The risk of COVID-19 infection means IT executives are swapping the airport lounge and the conference hall for a desk at home and a videoconferencing link.
Companies around the globe are making the sensible decision to encourage working from home and drop travel plans, while many major IT conferences have been pushed online or postponed. For many people that work in the technology sector, the normal way of doing business – meeting and greeting in locations around the globe – has been put on hold.
We're still in the very early days of the pandemic, so it's hard to know how long this situation will remain in place. In a Q&A on its web site, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says simply that "it is not possible to predict how long the outbreak will last and how the epidemic will unfold".
The human cost is already huge, with thousands of confirmed cases and deaths globally. Even for the people who don't suffer from infection, the potential impact in terms of disruption to daily lives is huge.
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Analyst Gartner says COVID-19 has the potential to be as disruptive to an organisation's continuity of operations as a cyber intrusion or a natural disaster. Researcher Forrester, meanwhile, says the central role of technology in business operations means that IT leaders have a crucial role.
"CIOs should be helping their businesses prepare for increased remote working during the coronavirus outbreak," says Andrew Hewitt, analyst at Forrester. "Primarily, they should be revisiting the technology stack that's essential for remote working and ensuring that it is has the capacity to meet increased demand when more employees start working from home."
Creating an action plan for remote working in some businesses will not be straightforward. Gartner senior research director Sandy Shen says coronavirus is a wake-up call for organisations that have chosen to focus on daily operational needs at the expense of investing in digital business and long-term resilience.
Businesses in this position must turn to the cloud. For IT leaders looking to get remote workers up-and-running quickly, Forrester's Hewitt suggests focusing on three core areas:
- Collaboration – "Ensuring employees have access to videoconferencing technologies, know how to use them, and have them installed ahead of time."
- Information access – "Ensuring employees can get access to their most important work files and documents so they can maintain their productivity while working from home. Tools like file sync and share, such as Dropbox, Box and OneDrive, are essential during this period."
- Security – "Ensuring employees are taking the right precautions to protect enterprise data that's in a remote location. This could mean having employees update their passcodes prior to working remotely and urging employees to transfer files to cloud-based systems to avoid overloading VPN systems."
However, getting technology in place is just one part of the remote-working puzzle. Just as some firms have been slow to make the most of collaborative technologies, so others have been slow to take advantage of the more flexible ways of working that the digital age allows.
Presenteeism remains the norm for many companies. The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development suggests more than four-fifths (83%) of employees have observed presenteeism – in the form of going to work when ill – in their organisation. A quarter say the problem has got worse in the past 12 months.
When the potentially devastating impact of COVID-19 comes into play, then the perception from employees that they must turn up to work – whatever the personal cost – starts to look even more dangerous.
In many ways, our preparedness to allow people to work flexibly hasn't advanced as quickly as the technology that affords this transformation. Whether they're ill or well, many employees still suffer from a nagging sense of guilt if they're not seen sitting at a desk in an office all day – and management perceptions add to that feeling of guilt.
The Harvard Business Review reports that managers often worry about remote employees working less or mixing personal responsibilities with work. There are also concerns that remote working can decrease communication and collaboration among co-workers, which might constrain the informal learning that typically happens in the office.
Now, with the outbreak of the coronavirus, those concerns will be secondary. Big enterprises are already telling staff to work from home; other businesses large and small will follow suit. The Wall Street Journal reports that, for many people, a period of remote working is looking increasingly inevitable.
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The likely effect is that working from home is going to shift from a nice-to-have benefit to the new normal in terms of working conditions. It's a technology-enabled shift that will require a cultural transformation in the way many of us work. The companies that deal with the shift quickly are likely to be those that cope best in what will be testing times.
The simple conclusion, as Forrester's Hewitt suggests, is that companies don't have a choice anymore: remote working is inevitable and necessary during the coronavirus outbreak. Forcing people to come into the office during an outbreak will have long-term detrimental effects on employee experience that will far outweigh the impact of the virus itself.
"That won't sit well with employees," he says. "It sends a message that the company doesn't care as much about its people as it does about its profits – two things which are, by the way, inextricably linked."
So CIOs must, as a matter of urgency, work with executive teams and IT colleagues to put in place systems and policies to help people work remotely, securely and successfully. As these preparations prove the benefits of home working, the pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the way we live and work.