacity. It is that they are drowning in tedious and repetitive tasks that prevent them from being their best selves,” says Neil Kinson, Chief of Staff, Redwood Software. “The focus should be on freeing the people from the things that automation can do better, so they are free to do the things people do best.”

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There are a raft of technologies on hand to assist human efforts.”Cognitive process automation (CPA) is of particular note,” says HCL’s Kumar, “and is one of the most sought after technologies that emulates human intelligence to solve problems and automate processes. CPA has been in significant demand of late, and has seen considerable implementation across different verticals and domains.” Taken together, emerging technologies can supercharge human efforts in almost all areas of the workplace. “There’s also AI, machine learning, natural language processing (NLP) and the cloud. I say these all in one breath as it’s difficult to separate them. These technologies form a key pillar for improving employee productivity, and enable the training of machines to complete existing mundane tasks, or to augment the business processes that humans execute.”

Achieving that vision is not simply about implementing technology such as robotic process automation (RPA), but also trusting workers. “The ultimate goal should be equipping your people with the best information and analysis such that they can make the best-informed business decisions,” says Kinson. “When we have freed the knowledge workers from the mundane, we can look at automating what remains, but few organisations have yet reached this level.”

Going forwards, new technologies have the potential of combining with new cultural approaches to create a truly digital workplace, with such an approach sometimes being known as hyperautomation. “A digital workforce is about more than just replicating how tasks are completed; it’s about thinking strategically about how automation can be looped into the process, so that humans can do their jobs in the quickest, most efficient way possible,” says Kumar.

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