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Coronavirus could speed up the workplace (r)evolution

2020 is likely to go down in history as a pivotal year for the 21st century. The coronavirus pandemic has the potential to redefine many of our activities, not least the traditional office workplace.

The pandemic has left streets, offices and cities empty. Despite the restrictions introduced by governments, technology allows the majority of office workers to continue with their work remotely. While it comes with challenges, in most instances it has proved to be successful so far. We can expect that this large-scale remote working experiment will have a lasting impact on the workplace after the pandemic is over and offices reopen. It is widely expected that coronavirus will mean long-term societal changes and a return to traditional office working may also be unlikely.

Industry 4.0 and digitalization of work

Since the onset of the fourth industrial revolution, the impact of new technologies on work has been widely discussed. Until now, however, the focus has been on factory workers or the ever-growing gig economy, with some perceiving digitalization as a threat on the grounds of increasing automation.

Now, office workers take the limelight in this context, proving that technology can be beneficial for both the employee and the employer. The extensive and rapid spread of coronavirus required employers to introduce remote working on a large scale in no time and under extreme pressure.

After several weeks of lockdown in many countries, the home office model appears to be working, protecting employers from interrupting their business and employees from losing their income. However, how long can such operating models remain successful? Whilst this may differ according to the nature of the business and its output, there are some common factors for success.

Remote working triggered by the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the digitization of our society. The importance of cybersecurity will rise to an unprecedented level.

Dr. Patrick Kolb, Fund Manager, Credit Suisse Asset Management

Is there enough space in the cloud?

To perform work outside of the physical office space, the employee literally needs to transfer their work life to the internet. And the real challenge is setting up dispersed workforce safely and on large scale. It requires not only IT hardware and a good internet connection, but also virtual communication tools, online project management tools, file sharing, and high-level cybersecurity. Cloud solutions were on the rise already prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and while it is safe to assume that the trend will not reverse, privacy and security will become even more of a concern.

Cybersecurity put to test

Keeping an organization secure when it is operating remotely on such a scale is a new test for many IT departments. First, most employees use their private devices with a wide range of operating systems, which makes an organization more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Second, employees use a variety of internet providers that can have varying security levels. Third, the weakest link of every cybersecurity policy tends to be us - humans.

The must-haves of every remote operating business include VPN (virtual private network), multi-factor authentication, endpoint security management, as well as antivirus protection on the employee side. While investing in technology is necessary, so is educating employees on cyber risks and on how to stay safe.

Global spending on cloud security
Source: Gartner, December 2019

Long lasting impact

While challenging, remote working comes with benefits. Whilst it is still too early to say if normality for office workers will be restored, both the employer and the employee will want to stick to solutions that proved convenient and cost-effective. One example is the enormous increase in freemium conferencing tools since the beginning of the pandemic.

Global donwloads of video chat apps for Android and iOS
Source: Prior Data, Statista

The flexibility that working from home offers, is also very attractive from an employee perspective allowing people to balance professional and personal duties. For some a home office environment even translates into higher productivity when away from distractions of the modern office life or the extra time saved on the daily commute in rush hours. The latter has also the potential to bring a positive effect for the entire society by reducing CO2 emissions.

Future proofing the office

Increased home office may also reduce operational costs thanks to – for example - limiting the office space or reducing standard office expenses and will allow workers to phase back into office life and phase out should the pandemic reoccur.

The shape and form of the new workplace is yet to be seen, but it's hard to imagine that the online office will fade away. Therefore, enabling and setting up a secure home office will remain a part of businesses of the future.