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Coronavirus – has our understanding of the workspace changed forever?


By Adam Harding, Chief Technologist for Digital Workspace at Softcat

2020 is cancelled” has been trending all over social media as people accept their social plans are on hold indefinitely thanks to the novel Coronavirus.

But for businesses, COVID-19 has come at an even greater cost.

Certain sectors, like aviation, hospitality and leisure have been hit the hardest so far, with strict lockdown measures stopping operations completely or forcing businesses to significantly scale back.

Yet, for those organisations able to set up their staff to work remotely, COVID-19 has proven as much of a challenge as it has a learning curve. We have witnessed what has been coined as “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment”, played out in real-time.

As lockdowns begin to ease globally and many employees return to work (whether it be physically or remotely), how might our business practices and cultures be impacted by COVID-19 in the long-term?

An accelerated step towards digital transformation

Preparedness for running a business digitally has meant some organisations have been quick to adapt, while others have been left scrambling.

The response to the threat of COVID-19 has, in some ways, been a technological equaliser, with organisations previously unaccustomed to using workplace tech tools having no choice but to invest and adapt.

As a result, digital transformation has accelerated for many in 2020, born out of efforts to survive this turbulent time, rather than to achieve greater things. So too has staff training to maximise these newly acquired digital tools.

It has also reinforced the belief that every organisation should, as a minimum, prioritise the cornerstones of modern cloud, modern workspace, modern security architecture and basic IT intelligence to be successful in the digital era.

So, while COVID-19 has forced the hand of many in terms of digital transformation and new ways of working, it will in the long-run help create bolder and more effective digital agendas.

If resources are limited, organisations should start by taking an end-to-end view of their operations to identify the areas which are “core” and will benefit the most from improvement.Coronavirus – has our understanding of the workspace changed forever? 2

Learning is also key while scaling up digital initiatives, no more so than now. It hasn’t been out of choice that companies in crisis mode have had to launch at scale and speed without the benefit of pilots or hindsight, but as long as mistakes are identified and rectified quickly, any short-term damages will be contained.

A seismic shift in workplace culture

The pandemic has and will continue to change workplace cultures.

While some commentators are mourning the death of office culture, it’s unlikely organisations will offer employees a work-from-home policy forever. Unless you work for Jack Dorsey that is.

When the lockdown eases and more employees go back to work, there will be desks to return to, just less of them. Employers, given the ease in which the majority have settled into a remote set-up, have a vested interest to continue offering more flexible working options when “normal life” returns.

Not only is remote working an attractive perk, but downsizing office space can save huge amounts in rent and widen the net for job candidates who would have otherwise been put off by a hellish commute. And that’s not forgetting the environmental savings too.

As part of this shift towards more flexible working practices, organisations will also be more likely to put people front and centre of everything. If Coronavirus has taught us anything it’s to be more empathetic to individual situations.

This testing time will have proved to business leaders which personality types and roles can benefit from remote working without so much micromanagement and those who haven’t enjoyed it or performed as well.

There has also been a much more informal communication style during lockdown, with most teams catching up on video chats and instant messaging. These communication channels and project management tools like Slack, MS Teams, Zoom and Trello have seen a huge surge in demand and this is unlikely to change now that they have become ingrained in everybody’s normal and working life.

Ultimately, there will be winners and losers

While we’re still learning about the long-term implications of COVID-19 for organisations across different sectors, it’s clear some won’t survive because technology isn’t going to solve their problems.

The measures we’ve witnessed during lockdown will remain in place for what looks like a while, but to a lesser extent as the Government starts to relax the rules.

This will continue to have a knock-on effect on industries such as travel, hospitality, leisure, physical retail and entertainment. While these industries may be able to get back up and running again soon, the enduring social distancing rules and the threat of a second wave will put many off, creating a difficult financial landscape.

It’s a sad fact, but we can expect that a high number of small businesses won’t reopen their doors. For others, particularly multi-national e-commerce retailers and technology companies, COVID-19 has accelerated their businesses forward and grown their customer bases significantly, increasing the power gap between large and small. Many people have fallen into the habit of purchasing everything online. Once these habits have been set, it’s hard to change them.

Predictions for the future shape of market recovery post-COVID-19 have varied progressively from a sharp ‘V’ shape, towards a slower ‘U’ shape. With many industries and SMEs under previously unimaginable financial pressure, we will see more market consolidation, but also more innovation and digitisation.

One thing is for certain, technology will play a key role in helping organisations remain agile in the face of fresh challenges as we enter the next stage of the pandemic.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. A famous quote Charles Darwin never said in the Origin of the Species, but one which gives hope to many.