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I’ve been a fan of all things digital along with full remote work capabilities for years now. In fact, I’ve been something of an evangelist on these topics, always making sure that when home or traveling I have all the tools, data, and access needed to perform my role as a system administrator for a large financial company.

Unfortunately, some organizations did not share my enthusiasm, remaining mired in the past, grounded in an archaic mentality that remote workers are less effective or reliable than on-premises employees. I’ve led a crusade to try to preach the word to bring these companies into the 21st century and promote a remote workforce.

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

I didn’t expect a global pandemic to become an unexpected ally in supporting my views (and I wish they had been promoted under more fortunate circumstances) but the necessity of remote work has made 2020 a banner year for the digital workplace. It is now truly becoming a powerful and benevolent force for employees and companies as proven results drive more efficient business operations.

I chatted with Michael O’Malley, VP of Strategy at security solutions/application provider Radware, and Ian Wong, co-founder and CTO of Opendoor, an online real estate transaction provider, to get their views on the topic.

Scott Matteson: What is the digital workplace?

Michael O’Malley: The digital workplace is the new space where work gets done. It is where we now communicate and collaborate. As the current pandemic has shown with very few exceptions, numerous jobs can be efficiently done with no traditional physical workplace. Use of email, messaging apps, collaboration, and social tools have enabled work independent of physical presence.

Ian Wong: Opendoor employees, like many workers across the U.S., have been fully remote as a result of COVID-19. We have swapped in-person meetings for virtual meetings, hallway conversations for Slack messages, and are embracing new ways of working together to be as collaborative and productive as possible.

SEE: Top cloud providers in 2020: AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud, hybrid, SaaS players (TechRepublic)

Because of the connectivity and technology available to us, the digital workplace is largely a reflection of the conventional one. We’re obviously operating in different circumstances, but we’re still operating and finding ways to become even more effective as a team. Companies like ours have had to learn to be agile and adapt to new environments and–most importantly–ensure employees feel safe, supported, and motivated to do their work.

Scott Matteson: What are the advantages it offers to employees?

Michael O’Malley: It offers numerous benefits to workers including an overall improved quality of life by eliminating commutes, childcare, and office or location restrictions. This greatly increased freedom leads to happier, more productive employees, which in turn lowers employee churn.

Ian Wong: Remote work is not a novel concept. It’s been in practice for years, and the advantages have always been more flexibility for employees, including no commuting, being close to family, and the ability to live where you want. COVID-19 has emphasized how remote workforces also allow for employees to keep working without compromising their safety.

Even before COVID-19, there was a strong signal in favor of more remote work. In surveys last year, 80 percent of U.S. workers said they would turn down a job that didn’t offer flexible working options, and 90 percent of employees said flexible work arrangements increase employee morale and could lead to lower operation costs.

Scott Matteson: What are the advantages it offers to companies?

Michael O’Malley: Companies benefit as well from improved employee productivity, lower physical footprint costs, reduced employee churn, a greater pool of eligible employees to recruit from for hiring, and more. The digital workplace can also help support corporate sustainability.

Ian Wong: If remote work or flexible work options benefit employees, then, in turn, it benefits the company. Engaged employees translate to productive employees. Each company is unique, and it’s important to understand what works for your team. While the majority of workers may love remote or work-from-home options, others may prefer coming into the office. Companies should find ways to accommodate as best as possible employees on both sides.

Another major benefit is the ability to hire more top talent across the U.S. I believe the best ideas come from anyone, anywhere. And for our business, especially, we’re transforming an industry that transcends every corner of the country, so we need employees who bring diverse skill sets and unique perspectives.

With less need for office space and amenities to serve their employees, companies can also save on real estate and facilities costs. Companies can divert those savings elsewhere.

Scott Matteson: What dependencies are involved?

Michael O’Malley: Digital workplaces are entirely dependent on the network and applications that employees interact with. The employee digital experience becomes paramount in ensuring employee productivity and fostering the corporate culture.

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Ian Wong: In order for a digital workplace to be successful, technology needs to be at the heart of the company. Employees need the proper tools and equipment to be productive and successful in their jobs. This includes hardware (reliable Wi-Fi and monitors for laptops, for example) and collaboration tools.

A remote workforce also cannot exist at the expense of workplace culture. It’s important to establish initiatives to promote a healthy work-life balance and inclusive culture. From virtual happy hours and hangouts with members outside of your team to online yoga and meditation sessions, there are ways companies can encourage employees to stay connected on a personal level.

Scott Matteson: What challenges are involved?

Michael O’Malley: Companies must prioritize the security and availability of the customer digital experience. Since communication and collaboration applications become the lifeline of the employee to every other employee, these must be available 24/7 and secure from hackers. This is extremely difficult when the new attack surface is much more complex with potentially thousands of employees trying to access applications across many clouds globally.

Ian Wong: One challenge remote work can bring—especially during a pandemic—is enabling teams to collaborate and innovate like they do every day when they are in the office. The best companies are constantly looking to reinvent themselves to better serve their customers. In these times, we have to be much more intentional about how we work, which has led us to invest in stronger written communication. Writing well has the additional benefit of being a force-multiplier—the writer has to clarify their thinking, and the reader can respond to more cogent arguments.

Scott Matteson: How does the future of work look?

Michael O’Malley: In the future when little to no work is done inside physical workplaces, greater focus will be put on authenticating the digital identity of employees to weed out bad actors also trying to get into these networks and steal intellectual property or ransom data. Simultaneously, traditional corporate data centers will become a collection of distributed applications running on multiple public and private clouds which must secure the infrastructure and applications from North-South attacks into the cloud as well as East-West attacks from within the cloud.

Ian Wong: The future of work is looking flexible. Right now, the majority of tech employees are working remotely, but I see a future where employees have options. As companies consider more permanent options, it’s important for employees to be communicative with their managers about what’s working and what’s not. Leaders should also be mindful of the needs of their employees. Maybe the future workplace means coming into an office one to two days a week, maybe it’s meeting as a team once a month, or maybe employees are fully remote There are a lot of unknowns right now, but I don’t predict work will go back exactly to how it was pre-COVID-19. There will be changes.

Scott Matteson: How are vendors helping to engineer this?

Michael O’Malley: Vendors are helping by providing solutions to protect both the network infrastructure (clouds, VPNs, Wi-Fi) and applications (web, Slack, email, SaaS CRM), and also by staffing managed security personnel to act as the security experts to operate the security framework flawlessly.

Ian Wong: Video conferencing and communication tools are proving to be essential for team collaboration. At Opendoor, a big part of our culture is building openness. We stay connected virtually and remain in close contact on all projects and updates. For example, we host a “Show & Tell” on an bi-weekly basis where different members of our engineering team can showcase both finished and in-progress work. We use this time to celebrate wins, share knowledge and create a venue for feedback.

SEE: Zoom vs. Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco WebEx and Skype: Choosing the right video-conferencing apps for you (TechRepublic)

I also host a weekly “Pricing Tea Time” via video conferencing, which acts as a forum to hang out and discuss any top-of-mind topics with my team members. It’s completely optional, but there for anyone who wants to talk or has questions.

Scott Matteson: How will things look down the road?

Michael O’Malley: To better cater to increasingly digital workplaces, companies will move the majority of applications to public/private clouds, and employees will be able to access them securely anywhere in the world.

Scott Matteson: What should companies be doing to prepare for the future?

Michael O’Malley:

1. Prepare your digital experience roadmap. What are the applications needed for an enterprise to deliver the employee digital experience they want to appeal to the finest people in their field?

2. Identify the access networks (Wi-Fi, 5G) and clouds (Azure, AWS, private) needed to deliver this experience.

3. Partner with security experts to either build and operate the security framework for this new world or select best-in-class offerings and build your own enterprise competencies in security.

Ian Wong: Listen to your employees. Do they want a fully remote office? Do they want flexible options? Surveying workers is a great way to get a sense of the company sentiment. And it’s important to take note of the shift that’s happening. Proper technology is essential for a thriving digital workplace, and companies should start investing now to not get left behind in the future. Lastly, promote written communication. Great writing scales—and not just when everyone is remote.