While we are all still adapting to the dramatic and unparalleled impact that the ongoing pandemic is having on our professional and personal lives, it is worth considering how much of this influence is temporary and which aspects mark a long-term shift in working practices and behaviours as we currently know them.
Rightly so, the focus of global governments and business leaders is on the health crisis element of the pandemic, with the number one priority being saving lives. Yet in time, it will turn to addressing the impact of the economic and social crisis that has beset our global economies and daily lives, with an emphasis on getting “back to normal” as fast as we can.
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But will we want everything to get 'back to normal'?
Already there has been glimpses of some positive impacts of the global shut down: clear skies over the previously permanently polluted Wuhan, wildlife returning to the waterways in Venice, a fresh respect and increased resources for our health services everywhere, freshly bolstered technology, and a sense of businesses and communities coming together to help each other at a time of crisis.
Let’s look at six ways in which our working lives might also change for the better long-term.
1) Employee experience becomes a thing, and can’t be ignored
Having had it forced on them in a crisis, companies will need to take employee experience much more seriously from now on. This means not only providing employees with the right tools and technologies to do their job but also designing remote ways of working with reference to their needs; making their working experience richer and more rewarding as well as productive.
Prior to Covid-19, employees were selecting employers who were able to offer a positive work experience including flexible benefits, modern working practices and a healthy culture. Post Covid-19 you can add the right tools and sustainable home working to that list. If you haven’t prioritised employee experience as a business you may find yourself struggling to attract the top talent.
2) Video and collaboration tools become mainstream, and will get better
Video conferencing and collaboration tools have existed for some time, but many companies have proved reluctant to adopt them on a mass scale. During the next few months, a broad range of tools and technologies will be experimented with by those who have not needed to use them before. Whilst Slack and Microsoft Teams will be more commonly known as communication tools, others which allow collaboration and workflow management such as Miro, Mural, Jira and Tableau are likely to take centerstage, as businesses work out how to fulfil the role of meeting and collaborative working spaces in a remote digital environment.
These tools are great, but they have tended to be used by the creative and technology parts of the business, not used organisation-wide as a means of communication and co-working. They were not necessarily designed to cope with the demands of company-wide meetings, or formal new business presentations, or creative thinking workshops. This means providers need to move fast to bolster the technological infrastructure underpinning them, and build out the use cases to make the experience even better.
My recommendation to software providers and businesses using these tools is to capture all pain points or niggles they have had with these tools, as this knowledge can be used to design better solutions, fit for the “new normal”.
Considerations include coping with large numbers of participants, providing branded backgrounds, using video for important formal meetings when everyone is in a different home office, better lighting and cameras, more robust underlying technology, variable speed etc.
These are small things, but they will be important to get right if we are to adopt these tools more in the future.
3) New ways to keep culture thriving
Whilst individually we may be finding this sudden move to work from home weird, isolating and unnatural, there will be new creative ways to connect with colleagues and friends.
Already we see groups gathering virtually for drinks or to watch a common Netflix stream. We’re like to see services develop more features which recreate experiences you’d share with friends but from home.
Companies are retaining their virtual “cake Fridays” and similar social conventions. Likewise, Slack has lots of applications which stimulate contact with colleagues. We will see more people unite over common hobbies as they seek ways to feel less isolated and more engaged.
4) Spot and plug the gaps in our business continuity plans
The Covid-19 outbreak has resulted in a widespread adoption of home working, a ceasing of business travel, and the temporary closure of organisations worldwide. Business in general has hitherto proved resistant to experiment with wholescale remote working or even truly flexible working policies, but the next few months will test business continuity plans and their ability to protect staff at the same time as maintaining operational effectiveness.
I believe, the businesses that use this as an opportunity to test and learn, and then build those learnings into their future operating models will be the businesses that recover faster when the lock down ends.
5) Remote working is here to stay, so let’s make it work brilliantly
Vital lessons will be learnt on how to effectively manage and support large numbers of remote workers, across the full range of functions, for the very first time. Banks and insurers are working out how to provide call centre capabilities when operators work from home, and how they respect client data in that process.
This means thinking hard about workflows, home environments and information security. For example, some companies are giving team members new encrypted devices but what about the risk of that data being exposed to the people they live with in close quarters?
Large IT project teams will also work out the protocols and processes required to continue working effectively in agile methodologies when all its members are at home. Necessity now lays the groundwork for more opportunity in the future.
Companies will start to see that there are cost advantages to having fewer offices and more people working from home, and some of us as employees will prefer that too, resulting in some businesses putting in place permanent flexible working policies that work for both parties.
6) Business travel may be a thing of the past
Organisations that have to put a temporary ban on business travel will discover new ways to connect, work and make decisions across international locations, virtually. They will be amazed at the savings they make, both on travel and time, and they will note the continuity in projects being delivered, sales being made and business functionality.
Questions will be raised as to whether businesses will want to go back to supporting face-to-face meetings with the high cost of international and domestic business travel. Plus, we are already starting to see the positive environmental impact of our decreased carbon footprint.
Importance of learning
The learning we all do now, whether as an individual employee or a business, will be critical to understanding and designing better working practices, culture, tools and technologies in the future.
This is a time for product and service designers to step up and create wholesale changes to the way we organise ourselves, and the way in which the tools and technologies that we use are improved to help us operate better, both for the employee and for the business.
This is not just to get ready for any further situations like the Covid-19 outbreak that may lie in the future, but because there are many business, social and environmental benefits to be had in adopting these new ways of working on a permanent basis.
Peter Ballard is Founding Partner at Foolproof, a Zensar Company.
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Peter Ballard co-founded experience design agency Foolproof, part of the Zensar Group, in 2002. Prior to starting the company, he was marketing director at Virgin Money. Today, with over 15 years' experience within e-commerce and experience design, he works across a range of clients helping design and develop engaging and highly effective multi-channel customer and user experiences, across multiple industry verticals.