Remote working is broken. These six changes can help fix it

Everyone could do with finding better ways of working from home, particularly if we're in it for the long haul. Here are six changes that can make remote working more effective for all of us.

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The future of work is remote - so how can businesses make a success of it?

Image: iStock/shironosov

Remote working introduces fresh technology challenges for businesses looking to make it a part of their long-term strategy. With COVID-19 teaching companies the importance of flexibility and agility in an unpredictable world, business leaders are now trying to figure what tools they'll need to make a success of remote working in 2021 and beyond.

Find the right technology to keep teams talking

Employees have spoken, loud and clear: remote working is here to stay. This means that those who can work remotely will expect employers to provide the tools that allow them to get their best work done, regardless of their location.

Stuart Templeton, head of UK at Slack, says employers will also need to look beyond basic communication tools if they hope to attract and retain the best technology talent in the future as competition for skilled digital workers heats up.

"For some organizations, the priority has been maintaining their own talent, while for others, it's been finding it," Templeton tells TechRepublic. "Given this increased drive to retain and compete for new talent – not just in the same city or country, but across the globe – the fight for talent is set to intensify."

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

According to Slack research, 83% of knowledge workers want a remote or hybrid-working model, while only 17% want to return to full-time office work. Templeton says business leaders, therefore, need to equip their teams with technology that enables them to do high-value work, autonomously and asynchronously – all while creating an open workplace that promotes knowledge sharing.

"The good news is that the tools which add the most value to an individual also help to establish processes and an openness that benefits the entire business," he adds.

Beyond technology, making a workplace attractive to tech talent is about empowering employees to work the way they want to, Templeton says.

"Doing this will not just safeguard existing talent, but also attract new like-minded people who want to be part of a company that is on the front foot in the world of work. Only by having the right tech talent who can look after a business's most-valued asset, technology, will remote working be a success."

…but don't give people too much choice

As companies grapple with what remote and hybrid work strategies mean for the future, productivity apps remain an integral part of day-to-day business.

Currently, however, companies are using a mish-mash of products to accomplish the same task. This can create friction within teams and impact productivity, says Sabry Tozin, VP of engineering at LinkedIn.

"If employees are each choosing their preferred option for video conferencing among two or three different platforms, it can create headaches when it's time for teams to work together and quickly connect on the fly," Tozin tells TechRepublic.

"Moreover, this cognitive overload makes people feel like there's a lack of clarity and direction from the teams that own this vision of employee collaboration and productivity."

SEE: Report: SMB's unprepared to tackle data privacy (TechRepublic Premium)

Instead, Tozin suggests leaders align on a preferred set of applications and platforms. "At first, it might seem like this is prescriptive and takes away employees' choices, but in reality, standardizing the platforms used will help improve collaboration and make for a more seamless work experience," he says.

"It's essential that these standardization decisions be informed by signals on how people are working, and the sentiments they share, so you can eventually align on the best possible product or platform for a given task."

This paradigm also extends to developer happiness and productivity, adds Tozin. "Our ability to provide engineers with the best tools means that as a company we can innovate more rapidly, but also have happier teams. With this knowledge we must ask ourselves, 'how can we apply this same mindset to the productivity tools provided to our entire workforce?'"

Think about your next set of skills

The global pandemic has elevated technology conversations out of the boardroom and across the wider workforce. This momentum will be critical to the long-term success of remote working.

Nick Hedderman, director of the modern work and security business group at Microsoft UK, says the future of remote work isn't simply about replicating the old way in a digital form, but an opportunity for businesses to reinvent themselves.

"People are the heartbeat of any organization, so it is vital that this strategy uses digital tools to empower people to feel connected, supported, and able to bring their best selves to work," Hedderman tells TechRepublic.

In addition to providing people with the right tools, companies have a responsibility to skill-up their workers while ensuring they're also attracting new talent, many of whom will be after hybrid working opportunities now and in years to come.

SEE: Chatbot trends: How organizations are leveraging AI chatbots (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

A recent study from Microsoft found that 69% of UK leaders surveyed believe their organization currently has a digital skills gap, says Hedderman.

"We believe that skills are the currency for competitive digital transformation and have a direct impact on a company's success and bottom line, so investment and training in people are paramount to the future of work."

Aside from empowering employees and creating a culture that enables people to work together effectively, Hedderman says businesses also have an opportunity to go a step further by harnessing broader organization knowledge through a combination of data and the cloud.

He also sees a place for the traditional office in the post-COVID work landscape. "The office location will be critical post-COVID too and it's paramount that organizations evolve their physical spaces with technology to support, to create a successful hybrid strategy," says Hedderman.

"Organizations have the opportunity to re-imagine the very essence of who they are and how they work by implementing a successful hybrid working strategy."

Find the right technology to create genuine connections

Businesses need to get to grips with how to support and grow their workforce in a hybrid-working world, and how to maintain an engaging corporate culture that allows them to attract and retain the best talent.

While most have addressed the basics of enabling remote workers to access their work applications from home, Angela Ashenden, principal analyst, workplace transformation at researcher CCS Insight, says there are still major gaps in how these tools support the all-important connections between employees and make them feel integrated into the business.

"Our research shows that lack of social interaction is the biggest challenge employees face when working remotely, and it's something that we see business leaders increasingly conscious of," Ashenden tells TechRepublic.

"The challenge is how to address this; many are craving the return to offices to enable people to connect in person again, but there's also growing demand for technology solutions that support this informal connection, allowing people to build relationships with colleagues that don't depend on being able to meet face to face."

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

These solutions must also go beyond video communications as well, says Ashenden: according to CCS Insight, almost one-fifth of remote-working employees complain of too many video calls, with the same proportion spending more than four hours every day in video meetings.

Business needs are driving an increased focus on employee experience and employee wellbeing, and we're starting to see technology providers prioritizing investment in both areas, says Ashenden.

"However, both issues go way beyond technology to strategy and culture, and it's crucial that businesses recognize and invest in the necessary business change commitment if they want to successfully enable a hybrid workforce," she says.

The right tools might be in the cloud

Reliance on cloud infrastructure has grown considerably in the past 12 months, with recent research from Canalys showing that sales for the cloud services industry hit $39.9 billion in the most recent quarter.

This is hardly surprising: remote working, after all, hinges on the cloud, meaning a cloud-based approach will be central to businesses' remote and hybrid workplace models going forward, particularly as it enables the kind of flexibility that allows businesses to respond quickly to new situations.

Cloud infrastructure can be easily and reliably scaled up or down depending on employees' and developers' needs, with a better focus on transformation and new services provisioning, says Erica Langhi, senior solution architect EMEA at Red Hat.

SEE: Cloud data storage policy (TechRepublic Premium)

"Businesses that had cloud-based systems in place prior to the pandemic did not struggle with the transition to remote working. They were in a much better position to respond to unprecedented change, as developers were able to continue working from home as they did from the office, with no impact on productivity," she says.

When considering additional tools and cultural changes to be adopted by development teams working remotely on cloud or hybrid infrastructure, Langhi says it's crucial that businesses consider additional collaboration tools on top of basic email and video-conferencing apps – for example whiteboards, which can facilitate brainstorming sessions and idea sharing among teams.

"As it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of activities and timelines, techniques like Kanban can be used to visualize the flow of the activities and identify potential bottlenecks in a distributed team," she adds.

"Group messaging systems are helping to maintain a sense of connection and belonging among remote developers, not only as a way to talk about work but also about personal lives, filling the gap of the in-person interaction that doesn't exist in a remote environment."

Don't forget about cybersecurity threats

Cybercriminals have repeatedly taken advantage of the COVID-19 situation and the new security risks that remote working has introduced – particularly on the employee side.

Chris Ross, SVP international at Barracuda Networks, says maintaining safe security practices is a step businesses might have overlooked in the frantic rush to get everything – and everyone – set up for remote working.

"More employees working from home means that more devices are connecting remotely, outside of the secured corporate network. It's critical to understand what remote workers are doing with data that is rapidly going out of your control and rework the 'new normal' to make it more secure," Ross tells TechRepublic.

Barracuda Networks has identified 13 types of threat that organizations face via email alone: spam, malware, data exfiltration, scamming, URL phishing, spear phishing, domain impersonation, brand impersonation, extortion, business email compromise (BEC), conversation hijacking, lateral phishing, and account takeover.

SEE: Identity theft protection policy (TechRepublic Premium)

With so many types of attack, organizations should set up domain-based message authentication, reporting and conformance (DMARC) enforcement, to stop hackers in their tracks, says Ross.

Sophisticated email security can also be extremely effective in blocking malicious content aimed at busy or susceptible workers – though perhaps equally important is end-user education, which Ross labels "a key component to a sound cybersecurity strategy".

Keeping tabs on sensitive data is also extremely challenging in a remote-working environment, and managers will be unaware if employees are cutting corners on security precautions.

For this reason, Ross says, a cloud-based data backup solution is more critical now than ever before. "All of the business communications and company data generated by the new workflow needs to be protected. Storing important files via a third-party cloud backup solution will ensure organizations against deleted files, or lost data," he says.

"But, most importantly, it will protect businesses in the event of a network blackout or sophisticated ransomware attack, which are growing in frequency and impact."

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