As offices gradually re-open across the world, the question arises of how many of our old working habits we will return to.
Will measures adopted as temporary expedients during lockdown become permanent realities? Or will organisations rather revert to the way things used to be? After months of forming new habits, have office workers all been irreversibly conditioned to work from home?
After overseeing a shift to almost ubiquitous remote delivery of F5’s consultancy and training in recent months, I believe that we’ve learned much about the likely future balance between remote and on-site services.
The first point is that remote delivery works. We knew this already – over 65% of F5’s consultancy and training were conducted this way pre-pandemic – but lockdowns have accelerated our embrace of previously unconsidered tactics and initiatives. For example, we were able to deliver a multi-day training course to a customer in Australia using an instructor in Europe. We were also able to manage complex migration projects, with members of the Professional Services team working remotely across multiple time zones. Geographic boundaries are as blurred as they have ever been, driving a surge in inter-region collaboration and resource-sharing (with a related spike in satisfaction ratings).
Through necessity, remote delivery has extended into areas where it might otherwise have taken years for both vendors and customers to get comfortable with the idea. This trend is set to continue, at least in the medium term. Whether for training or consultancy, remote delivery makes a lot of sense from an efficiency and cost perspective. Less is spent on expenses (including travel) and customers can stay laser-focused on business outcomes. Within the IT sector especially, HR teams expect that the need to sustain and accommodate significant numbers of remote workers will continue, even after offices are safely open. For many organisations, the new operational mantras are freedom of choice and flexibility of movement.
The second learning is that remote delivery requires a change of mindset and approach. Partly, this is about giving up some of the formality that often surrounds set-piece meetings in workplace environments. With people at home, surrounded by family and pets, no longer dressed for the office, a more casual style has emerged. Significantly and powerfully, our shared experience of dislocation has resulted in new levels of humanity, patience, and empathy. These are invaluable workplace characteristics and perspectives everyone should strive to retain
COVID-19 has also underlined the need for practicality in remotely delivered services. If a two-hour seminar can be delivered as a series of five to ten-minute videos, that is clearly the way to go. With training especially, it is incumbent on vendors to adapt both style and content to help people learn as efficiently as possible. The focus should be on the needs of the customer, not the ceremonial bells and whistles. We’ve found the same with onboarding new starters at F5: instead of the usual bootcamp at our headquarters in Seattle, we have delivered remote learning packs that have achieved similar results. In parallel, the prevalence of virtual communication means that new employees can more easily connect with global colleagues to get up to speed.
Having said all that, and despite the many benefits of a virtual approach, there will always be a need for in-person engagement. Face-to-face meetings may look and feel different at first, but they are on their way back. This is a good thing. Despite rapidly improving interfaces and platforms, there are still many important, interactive nuances that teleconferencing cannot replicate, including the subtleties of body language and the ad hoc, all-important conversations on the fringes of a meeting that many of us miss so much.
Another issue for many is that virtual meetings are predominately business focused, which significantly limits opportunities for networking, relationship-building and serendipity. The artificiality of an online meeting can also make it harder than usual for naturally introverted or reticent participants to speak up, share ideas or ask questions.
Similarly, remote working may not be optimal in the long-term for every client or industry. Take highly regulated industries like banking, which have stringent internal security requirements, and may be more eager than others to return to on-premise consultancy.
At the end of the day, the increase in remote delivery represents an acceleration of an existing trend. The components aren’t new, but the ways (and frequency) we leverage them are. Much of this will stay the same going forward. Constant adaptability will be key for everyone in the coming months, with a mix of virtual, hybrid and onsite interaction likely to transpire based on circumstances and specific project demands.