Nobody was prepared for Covid-19.
This time last year we were traveling, enjoying holidays, going out with friends, meeting loved ones, and conducting face to face meetings.
Then our world changed in the face of Covid-19.
We thought we were ready to deal with disruptions like Covid-19 after going through SARS. The pandemic of 2003 saw some changes to work like the adoption of conferencing technology, the beginnings of a disparate and spread out workforce, and sowed the seeds of a work from home idea.
But reality set in when we found that technology couldn’t quite deliver on what they were promising.
Broadband speeds were enough to deliver good voice communication, but video was lacking unless you were prepared to splurge on the most expensive telepresence suites. Working outside of the office was difficult with limited internet coverage and no mobile coverage since 4G wasn’t an option then.
Fortunately, we were able to deal with SARS in a less than a year and kept the number of lives lost as low as possible.
And we also returned to the old ways of work with face to face meetings and work travel all returning to our lives.
And then Covid-19 arrived and the world turned again.
As the pandemic hit more countries and people, events worldwide began to be cancelled and moved increasingly online. Business travel was hit and eventually all travel was stopped. And as things became more severe, Governments worldwide began ordering shutdowns and ordering us to work from home.
Singapore was no exception and businesses and workers in the country began to prepare for the changes Covid-19 would be bringing.
A recent report from Microsoft found that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a dramatic rethink in how people and organisations work. With social distancing becoming a leading strategy in combating COVID-19, travel to the office or to client sites is being discouraged, if not outright banned. For these companies, the only solution to remain operational has been to enable work from home.
The main problem has been reacting fast enough to the changes brought about by Covid-19.
A survey of Singapore companies found that owing to a lack of digital agility, nearly three quarters (71%) have struggled to make changes to their financial plans for the year, with 63% unable to realign their organisational structures.
More worryingly for Singaporean workers, the Workday Digital Agility Index, found that just over half (52%) of organisations said that less than half of their people are equipped with digital skills and capabilities. A staggering 17% said that they have almost no employees with digital experience or skills.
Now, with the pandemic making working from home and online collaboration a top priority, organisations and individuals are reluctant to go back, and this will become the “new normal” - a recent Gartner survey found that 41% of employees are now likely to work from home at least part of the time post-pandemic.
To find out more about this new normal and how ready our companies and fellow staff are for it, we spoke to Samir Sayed the Managing Director for ASEAN and Korea at Poly.
Note: Responses edited for length and clarity
We spoke of the rise of remote working after SARS. Why is it different now? Is video conference finally here to stay or will business travel come back?
During the SARS period, video conferencing was just starting to take off, helping to break down geographical barriers in the face of travel restrictions, as well as to ensure some form of business continuity.
However, back then the technology was still at a nascent stage. It was clunky, slow, of low-quality, and wasn’t really available to the wider workforce due to cost considerations. All in all, the collaborative experience then was neither the most ideal nor effective.
Fast-forward to today, telepresence capabilities have advanced so much we can confidently say that we can now deliver lifelike experiences for teams to be able to collaborate, make decisions and drive impact despite being physically separated.
Business travel is important, but we won’t be flying for work for some time to come. Unless there is a business meeting or discussion that demands a physical presence, video conferencing is more than capable of getting the job done.
Will the old ways to work ever return? If yes, to what degree? If no, why not?
When it comes to how we work, there’s no going back to “business as usual”. As people grow accustomed to work-from-home practices and remote interactions, it will be challenging to put the genie back in the bottle.
That’s not to say that offices will become ghost towns. Offices will remain core to getting work done, for workers to congregate at a physical place for meetings or projects that demand face time. In this “next normal”, we will need to create workspaces that give people choice – there will still be a need for a central company workspace for idea generation, collaboration, and to give the workforce its sense of identity.
In the beginning, we went from working in offices to remote working arrangements, literally overnight. Now the way we work is shifting again, this time to a Hybrid Working model. According to a report by Gensler, close to 7 in 10 workers in Asia Pacific felt more empowered working from home, with nearly all of them feeling that their managers trust them in getting their work done. Organisations and business leaders are beginning to see that “place” is less important than “purpose”.
As a result, more workers will adopt hybrid working arrangements, where they split their time between their home office and the office. For some, this may mean doing the bulk of their work from home and then meeting in the office when required. As such, this new age of hybrid working means that organisations will need to focus on rallying a collaborative state of mind – one that drives productivity while also contributing to making employees’ work lives more manageable, engaging and rewarding.
How distributed will the workforce become? What will the new normal for workers look life?
Today, we are regularly seeing collaboration and work being conducted virtually. These hybrid workers will split time between working from home, and in the office. Team meetings will have a mix of employees connecting physically from the office, while others join in virtually. This also means a greater reliance on technology for connecting a distributed workforce who are becoming increasingly well-versed in collaboration technologies at the same time.
How do we approach collaboration, flexibility, inclusion, and accountability? Given more distractions at home with kids and the elderly also stuck, how should we look at productivity?
Managing a remote workforce requires a completely different skillset than what most managers were used to in the past. An effective business leader or manager will need to be good at communicating with his or her team, being available, monitoring output and fostering communication with his or her team to ensure that operations and projects run smoothly. As workforces become more virtual in nature, inclusion and belonging becomes more critical, and it is imperative for organisations to ensure that every employee feels valued.
Technology like video services and collaboration tools play a huge part in driving collaboration and promoting inclusivity within the organization. These solutions help maintain a level of social interaction for the team to come together over coffee, lunch, sharing experiences, or simply through virtual “water cooler” moments.
It is also important to consider your working environment. For workers who may have to work from home for longer stretches, it’s important to ensure their home offices are fit for purpose. DIY setups, or cheap webcams and headphones just won’t do. We need to bring business-grade technology into the home, such as professional headsets, HD video conferencing cameras, and active noise cancelling headsets to help minimise distractions, and to maximise productivity.
Can we ever switch off? What about isolation and employee mental and physical well-being?
Remote work has blurred the lines between our time being ‘online’ and ‘offline’. In a recent survey by JobStreet, more than half of the respondents who are working remotely in Singapore noted that they now had to work longer hours, while 2 in 5 found themselves working outside of their usual hours, such as in the evenings or on weekends.
This is a very concerning phenomenon. Having adequate work-life balance and maintaining mental health and well-being during this unprecedented time is critical. Humans thrive on connection and social interaction, and the lack of it can result in frustration and decreased productivity.
Personally, I find that platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and others are also helpful in staying connected to my team outside of work matters, whether through short ‘water-cooler’ breaks to chat about what everyone was up to over the weekend, or virtual happy hours to unwind.
How do we look at agility, digital and connectivity? How should connectivity be considered? Who should pay for it? What speed should telcos be providing? What about security? Is a VPN enough?
The ability for service providers to provide reliable internet connectivity will be what makes or breaks this trend of remote work. Most offices usually do not have issues with internet connectivity. However, working from home means sharing network bandwidth with your spouse who is also working remotely, your children who need to continue their classes online, and other members of the family taking the chance to binge on Netflix.
If bandwidth isn’t an issue, it’s also worth considering the value that business-grade gear can bring to your home office, whether its headsets with active noise-canceling abilities, or video bars for seamless video calls.
How can decisions be made and shared? How do we look at resilience, business continuity planning (BCP), disaster recovery (DR) and efficiency at the same time?
When the pandemic first struck, many organizations were caught on the back foot playing catch-up. We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for laptops, computer monitors, even tables and office chairs, as people rushed to equip their home offices. This knee-jerk reaction was because many didn’t even have BCPs to speak of, proving to be a rather expensive wake-up call for many organisations.
As we’re gradually moving into the next phase of workplace transition where more workers are adopting hybrid working arrangements and embracing home working in the long-term, organizations need to take a proactive approach to ensure their workers have the right tools and set-up. Many “makeshift setups” will need to transform into professional home working spaces with business-grade technology to allow them to work more effectively.
Is there a silver lining in the new normal?
The pandemic has forced organisations to rethink traditional work practices and business strategies. It has also “humanised” video meetings, as we start having children and pets being ‘regulars’ in our backdrop, and employers allowing more flexibility for workers to take care of their loved ones. With video conferencing being the primary mode of communication, it has also shown how productive we can be even while working remotely – proving that location matters less and less, and its more about the ability to add value and contribute back to the organisation.