Saturday, December 3

Adapting to the WFH trend

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The severity of the Covid-19 pandemic so far has triggered governments worldwide to issue lockdowns, restrict the public’s movement and other similar measures in a bid to contain its spread.

With the aim of flattening the curve, the Malaysian government implemented the movement control order (MCO) on March 18, 2020, which brought about drastic changes in everyone’s lifestyles, both personal and work.

During this period, individuals were mandated to stay at home and were only permitted venture out to purchase food and other necessities.

With the exception of essential services, most businesses remained closed during the entire duration of MCO. However, certain companies were able to still operate as employees were able to work remotely, or ‘work from home’ (WFH).

Last month, the government introduced the Conditional MCO (CMCO), whereby businesses in approved sectors were able to re-open and allow employees back into offices or premises.

According to Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz, some 10.25 million people, or 67.2 per cent of the workforce, had returned to work as of May 17, up from 6.64 million people or 43.6 per cent a week earlier (May 10).

Citing data from the Statistics Department, he said these figures took into account those working from home and covered various economic sectors such as services, agriculture, manufacturing, and mining and quarrying.

“The increase in the number of employees returning to work shows that the opening of the economy on May 4 by the government has thus far been smooth to enable workers to earn their livelihood,” he said when presenting the seventh implementation report of the Prihatin Package report this week.

“While 67 per cent of workers have returned to work, there are about five million workers in various sectors who have not started work. This is due to, among others, because, among others, these sectors being part of the list of industries prohibited under the strict Standard Operating Procedures for health and safety considerations.”

Citing a study by Ipsos, Tengku Zafrul said it showed that 62 per cent of Malaysians were very concerned about the threat of Covid-19 to themselves.

“The percentage is the highest among citizens of countries surveyed,” he said.

He stressed that the government was sensitive to the challenges faced by the workers and the people.

“The government does not take for granted the lives and livelihood of the people or the state of the economy,” he said, adding that the Prihatin package was a manifestation of the efforts taken by the government for the sake of the people and country.

Most companies from approved sectors have followed suit in reopening premises and having employees work in offices again, while others have instead chosen to continue allowing employees to work from home as the pandemic still proves to be a threat in the country.

Korn Ferry, which conducted a survey on the impact of Covid-19 on business and human capital management practices, highlighted that while companies are doing everything they can to contain people costs, they are also looking at how to provide additional work support to staff as most of their workforce is working from home.

“For instance, 40 per cent of Malaysian companies have or are considering to provide allowances or to cover Wi-Fi and/or utilities expenses for office-based employees who now work from home,” the global organisational consulting firm said.

“Half of Malaysian organisations also say their biggest human resource (HR) challenge is measuring and improving the work efficiency of remote workers.

“Most companies acknowledged that post-Covid 19, there will be several things they will do differently learning from their experience of navigating the sharp and severe disruption brought on by the global pandemic.”

Other findings from Korn Ferry’s survey included that more than 70 per cent of companies in Asia Pacific (APAC) indicated that they will continue their work arrangement measures even after the crisis, with the top three being voluntary work from home, social distancing and increased safety measures upon returning to work.

The survey also found that 23 per cent of companies in APAC region reported that they are providing allowances or covering Wi-Fi and/or cost of utilities expenses for office-based employees who are now working from home.

It was also revealed that beyond the pandemic, 58 per cent of respondents in APAC indicated that they will continue to operate more virtually, with 49 per cent said that they will be more disciplined about cost management moving forward.

To this end, employers which are enabling WFH or remote working over a long-term period, may need to take into consideration various factors in order to achieve maximum productivity from employees.

Complete decentralisation of the workplace

The WFH trend is not a new concept. In fact within Malaysia, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry highlighted this business model back in 2013, but the initiative did not get a good response with workers still preferring to work in offices.

Today, that mindset has changed.

Holger Reisinger

Jabra’s Large Enterprise Solutions senior vice president Holger Reisinger said as the previous decade saw the ubiquitous rise of the open office, the coming one will see the complete decentralisation of the workplace.

“Understandably, the start of the decade has been one of unprecedented global business disruption,” Reisinger said on adapting to the workspaces of the 2020s.

“As industries and economies are upended, the state of flux provides both challenges and opportunities, with everyone needing to remain agile and adapt to new ways of working.

“Fueled by globalisation, health concerns, a growing demand for flexible working options and a cluster of other factors, the start of the decade is seeing a new need to entirely reconfigure the spaces in which we work.

“With this demand for further flexibility comes a different set of challenges with regards to the ways in which a company innovates through collaboration and employees tackle concentration.”

Reisinger highlighted that while previously being challenged by open-office densification, increasingly distributed teams and the resulting challenges to our concentration and collaboration, the 2020s will be defined by a more radically adjusted style of working and greater need for supporting technology to keep up with these deeply impactful changes and accelerated state of change.

“As we face greater spatial challenges, improving our communications tools can lead to a combination of greater concentration and collaboration, both of which are being tested in new ways through these workspace changes.

“Technology also offers a way to flexibly future proof your teams or business while safeguarding fundamentals like concentration and collaboration regardless of what the future office or workspace of tomorrow looks like.”

He further highlighted that coupled with this flexibility, the right technology can also deliver further insights.

“As the very foundations of how we work change, so too will the data sources we use to make business decisions. While business intelligence will continue to improve the future of smart buildings, it will increasingly become important for companies to gather business intelligence from its remote workers.”

Certain suitable technology can offer new data streams to help companies gauge the effectiveness of these new work environments and make decisions to adapt quickly in these fast-changing times and ensure employees are productive and engaged, Reisinger advised.

Enhancing employees’ concentration

In addressing employees’ concentration while working, Reisinger noted that today’s knowledge workers can easily become overwhelmed by the number of tools required by their workflows.

“Conflicting internal and external communications platforms, added to by the inefficiencies of emails and conference calls, can leave people with no time to focus, and an always-on feeling of interruptions without productivity, not to mention key detail and context sometimes being missed.

“Though open offices will likely encounter fewer cases of densification in the coming years, some challenges to concentration will still persist in those spaces, while further uncharted ones will arise in home working, in environments that employers have no control over. Training your organisation in effective remote working is one solution, but must go hand-in-hand with giving them the tools to concentrate as well.

“In addition to giving people the software tools to communicate and collaborate, make sure you also invest in giving people the capacity to concentrate.

“For bigger businesses this could mean architecting the right spaces and environments, and for home workers, this could mean a budget for setting up their home office.”

He further noted that across any working environment, technology hardware can also play a supporting role, with a bigger monitor, or noise-cancelling headphones with busy-light indicators to let family know if someone is on a call or not to be disturbed.

“Technology indicators like this are supporting elements that can bring about behavioral change to aid concentration. By giving employees these tools to perform at their best, businesses can create the structures for new social norms, either in an office or home environment.

“Devices can create positive effects or experiences that lead to cultural changes and aid better concentration.”

Reisinger also highlighted that the use of voice assistance in companies will play a part in driving productivity in future workspaces.

“As voice assistant usage grows in enterprises in the future, our computers and headsets will also allow us to augment ourselves with greater intelligence, as these assistants gain further contextual and smart responses to each individual’s way of working.

“The features will include predictive analytics and greater natural language processing with better speech recognition, machine translation, natural language generation, semantic search, and machine learning, all of which will drive productivity in our future workspaces.”

And employees find the WFH trend growing on them. In a survey conducted by Michael Page Malaysia, 1,023 respondents replied with their sentiments around the work from home measures as office stay closed.

Three out of five professionals in Malaysia stated that they have established stronger working relationships with colleagues from heightened interactions despite distancing regulations.

In addition, 80 per cent expressed their satisfaction with their levels of remote engagement while WFH.

Virtual collaborations gain traction in today’s scenario

Let’s not forget one of the main trends which grew popular for those WFH during the pandemic lockdowns or restricted movements, virtual meetings via video conferencing. These video and audio conferencing softwares or apps were quite the saving grace for colleagues to converse or update each other virtually and remotely.

According to Reisinger, as globalisation, health concerns, real estate prices and a host of other factors drive the exponential rise of distributed teams, every business needs to have the tools that enable collaboration between both individuals and teams across different locations and time zones.

“In offices, that will mean creating meeting spaces that allow for safe distancing, and smarter spaces for people to work, but we will rarely see meetings that are not in some way virtual.

“Humanising virtual workspaces will become paramount in order to maintain creativity, innovation, teamwork, and the resulting productivity gains in any organisation.”

He opined that digital elements like webinars, whiteboards and screenshare will become increasingly important functions, further enabled by 180 degrees field-of-view cameras that allow for equal participation and inclusion of participants in a meeting room, and increasing trust through the full room visibility it offers.

“Body language will also foster more engagement and greater perceptiveness from presenters through these feedback loops, while full duplex speakerphones enable equal bi-directional communication for easier meeting flows and conversation.

“Overall, virtual collaboration through audio, video and software will be essential for any organisation to effectively run or do business. These strategies should be implemented early on so that external factors that force the need for agile collaborative practices do not in any way slow down businesses.”

On the importance of data, Reisinger stressed that these can be used to drive strategy and help make the decisions that ensure businesses are successful in the future.

“The global business intelligence market is expected to grow from US$15.64 billion (RM70.75 billion) in 2016 to US$29.48 billion (RM127.2 billion) by 2022.

“Businesses can now choose from AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, IBM Bluemix or any number of IaaS (infrastructure as a service) providers, and a host of BI (business intelligence) service providers.

“However, with so much access to data, we don’t always know what to pay attention to, or how to use it in our decision making.

“Interestingly, smaller businesses of 100 people or less are the highest adopters of BI tools, using it to remain agile and get a competitive growth advantage.”

He also opined that it is necessary for companies to find new ways to gather business insights in virtual environments where managers live halfway around the world from their reports, and standardisation is hard to achieve in home-working environments.

“The hardware you issue to employees needs to be able to gather intelligence for IT teams who are unable to ever deliver onsite assistance.

“Additionally, future insights around employee engagement and stress levels will become increasingly important to tackle the health issues of remote working and maintaining an engaged workforce.”

Distant working the new normal?

The pandemic has led to companies adjust working environments for returning employees, in a bid to adapt to the current situation while ensuring the safety of the workforce.

However, the WFH concept should not be viewed as just a trend, especially at a time when businesses need to endure the economic impact of Covid-19.

“As businesses streamline their expenses, and are forced to adapt more stringent spatial measures in offices, many will downsize on their already considerable office space expenses,” Reisinger said.

“Architecture and design will play a part in reshaping health-conscious offices, which will lead to healthier and therefore more productive workforces.

“However, we are also entering a new normal with home working, already fueled by the sharp decline in space per employee in offices and high real-estate costs in many markets. Remote employees can save money, as long as they have excellent communications tools at their fingertips.”

From his viewpoint, different businesses will be able to innovate and adapt based on their unique circumstances, markets, and industries, but at the core of new ways of working will be a need for flexibility.

“Flexibility to overcome challenges and have teams, managers and organisations who can work from anywhere, and adapt to anything.

“The external world is changing at a rapid pace around us, and having the right people, and the right technology for them to thrive in any environment, is what will underpin the greatest success stories of the coming decade.”

Tommi Maekilae

Security risks not to be overlooked

An often overlooked aspect of WFH is the vulnerablities that employees have exposed themselves and their companies to, with the use of applications that were previously not sanctioned for business within the company.

Synopsys Software Integrity Group’s senior solutions architect Tommi Maekilae observed that the rapid shift of a large portion of employees to a remote setting has forced companies to take shortcuts to enable their workers for extended remote access to keep up productivity.

“This includes reduced security controls, allowing direct access to systems previously only available through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or simply allowing temporary remote access to partners or customers,” Maekilae said in a commentary.

“Once people return to the office, such changes should be thoroughly assessed and reversed back if not required, which may prove problematic given the changes may have been hastily implemented to only parts of the system and not properly documented.”

According to Maekilae, employees may have found alternate ways of working and use new technologies to overcome shortcomings in their remote work environment.

“This might include consumer grade video conferencing, chat and file sharing applications that may have not been previously sanctioned for business within the company.

“While such technologies certainly pose a security risk due to inherent vulnerabilities during the WFH-period, they are also more likely bringing them back to the office upon their return for continued use.”

He further explained that the problem is not only about people using their own devices and risky applications to handle potentially confidential data.

It is also regarding businesses themselves having too much trust on traditional security mechanisms like anti-virus software, firewalls and VPN solutions, while not having proper vulnerability management and application security practices in place.

“Application security and vulnerability management practices sadly often focus on patch management only, which may also have been implemented with the general premise of equipment being physically present at the office and connected to the office network, thus potentially leaving equipment taken home lacking important security updates.

“This then leads to a situation where company equipment may have any number of vulnerabilities left undetected and unpatched and may already have been silently compromised and running malware or having backdoors implemented and ultimately pose a serious risk upon being returned and connected to the office environment despite the patches being applied eventually.”

Maekilae highlighted that at the end of the day, there is no standardised model that organisations could follow to transition back to work-from-office. He also noted that different circumstances like government regulations, industry requirements, and people’s opinions can considerably impact the timeframe when particular offices are reopened.

As such, Maekilae opined that businesses in many occasions will ultimately face a hybrid situation where a part of the workforce will remain in a work-from-home setting for an extended period of time, while others return to the previously normal office environment.

“Such a situation will require reconsideration towards security practices like endpoint security, data protection, logging and monitoring, vulnerability management practices (application testing and patching) and authentication mechanisms which will support both the people working from home as well as people at the office with an equal level of usability and security, not forgetting cyber hygiene awareness and communication to employees to understand best practices and potential risks, now more than ever.”