The Long Return to Work

During the pandemic, organizations adapted the customer and employee experience to a world on lockdown. Will business ever get back to “normal,” or will remote work remain the new normal?

To get a better sense of the answers, Bask Iyer, chief information officer and chief digital transformation officer at VMware, asked four tech leaders from around the world about their transition to remote work and plans to return to the office. Watch the video interview to listen in on the conversation.

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Hear what tech leaders think about opening back up offices at scale in this executive roundtable, featuring (left to right): Paul Green, CIO at Angel MedFlight; Jeremiah Chunge, head of alternative channels and technology at Genghis Capital Ltd; Bask Iyer, CIO and CDTO at VMware; Phares Kariuki, chief executive officer at Node Africa; and Didier Sabardu, deputy global head of digital workplace at Société Générale.

Remote Work Works

For many organizations with digital transformation projects underway, transitioning to a totally or largely remote workforce wasn’t too difficult. After all, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first time business leaders faced long-term uncertainty and disruption.

“We were lucky to have begun our digital transformation journey in 2017,” Chunge says. That’s when Genghis Capital, an investment solutions provider based in Nairobi, adapted the workforce to the unrest and instability that can occur during the country’s general elections. To continue serving clients during those times and keep employees safe, the company developed an infrastructure to support remote work.

Société Générale, a European financial services group, experimented with remote work technologies near the end of 2019 during Paris’s public transportation strike. “We already had to adapt ourselves to difficulties for people commuting to the office,” Sabardu recounts. “So, we were quite fast in enabling massive remote working [during the pandemic].”

Meanwhile, business continuity technologies are simply essential to industries with 24/7/365 operations, like Angel MedFlight. For the U.S.-based air ambulance company, downtime can costs lives. “We instituted our business continuity plan about two weeks prior to the official Arizona lockdown,” Green says. “We got everybody working from home in about three days.”

Then, there are tech companies, like cloud service provider Node Africa, where digital technologies are the business. “Internally, we already deployed cloud-native tools,” Kariuki says. “So, for employees working from home, the workflow is exactly the same.”

A lot of the frontline workers are people, such as yourselves, who are enabling enormous productivity. Otherwise, we’d be dead in the water at most companies.

Bask Iyer, CIO and CDTO, VMware

It all begs the question: If organizations are easily and successfully working remotely, do they even need to return to the office?

What’s Missing?

Not everyone believes a permanent work-from-home shift is a long-term solution for their business’ needs.

“What is sustainable for a few weeks or even a few months, might not be sustainable in the long run,” Sabardu says. “We’re discovering how to overcome any hurdles each time we are facing one. That’s true, but I’m afraid there are some limitations.”

For Sabardu, those limitations include connecting employees who don’t have access to high-speed internet services and/or share resources with others working from home. Video conferences hog already limited bandwidth, and some employees have difficulty patching their device’s security.

Even when technology isn’t in the way, companies are still slowly adapting to a digital-first culture. Sabardu and other tech leaders agree that, at least for now, teambuilding and collaboration are stunted when using remote collaboration technologies.

“To be part of a team, you need people together,” he says. “For me, that would be the biggest thing preventing us from calling it the real new normal.”

“We’re naturally cooperative beings,” Kariuki points out. “When you’re communicating with someone, there are too many cues that you miss when you’re online.”

The reason why people had an office is because there’s more to it than exchanging emails.

Phares Kariuki, CEO, Node Africa

Then, there’s the nature of certain jobs that simply cannot be done remotely, like:

  • Employees who physically engage with customers, like Sabardu’s colleagues in retail bank branches.
  • Employees who handle physical assets or equipment, like those who ship documents at Kariuki’s office.
  • Employees who greatly benefit from real-time collaboration and instant access to people, like those who coordinate air ambulances for Angel MedFlight.

“My flight coordination team, they intake the calls, they’re doing OK [working remotely],” Green says. “But when you can look at somebody that sits next to you and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this patient scenario …’ you’re going to start making decisions that are better because you can immediately talk to somebody.”

Some employees are just eager to get back into their old routines, but businesses are hunkering down for a much slower return to office life. “You’re talking a year-and-a-half to two years before we can all start hugging each other and celebrating,” Iyer says. “Clearly, we have to work on ‘work 2.0.’”

Returning to Work, 2.0

With no immediate plans to fully return to the office, tech leaders use the disruption to daily life as a catalyst to disrupt outdated and inefficient processes, like:

  • IT Support: A built-in feature in Green’s digital workspace solution enables his team to remotely assist colleagues as they watch and learn how to do it themselves. “It was so hard to assist them by using remote desktop because they can’t see what you’re doing,” he says. “I was blown away by the way it works.”
  • Employee Onboarding: New employees at VMware can now onboard from anywhere. “I get tweets from employees saying, ‘I joined this company, and the laptop magically arrived at home,’” Iyer says. “’I clicked a few keys, and it was just like setting up a mobile phone. I was ready to go.’”
  • Customer Service: Early in their digital transformation, Chung says, “We realized we have sorted out our staff needs, in terms of being able to work digitally and being efficient. What about our clients?” So, his team developed a mobile app to digitize the customer experience. “After the pandemic broke out, we realized the benefits are huge on the investments we had done coming along the journey up to now. We saw a surge in clients opting in, trying to use our platform using the mobile app.”

As employees trickle back into office buildings, tech leaders are also engineering solutions to keep them productive and safe. Innovations like zero-touch entry into buildings and beacons for social distancing reminders will help define “work 2.0.” This new era will refine digital employee experiences so they can seamlessly transition from home to the office (and back again).

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