by Dave Mareels, CEO at SOC.OS
Remote working is here to stay. The unique impact of the pandemic has brought about a change in thinking from the top-down and new demands from the bottom-up to enable more flexible working practices. For some, it will mean rarely – if ever – setting foot in an office again. For most, the future is likely to entail a hybrid culture of in-person and remote work. But while happier staff, enhanced productivity and lower operational and building costs look great on paper, there are plenty of new challenges that must also be managed.
With transparency, communication and sensitivity as your watchwords, success here could be a real differentiator for your organisation.
Major global events often lead to unintended changes to society. The influenza pandemic of 1918-19, for example, is widely believed to have spurred the creation of socialised healthcare systems in many countries. In some respects, COVID-19 was the largest, global social experiment the world has seen in a very long time, and I believe has already had a major long-lasting impact on the way we work. According to official figures, the number of British employees doing some work from home (WFH) at the height of the pandemic in April 2020 was 47%, rising to more than half (57%) in London. Research tells us that more than half of employees want to continue doing so for “most” of the week, even after the pandemic has receded.
Downsizing office space and operational facilities could save considerable sums of money. Knowledge workers are more productive at home, and the experience of the pandemic has shown that they can be trusted to do their job away from the watchful gaze of managers. There’s all the time and money saved on commuting, and an environmental benefit that companies can add to their ESG measurables. The prevalence of superfast home broadband and online collaboration platforms have made remote working even more seamless.
At SOC.OS it was always our intention to rent a small office near BAE Systems HQ (where we started out), but the pandemic forced our hand somewhat. Now most of our staff want to continue working remotely and we’ve embraced that. It’s even opened up new opportunities for hiring a more geographically diverse workforce, not centred around southeast England. In effect, it means you can truly hire the brightest and best, regardless of location. Home working has also allowed our people to be flexible not only where, but when they work — taking into account childcare and other commitments. This further enhances personal wellbeing and, ultimately, productivity.
However, there are challenges. Employers often fret about how to enforce rules and discipline and imbue corporate culture and ethics in a remote working world. The first is surprisingly straightforward. If you have an empowered workforce who believe in the mission, you don’t really need any hard-and-fast rules. If each team member knows their role and how it contributes to achieving wider company objectives, they will usually work hard without needing supervision.
Communication is key, both in setting the “tone from the top” and in setting out corporate culture and ethics to new recruits. We have various daily meetings and all-hands calls to maintain close interaction between staff and managers. Every six weeks, we also present our board pack to the entire company. New joiners are invited to read, and create their own “user manuals”, which include simple answers to questions such as “My preferred working hours are…”.
The tone you use in these user manuals can be a powerful mechanism for building company culture. But it’s not all about what you write down on paper or hang on the wall. Culture comes from the hundreds of tiny daily interactions you have with team members. It’s also vital, especially in a remote working culture, to find new and creative ways to take care of employee wellbeing. It could be regular “lunch and learn” sessions or the odd Friday afternoon social. It also means being supportive and flexible around working hours and communications preferences. Video fatigue is real. No-one should feel obliged to have their webcam on for every meeting, or equally, feel bad to have it switched off
The security story
Part of getting remote working right is ensuring you don’t expose your organisation to unnecessary risk. When the world stayed home last year, attackers adapted quickest to target distracted employees, under-protected devices and home networks, and vulnerabilities in remote access tools. Pre-occupied IT security teams, drafted in to help support the rapid shift to distributed working, were frequently caught on the back foot.
Simple steps such as enhanced phishing awareness training, adding multi-factor authentication to RDP accounts, or whitelisting IP addresses so only a corporate VPN can access a resource, can result in major improvements. Hopefully, a greater awareness of security issues at the top will help to drive up baseline levels of protection and increase the use of best practices.
There’s no silver bullet to successfully managing a remote workforce. In some respects, it’s more challenging than the old monolithic office-based ways of doing things But there’s no going back—and if you can get it right, it’s amazing, everyone wins.