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COVID-19: Navigating the impact to your business. See our top strategies.

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Perspective

COVID-19: A Change in How (and Where) We Work?

As businesses scramble to operate during the crisis, it's fair to question what the long-term effect on technology and culture will be. 

The Virtual Workplace at a Glance

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing companies to take a closer look at how they communicate with employees digitally as remote work becomes more prevalent

  • Cloud platforms allow for more secure data processing for remote workers, but contingencies are needed to mitigate potential bandwidth or internet issues

  • Employers can leverage in-app communication to manage availability and create employee-centric experiences for non-remote workers

Will coronavirus prove to be a watershed moment for the remote work environment?

As of early March, more than 100,000 cases of coronavirus had been reported globally, with China, Italy and Iran among the worst affected. In late February, reported COVID-19 cases began to rise in other areas of Europe and the United States, with a growing number of corporations urging employees in at-risk areas to work from home as quarantines and heightened health precautions become more prevalent.

Ongoing uncertainty surrounding coronavirus and its economic implications shed light on the ability to offer workplace flexibility, manage employee safety and navigate worker shortages to maintain productivity and weather the storm.

Working remotely is a trend that grew alongside the digital age. A 2018 study of distributed work trends by Publicis Sapient CXO John Maeda found that 41 percent of employees spend their time working in “blended” environments, with time spent both at the office and working from home. Remote work programs have also been attributed to increases in employee satisfaction, more productive workforces and cost-effectiveness for companies.

“Those mission critical, highly regulated industries could face challenges that will come to head now in wake of the coronavirus, and that people will have to put into place moving forward.”
Nitin Dsouza, director of strategy and transformation, Publicis Sapient

However, establishing effective remote work programs can come with its own challenges. And for sectors with strict regulatory policies or broad customer-facing operations, like retail and financial services, remote work may not always be an option, either – challenging businesses to develop contingency plans with employee safety in mind. But innovating these practices can help transform organizations and propel operations forward during uncertain times.

“While digital workers can work from home in many cases, those mission critical, highly regulated industries could face challenges that will come to head now in wake of the coronavirus, and that people will have to put into place moving forward,” Nitin Dsouza, director of strategy and transformation, Publicis Sapient, London, said.  

A connected workforce

Over the last decade, innovation in technologies like in-app communications, teleconferencing, and cloud-based software has allowed remote work and managing on-site employee availability to become a more accessible option. When developing these programs, companies should consider factors like data security and the employee experience to help ensure success.

For remote work, ensuring secure network protection is paramount, especially when handling sensitive information like customer or employee data. Some sectors, like financial services, are moving towards embracing “zero-trust ecosystems,” that provide greater authentication measures and to validate network connectivity and access control within the cloud. Since cloud applications are web-based, processing and analysis is done outside of the local server, offering an additional layer of security.

“By having all of this information in the cloud, if you have the right security in place and you have the right permissions, it means that you should be able to effectively work anywhere,” Andy Halliwell, senior client partner, Publicis Sapient, London, said. “You can only see that data if you've got the highest level of access permissions, but because it's all cloud-based, it makes it so much easier for you to be able to work with that data wherever you happen to be.”

Though cloud-based infrastructure can provide the base layer needed for more secure and accessible systems, contingencies must also be in place in the event of limited Wi-Fi or internet availability for remote workers – something that may not always predictable. Further, an influx of remote workers can also place stress on ISP and network bandwidth, risking slowdowns and impact on productivity.

“What happens if your internet goes down, what happens if your Wi-Fi goes down? What happens if your mobile network goes down?” Dsouza said. “Chances are, you might not have the same uptime, or in a lockdown, you might not have people who can repair your internet to ensure you have connectivity. People need to think about mitigation around this.”

“Teams need to take a look at the core of their practices — how to write efficient emails, how to drive efficient outcomes in meetings, how to communicate to clients clearly, and even how to be effective leaders and mentors when you're not in proximity to teams.”
Wendy Johansson
Wendy Johansson, GVP, digital transformation, Publicis Sapient

Employee communications

For industries that rely on consumer-facing operations (like retail, logistics, or delivery) testing work-from-home or extended leave options places emphasis on management and communications. Walmart, for example, enacted an emergency leave policy for around 1.4 million hourly workers in the wake of coronavirus fears. Ride-share company Uber also plans to suspend drivers exposed to COVID-19, with Lyft taking similar precautions, offering resources like hand sanitizers and financial assistance for drivers who may need take time off.

For these industries, the challenge becomes keeping up with demand, while also providing health and safety for employees that may be impacted.

In-app communications allows organizations to keep track of gaps in the workforce. For example, one UK-based retailer leverages in-app scheduling to allow employees to give updates on their availability, creating more transparent, employee-centric options for workers to communicate theirstatus with the broader organization.

For remote employees, leveraging telecommunication tools effectively and creating collaborative environments can help people keep people engaged. However, Maeda notes in a 2018 blog post that though there are a wide variety of tools available to companies, it’s not always simple to introduce distributed work practices into culture that’s predisposed to working in-office.

Digital conference rooms, one-on-one stand-ups, and personalized communication can be used help keep employees aligned, get used to new processes, and create connected virtual workspaces across the organization.

“Teams need to take a look at the core of their practices — how to write efficient emails, how to drive efficient outcomes in meetings, how to communicate to clients clearly and even how to be effective leaders and mentors when you're not in proximity to teams,” Wendy Johansson, GVP, digital transformation, Publicis Sapient, said.

Going remote

The coronavirus outbreak will put remote-work strategies and contingency plans to the test, as companies begin to experiment with ways to make the workplace more secure in the event of crisis. With companies spanning different sectors piloting programs, learnings from these endeavors could pave the way for new innovations in remote work moving forward.

“It’s a test of whether companies can truly build a true digital workforce where employees can work from anywhere” Dsouza said.

Amy Onorato contributed to this report.

Nitin Dsouza
Nitin Dsouza
Director of strategy and transformation