We’ve now had well over year of sporadic lockdowns, of varying degrees of severity. I’m loathe to tempt fate, but it does seem that, in the UK, we’re heading towards a low background level of Covid-19, during the summer months at least. It’s therefore an appropriate time to examine the changed methods of working, and whether, or to what extent, they should be incorporated into normal practice.
Firstly, what did we do, back in March 2020? Although it’s never been illegal to attend a place of work, we all but abandoned the office, straightaway. A couple of factors have meant that that wasn’t absolute. Firstly, we continue to run a number of servers from a secure location within Tweed House. Although we have gradually migrated to the cloud, for security reasons we feel happier with critical systems on-premise, and they need a degree of physical management. Secondly, we have expensive and bespoke equipment in our smart card and reader testing lab, which is not easily movable. Nevertheless, occupancy of the building has dropped to around 15% of pre-Covid levels. Of course, we made sure that social distancing measures were in place, with occupancy limits for every room and pre-booking to prevent accidental overcrowding.
The nature of our business has meant that adaptation was easier than we might have feared. We’ve always been relaxed about working from home. If people have pressing deadlines, it makes sense to avoid a long commute. And if home is where there are fewest distractions—which isn’t always the case!—then that’s where to be. Working on projects that span the world, our people travelled to client premises and still had a need to access company systems and folk in the office. Our global client-base has always meant that people are often on calls at weird times. We’ve never required that people be in the office at 1am for a call with an Australian client! That’s all positive (I think) but, on the negative side, if I’m honest, people who for one reason or another had worked largely from home found it more difficult to be hooked-in to day-to-day corporate goings-on. Water-cooler discussions tended not to happen in the absence of a water-cooler.
Like everyone else, we’ve depended on Zoom / Teams, etc (depending on client choice) to keep in touch and to progress projects effectively. If ever a technology was in place at just the right time, this was it. If the Covid crisis had occurred 20, or even 10, years ago, even tougher societal choices—that is, health versus economy tradeoffs—would have been needed. In some regards, our decisive pivot towards online working has improved communication. As one example, the entire delivery team gets together at a fixed time every week with everyone briefly explaining their work in the last week and their upcoming tasks. None of us has ever been better informed as to the ’state of play’. We are able to help our colleagues, head-off potential headaches and be that much more able to offer instant views to customers on a wide range of subjects (subsequently to be backed by thorough analysis, of course!).
What are the drawbacks? It’s not hard to imagine the primary disadvantage of remote, online working—lack of human contact. In the end, humans are social animals, and work is a form of social interaction. Interaction with live, 3d people (health permitting, not wearing masks) is a necessity hard-wired into our herd-animal DNA. A 2” x 2” talking head just doesn’t cut it in the same way. The other consultancy staple that we’ve all missed is the whiteboard discussion. The technology is getting better, but it’s still clunky, and it’s difficult to generate the same degree of creative spark.
What are we going to do as the world, with luck and excellent work by the virologists and medics, escapes from the crisis? We neither can, nor want to, un-invent things. We’ve all discovered efficiencies in the new ways of working; but I don’t believe we should accept the extreme degree of atomisation that necessity has forced upon us temporarily. I’m looking forward most to meeting clients and prospective clients. One’s understanding of real customer needs is deeper and more nuanced when we can talk to you in your own environment, informally as well as formally.
As for internal working, we will revert to allowing a large degree of individual judgement and choice. Some will want to be energised by escaping their own four walls and mingling. Others may have special reason to continue to be protective, or simply favour avoiding commuting and working with their home comforts at hand. We will provide physical and virtual workspaces to match. At the office, I anticipate fewer desks and more whiteboards. Virtually, we must be alive to the changing nature of cyber threats, where more work gets done outside our firewalls and DMZ. That’s been a theme in many of the risk analyses we’ve carried out for customers for this year!