Where Are You?—Remote Workers and Virtual Offices

Guess what: 2020 has left an indelible mark on people, businesses, and the economy. From the early reports of the coronavirus being detected in the United States to the lockdowns and restrictions found in many states, COVID-19 proved to be the most damaging element in a year of unrest and confusion. Companies in all industries and of all sizes experienced changes in their workflow because of the virus and its corresponding illness, COVID-19. And we can expect this to be the new normal for most businesses.
Construction wasn’t exempted from the impact even though it was classified as an “essential activity” in most cases. And one of the most drastic effects was the implementation of stay-at-home mandates and the requirement for remote work. If the worker swung a hammer or laid bricks, that couldn’t be done from home, virtually by Zoom. But most office workers found they had a new way of working, online and by smartphone. Welcome to the virtual office movement.
Although the term “virtual office” has been in use for decades, it gained a new definition in 2020. No longer was it referring to a shared space in an office complex that was available to those without the need for daily physical access to an office. Now “virtual” meant just that, no physical element, just an online presence. And what may have sounded like a mini vacation from the office turned out to be a major disruption in lifestyles and productivity for many people and companies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a crisis for small businesses, including contractors and subcontractors. According to research firm McKinsey, in the U.S., there were 25.3% fewer small businesses open in December 2020 than at the beginning of the year (the bottom was in mid-April, when the figure was almost half). U.S. small-business revenue fell more than 30% between January and December 2020.
There is little doubt that the acceleration in the use of technology, digitization, and new forms of working will be sustained throughout 2021 and beyond. Many executives reported that they moved 20 to 25 times faster than they thought possible on things like building supply-chain redundancies, improving data security, and increasing the use of advanced technologies in operations. Perhaps it’s true that dealing with the pandemic provided the needed push to review and improve the old ways of doing business. The COVID-19 crisis created an imperative for companies to reconfigure their operations—and an opportunity to transform them. To the extent that they do so, greater productivity will likely follow.
The potential for remote work depends on the mix of activities undertaken in each occupation and on their physical, spatial, and interpersonal requirements. The extent to which an activity can be done remotely must be determined. This can depend on whether a worker needs to be physically present on-site to do a task, interact with others, or use location-specific machinery or equipment.
Many physical or manual activities, as well as those that require use of fixed equipment, cannot be done remotely. These include operating machinery, using lab equipment, and performing transactions with clients or co-workers. In contrast, activities such as information gathering and processing, communicating with others, and counseling can, theoretically at least, be done remotely.
McKinsey sees two important challenges in the transition to working away from the office. One is to decide the role of the office itself, the traditional center for creating a sense of belonging, a community of work. Companies will have to make decisions on everything from real estate (“Do we need this building, office, or floor?”) to workplace design (“How much space between desks? Are pantries safe?”) to training and professional development (“Is there such a thing as remote mentorship?”). When the restrictions are lifted and employees and managers are comfortable in returning to the office, there is more to it than putting up a “Welcome Back” sign and opening the doors. There needs to be a systematic reconsideration of what exactly the office brings to the organization.
The other challenge has to do with adapting the workforce to the requirements of automation, digitization, and other technologies. This is the challenge that started in 2020 and continues to this day. Sent home to work, employees were often at a loss for how to do their work remotely, they lacked personal equipment capable of connecting and working with the corporate systems, and in all too many locations, they lacked the bandwidth to do more than a minimal amount of data transferring, usually a requirement of the type of work done from home.
Remote work obviously raises issues and challenges for both employees and employers. Companies need to determine how best to configure workspaces in the employee’s home to enhance safety, among a host of other thorny questions raised by COVID-19. For their part, employees are struggling to find the best home/work balance and equip themselves for working and collaborating remotely. Is the home computer capable of processing data at the needed speed, like that in the office? Is the internet connection fast enough with adequate bandwidth? Is there a quiet space where remote work can be done without distractions?
Often overlooked with the rush to meet remote work requirements was the fact that having more access points, where remote workers connect to the company network, means more access points for “evil actors.” Hackers and malware quickly invaded home-network-to-office-network systems, compromising both.
Cisco Systems did a lengthy investigation of the cybersecurity issues involved with remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that one of the key challenges that emerged from the almost overnight shift to remote work in 2020 is how well organizations transitioned into it. Businesses that made incremental and continuous investments in pre-pandemic technology, such as cloud security solutions and zero-trust frameworks, have been the best prepared to support remote work. Likewise, enhancing cybersecurity measures that support such arrangements has placed organizations in a better position to face the potential increase in the number and variety of cybersecurity attacks.
To get the full benefits of a flexible and hybrid workplace, such investments cannot be made in a vacuum. With the shift to a distributed workforce, network and security teams need to provide seamless and secure access to applications and services, anywhere and anytime. Security, networking, and collaboration can no longer be seen in silos. They must work hand in hand. Alongside these functions, leaders must put in place additional enforcement protocols and enhanced cybersecurity policies. This should also be complemented by a solid employee education program, given the fact that investment in a healthy security culture is absolutely critical.
For businesses to enable people to work securely from anywhere, anytime, and on any device, cybersecurity should be the foundation of every IT (information technology) investment. This requires a platform approach to deliver highly effective security from the network to the endpoint to the cloud. Best-of-breed, single point products simply do not measure up. When security must deliver less complexity, solutions must work together and offer ease of use. To securely enable a distributed workforce and ensure the flexibility to adapt to what the future of work brings, organizations should ensure the following conditions are met:
  • Verify the user’s identity to establish trust: are you who you say you are?
  • Enable work on any kind of device, any kind of connection, securely;
  • Give access to the company apps and data that workers need; and
  • Protect users from threats once they’re on the network.
The cloud and mobility were critical to the agility that kept the world going in 2020, but with so many far-flung workers and devices spread across multiple clouds, the very concept of a security perimeter has blurred—all in an environment where fast responses to security threats are crucial. All that demands security that’s integrated, automated, and simple to use and monitor. In Cisco’s global 2021 Security Outcomes Study, a well-integrated technology stack was a top driver of success.
One of the biggest challenges in security is knowing what’s real and what’s a threat in complex environments. Zero Trust was developed to ensure that nothing—and no one—gets by without verification. It reacts to a constantly changing environment, ensuring that only the right users or devices get access to the network. In the 2021 Security Outcomes Study, 39% of respondents said they were “all in” on zero-trust, while another 38% were “moving in that direction.”
Employers have found during the pandemic that some tasks that can be done remotely in a crisis are much more effectively done in person. These activities include building customer and colleague relationships; bringing new employees into a company; negotiating and making critical decisions; and work that benefits from collaboration, such as innovation, problem-solving, and creativity. If bringing new employees onboard was to be done remotely, for instance, it would require significant rethinking of the activity to produce outcomes similar to those achieved in person.
Some 41% of employees who responded to a McKinsey survey in May 2020 said they were more productive working remotely than in the office. As employees have gained experience working remotely during the pandemic, their confidence in their productivity has grown, with the number of people saying they worked more productively increasing by 45% from April to May.
One impediment to productivity may be connectivity. A researcher at Stanford University found that only 65% of Americans surveyed said they had fast enough internet service to support viable video calls, and in many rural parts of the country, the connectivity infrastructure is sparse or nonexistent. If the remote work situation continues and grows, developing digital infrastructure will require significant public and private investment.
For women in particular, remote work is a mixed blessing. It boosts flexibility—not needing to be physically co-located with fellow workers enables independent work and more flexible hours—as well as productivity, with less time wasted commuting. Yet remote work also may increase gender disparity in the workplace, accelerating the regressive effects of COVID-19.
Some forms of remote work are likely to persist long after COVID-19 is conquered. This will require many shifts, such as investment in digital infrastructure, freeing up office space, and the structural transformation of cities, food services, commercial real estate, and retail. It also risks accentuating inequalities and creating new psychological and emotional stresses among employees, including from isolation. For most companies, having employees work outside the office will require reinventing many processes and policies. An immediate concern will be inter-office communications that must be handled outside of the social media realm so in demand today.
Residential real estate is not immune from the impact of remote work. As tech companies announced plans for permanent remote-work options, the median price of a one-bedroom rental in San Francisco dropped 24.2% compared to a year previous, while in New York City, which had roughly 28,000 residents in every square mile at the start of 2020, 15,000 rental apartments were empty in September, the most vacancies in recorded history. Conversely, bidding wars are breaking out in suburbs and smaller cities as remote workers seek less harried, less expensive lifestyles and homes with a room that can serve as an office.
For most workers, some activities during a typical day lend themselves to remote work, while the rest of their tasks require their on-site physical presence. In the U.S. workforce, McKinsey found that 22% of employees can work remotely between three and five days a week without affecting productivity, while 61% of the workforce can work no more than a few hours a week remotely or not at all. The remaining 17% could work remotely partially, between one and three days per week.
This mixed pattern of remote and physical activities of each occupation helps explain the results of a recent McKinsey survey of 800 corporate executives around the world. Across all sectors, 38% of respondents expect their remote employees to work two or more days a week away from the office after the pandemic, compared to 22% surveyed before the pandemic. But just 19% of respondents to the most recent survey said they expected employees to work three or more days remotely. This suggests that executives anticipate operating their businesses with a hybrid model of some sort, with employees working remotely and from an office during the workweek.
Companies that implemented remote work for their office staff in the early days of the pandemic were often the traditional “leaders with arrows in their backs.” They learned the hard way what was the differences in onsite and remote, what could be and what couldn’t be done remotely, and how limited their IT solutions really were. With long, hard months of challenges behind them and more ahead, as the vaccines start to work to decrease restrictions but can’t eliminate the COVID-19 threat completely, managers and executives will be focused more on improving remote work than on eliminating it. And that will be the challenge of 2021.