In 2020, we saw a generation’s worth of change to working habits over the course of a few months. Remote work, which many parts of the business world had been gradually moving towards, became an overnight necessity for swathes of the global economy, including the delivery of IT professional services.
As the world hopefully begins to emerge from the shadow of COVID-19, most businesses will have the opportunity to be more deliberate. First and foremost, they can bank the dividends of more flexible working practices while also deciding how to optimize and evolve existing physical workplaces.
Last year clearly imposed several unavoidable demands, but 2021 will likely present more choice. Do we work at home or in the office? Should we host a meeting virtually or in-person? Is travelling really needed? Previously, every company found itself on broadly the same path for enabling remote work. Now, as the context continues to change, those paths are diverging, and organizations are having to think harder about what works for them.
These decisions should not be treated as binary equations. Over the last 12 months, we have learned a lot about both the benefits and drawbacks of remote working.
Many of the costs and benefits are now widely understood. However, the ultimate influence of all these major changes to working practices should be measured in years, not months. For example, it is still too early to be fully confident about the long-term effects of remote working on things like recruitment and retention, individual career development, and collective productivity.
From the perspective of information technology training and consultancy, I believe there are also some hidden costs we should be aware of. While much training can be—and is—delivered to an outstanding level through self-managed online learning, there are some obvious limitations. We all learn differently, yet with e-learning everyone gets an identical experience. By contrast, an experienced trainer in situ can adapt to the needs of a particular group or the individuals in it, personalizing and deepening the session. Moreover, a classroom module deliberately takes people out of their normal working routine to limit distractions. 30 minutes of staring at the same screen you use for work cannot create the same conducive atmosphere for learning complex concepts or techniques.
The same is true of consultancy. Any agreement will have a fixed number of criteria that need to be met for the assignment to be successful. But any consultant will tell you that these requirements are only table stakes. The real value comes from an experienced consultant observing their environment, making specific recommendations, and delivering beyond the brief. Is that kind of intangible value, so dependent on being integrated in a customer’s working environment, possible in a remote setting?
Looking ahead, there are two key factors professional service providers need to carefully consider. The first is the importance of casual interactions, serendipitous meetings and the ability to observe an organization at work. That simply doesn’t happen when your working world shrinks to the size of those you digitally communicate with.
Second is the challenge of providing added value within a remote context. A consultant working virtually on a long-term project risks becoming a face on a screen rather than a fully embedded member of the customer’s team. You want to be seen as a trusted adviser, not a commodity service.
Neither of these points deny the huge value remote working offers both professional services suppliers and customers. Indeed, F5’s training and consultancy teams were already delivering the majority of their assignments remotely before the pandemic occurred. In the past year, we’ve all been surprised by how much can be achieved to a high standard virtually. This includes training methods that we would never have previously attempted.
In the (hopefully not too distant) future, many of our training and consulting engagements will surely embrace a hybrid approach, with face-to-face meetings used to discuss task execution and confirm expected outcomes. This will also help to build trust between all parties. The challenge for organizations now is to find the right balance between traditional and remote working: blending the urge for efficiency with the imperative for effective teamwork. The ultimate goal should be a working environment that maximizes the contributions of all concerned—not just employees, but professional services suppliers and partners too.