Throughout history, great disruption has accelerated change. Look at what the pandemic has done for those of us fortunate to be able to work remotely – we have been able to carry on. What has changed is that those businesses that were once nervous about enabling remote workforces have been forced to shift the majority of their employees to a completely decentralised way of working.
It’s been a dramatic change – in 2018, EU data showed that 15% of employees worked from home – either regularly or on the odd occasion. Now, those numbers have turned on its head. It’s been one of the most rapid changes to working practices in history. But as businesses start to look further ahead, they will be faced with a new horizon.
Firstly, whatever happens after lockdowns are lifted, the switch back to ‘normal’ will not be a complete reset; and secondly, whether they want to stay fully remote, move as many people back to the office as possible, or have some sort of hybrid, they’re going to have to formalise the changes they’ve made to facilitate their re-entry into a permanently changed world. What’s certain is that the new equilibrium will not be in the same place as it was before – while employees may have found new benefits of remote working, there will be those still longing for the office.
With this in mind, what are the big-ticket items to enable this strategic change to happen successfully?
A shift in culture
In many ways, COVID-19 has forced the business case for digital transformation decisions that many organisations have been tentatively edging towards. From contactless and mobile payments, to the aforementioned remote working, the rapid development of sector specific apps to the uptake in collaboration tools, the pandemic has mandated that businesses of all sizes are reliant on digital in today’s world – and possibly exposed or been a forcing function for those who have been late to adopt.
This is one of the primary reasons why there will be a new ‘normal’ after coronavirus. In a staged climb down of restrictions, why would consumers rush to go back to paying with cash? Why would workers readily accept the previous restrictions on home working? Not all industries are the same or have the luxury of working from home, but for those that can, the fact that a significant proportion of businesses have continued to operate successfully with remote workforces means that the old reasons and excuses for not permitting out of office working are going to have much less credence than before.
Of course, even though many have continued operating, that doesn’t mean they’ve had the chance to prepare, plan and execute cleanly. Indeed, in the early weeks the mantra was: it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to work. Now, as we enter a period where lockdowns look likely to be lifted on a staggered basis, those businesses have the opportunity to think more strategically about their transition to a post lockdown world, and beyond.
This is an opportunity to recalibrate how organisations work: for example, the speed of decision making. Decisions that would have taken months, even years of debate before, have been made and executed on in days and weeks. This is not to suggest that vital, strategic roadmaps should be set aside for ‘shoot from the hip’ decision making, but it does shine a light on some of the more timid approaches to new technologies and cultural change that might have hindered progress in the past.
Double down on digital transformation
In a sense, the response to the crisis has resulted in one of the largest mass proof of concept exercises for digital transformation ever undertaken. Different tools, applications, technologies and modes of working have been deployed at breath-taking speed to facilitate the decentralisation of businesses.
However, post-lockdown life requires a level of mid-term decision making that’s probably been absent during the last couple of months when any DIY approach that has allowed business to continue has been tried. Many of those pragmatic short term actions may well have resulted in good outcomes but they haven’t necessarily created solid foundations for the mid to longer term. This might mean investing in secure communications channels and a quick move away from freemium offerings; or rethinking security strategies to allow for greater confidence in the viability of remote working; it might mean putting in place a more formal strategy to continue the work started with the quick deployment of public clouds for resource agility; and the transition to software-defined networks to improve security and flexibility.
Whatever short term decisions have been made in response to the emergency, businesses now need to apply longer term strategic thinking – influenced by the events and insights of the past few weeks – to their clouds, networks, security and digital workspaces, providing the solid digital foundation required to build apps and deliver digital services in what is likely to be a world changed for ever.
Many companies that were initially reticent to use public clouds are now engaging with them to unlock rapid scalability and flexibility. Cloud offers organisations a major opportunity – with the rate of adoption accelerating, businesses will find they have a variety of service providers to choose from, all with the scale and in-built security they need. These providers have also demonstrated how to cope with the surge in demand, serving as a global proof of concept and validation of the approach
However, it is vital that organisations implement a proper strategy that takes into account all their requirements, and then deploys secure environments accordingly. That means that while many may have jumped to public cloud, as the dust settles, they may come to realise that it’s not suitable for long term use with some of their applications from a security or cost perspective. This is where hybrid cloud, with its consistent operations and management, ability to move workloads between public, private and on-premises environments, and intrinsic security, would be an ideal solution to consider.
In networking, companies that need to rapidly expand their network capacity have turned to software-defined networking , due to its accelerated speed of deployment, built-in automation and security, and frankly, because of the many restrictions and inflexibilities that make physical implementations hard to live with. As they look to the future, continuing that SDN migration is a logical step for companies that want to increase capacity, offer more fluidity to the business in terms of developing apps, using multiple clouds, and getting information into the hands of users, without continuing to investing in dead-end legacy physical networking.
From a security perspective, the paradigm shift in how businesses are working has put security front and centre, with an acknowledgement that breaches continue, and bad actors thrive in times of such uncertainty. Business resiliency has become even more essential than before.
Remote workforces, using a vast array of corporate and own devices, are pushing IT to rapidly secure endpoints and applications. They are being asked to build-in security from the ground up, to all elements of the infrastructure, so that everything can remain secure, wherever it is located. Companies need to be implementing measures to continue the move to a more agile, innovative organisation, even if a majority of the workforce move back to working in offices, at least a part time basis.
With the move to digital workspaces, the focus will need to be on consolidating the changes that have already been made, whether that’s ensuring hastily procured collaboration tools are fully secure or constantly reinforcing company culture in virtual settings. It’s an opportunity to continue to create agility that supports productive workers, while ensuring that they feel safe and supported in a chaotic, uncertain time.
Getting ready for life after COVID-19
No one can predict what will happen as lockdowns are lifted. While we all hope for a degree of normality, there is every likelihood that further waves of infection will force new lockdowns over the next year or so. That means that organisations need to be building resilience into their operations now, whilst at the same time, continuing to keep an eye on the mid-term so that investments made now still remain valid for whatever may be around the corner. For many organizations, this might even be a great competitive opportunity.
Ultimately, we can all only speculate as to what might be ahead and to prepare accordingly. For organisations big and small, commercial or public, that means learning from the actions they took in during the early stages of the pandemic, retaining, formalising and building on those that worked, and failing fast and abandoning those that didn’t. Ultimately, as is always the case, those that can do this successfully will be several steps forward along the path of transformation into a truly digital, agile and flexible organisation.