Flexible working is one way to ‘outmaneuver uncertainty’ and digital services are ready to help

via Flickr © Alan Cleaver (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © Alan Cleaver (CC BY 2.0)

  • Of course they are:  there’s money to be made from trends like Work from Home (WFH)
  • But whether the economy as a whole is on-board is less certain 
  • In Japan there are signs of enthusiasm for a ‘new normal’  
  • However they develop, new workstyles look likely to require a lots of new digital services to help them along

The ‘work from home’ trend, given prominence and urgency by the pandemic, is part of a broader trend towards making ‘office work’ more collective and collaborative using various online tools and - what’s clearly become its most important vector because of the pandemic -  untethered from a particular geographical location. Network and cloud  technology has now made these things absolutely possible via high speed and reliable/secure broadband, low cost video conferencing, and of course the ability to hoist the entire corporate IT estate into the cloud where it can be accessed from anywhere. 

In other words, the move to flexible working was already under way for a slew of good reasons: for companies and employees these might include greater agility; an ability to meet employee needs on life/work balance, one more box tick on lower carbon emissions (because employees travel less), and even a reduction in office costs - not to be sniffed at in sectors where employee costs dwarf everything else.

Post pandemic, with an increased probability of more lockdowns, many office workers are primed  to memorise their passwords, grab their laptops to be ready to log on to work from home or from another location at a moment’s notice. Lockdowns may well be here to stay, so enabling  the work environment and the technology to cope is a reasonable response. 

In fact there is concrete evidence that companies and individuals have been stocking up with the technology needed to see them through one lockdown and be prepared for the next. 

According to ABI Research the need to work and school from home has fueled 223 million SOHO consumer Wi-Fi CPE shipments in 2020

In particular, say the researchers,  “there was a sudden spike in the adoption of Wi-Fi routers and extenders as consumers sought reliable Wi-Fi capable of supporting multiple users and devices. That spike and the growth in the use of applications such as video conferencing, live TV streaming, and online gaming at home resulted in consumers adopting Wi-Fi CPE for better coverage and higher capacity.”

However ABI doesn’t envisage an immediate boost to Wi-Fi user experience from the latest and greatest Wi-Fi 6 technology. As always there will be a multi-year lag before it starts making an impact. 

So beyond some device buying, how sustained and broadly supported is the work from home trend in the UK / Europe and the US?

It’s early days, but it seems likely that many companies will be cautious about endorsing ‘work from home’ as a permanent change. We’ll likely see most adopt a pragmatic approach where demand or need makes itself known. That may result in delegating downward as to who, how and what can be allowed or expected to have a work from home arrangement, upper management being wary of the expense and non-agility implications of some top-down exercise in workplace re-engineering. 

On the other hand it’s at least as possible that concerns over future disruptions to an economy, increasingly reliant on cloud services and ‘just in time’ logistics will see WFH arrangements mandated in business standards. They may therefore be  taken into account by corporate governance guidelines and the degree to which WFH fallback is available if needed would certainly be part of any calculation of supply chain ‘sensitivity’, for instance. 

 Accenture and the MIT recently announced that they were working  to create a ‘Supply Chain Resilience Stress Test’ which they said would be a new standard to “proactively assess a supply chain’s ability to mitigate the impact of disruptive events. Meeting such standards must mean being able to move critical online work tasks from location to location, person-to-person, company-to-company.

In japan the concept of the paperless office, already on the cusp of being achieved in many work environments, is likely to get a final push by the desire to surface new workstyles. Hitachi, for instance, has announced that working from home is to be made standard from 2021. But Hitachi is going full WFH with workstyle re-engineering and expects to win substantial productivity gains from the sweeping changes it is planning to make. It says it’s going to eliminate ‘personal seals’ used in place of signatures in Japan, thus de-mandating paper for important documents. It will also introduce a “time and location-free workstyle” under which employees won’t be expected to work at a specified location but will be required to work to a detailed job description and performance management with work outputs clearly defined.

Work will be defined by output rather than input.

The company says that by clearly defining the work done in each of three workplace types -  base offices, satellite offices and home - will enable employees to flexibly choose where they will work depending on the task. Plus desks will no longer be assigned to specific employees. 

The Hitachi approach is far from being an office without rules, as some make out WFH might be. Rather it has the employee set rules for themselves and the system watches carefully to see that they follow them. The development of a new set of workstyles is going to be an interesting watch and, naturally, a fertile environment for digital service providers to ply their wares.

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