As the Covid-19 pandemic progressed and businesses spent more time working from home, thoughts started to turn from returning to the office to making remote, digital working a central component of how businesses operate.
Now, however, with a vaccination on the horizon for millions of people, business leaders and workers are now starting to wonder whether remote working really is here to stay or whether we’ll flood back to the old ways quicker than perhaps we first thought.
That was the focus of the discussion on a roundtable between tech and events entrepreneurs, hosted by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and haysmacintyre.
Starting the discussion, James West, co-founder of ONLE Network, was adamant that only a very small portion of people want to go back to the way things were when it comes to networking.
“We know, from within our network, that no one wants to go back to the way it was,” James said. “It’s probably 3-4% that are the real ‘stick in the mud’ people that only want to network in person and shake hands.”
He suggested that people favour the concept of ‘blended’ networking once the pandemic is over and restrictions are relaxed, where the efficiency and lack of geographical boundaries of digital platforms are combined with the ability to meet face-to-face. James said the favoured option is a core network of online events, with the occasional in-person networking event.
Sami Bouremoum, co-founder of HOFY, a remote-working management platform, agreed, explaining that he believes the future of work is “a lot more distributed and decentralised”. He sees working practices falling into three brackets; those who mainly work remotely but come to a central office space, digital nomads that work entirely remotely from anywhere in the world, and those who want to work in an office environment closer to home and therefore choose local co-working spaces.
FlyForm founder, Phil Davies, suggested that failing to return to an office environment, at least in some capacity, would have an impact on company cultures. “You can’t have a culture that doesn’t work remotely, anymore,” he began. “There’s an awful lot to be gained by face-to-face interaction.”
He added: “For a lot of people, having that physical contact and interaction with each other is important - the banter across the desk, the jokes by the coffee machine…”
Mick Lindsay, founder of Mocean, believes adaptability has been key for businesses throughout the pandemic, and will be just as important as we come out the other side. And it may be that employers need to completely rethink the concept of an office.
He said: “We work with Top 100 companies to help them improve their workplace culture. And what we’re finding is the real proactive ones are adapting very, very quickly.”
Mick alluded to one client that is totally changing the idea of an office to introduce some of the more relaxed concepts of remote working. “They’ve literally ripped out all the desks,” he said, “they’ve got ‘collaboration spaces’ so people can actually choose how they interact if they need to go into the office.
“They’ll be able to interact in a more relaxed and almost entrepreneurial way. That’s feeding into the corporate environment and it’s really exciting.”
Callum Coombes, co-founder of staff safety company, Safepoint, said digital platforms have offered his business benefits they never would’ve had realistic access to previously. He explained that his team had been able to join networking sessions with organisations based hundreds of miles away. The time saved by not commuting is allowing Callum and his team to expand the horizons of the business.
“We even completed an entire seed round over Zoom,” he said.
Callum added: “Some of the digital conferences have been brilliant. By allowing 15-minute sessions to be booked where I can speak to someone one-to-one, I’ve actually got more out of it than if I’d attended the event in person.”
James West put forward the idea that whatever the new way of working is post-Covid won’t necessarily be what sticks for decades to come.
“This is just version one of a cultural shift in working,” he suggested. “It will get better - both the tech and the working culture.”
Phil Davies believes the biggest change will be in digital transformation, particularly among larger organisations that have been “dragging their feet”.
“We have clients coming in and saying the same thing - that they should have been ahead of the game on this and they weren’t. Ultimately, it’s going to affect their revenue if they aren’t in a position where they can continue to operate.
“I think the real new way of working will be focused on realising that there could be another pandemic in the future. Are we all going to be ready and able to work in that way and build our cultures?”
It was a point Ketan Makwana, founder of Enterprise Labs, agreed with. He explained that a lot of conversations he and his team are having with clients now surround utilising tech for business continuation.
“No one was predicting this,” he said. “No was predicting that they would have to make a massive shift in technology. We took this opportunity to really start working with businesses out there about shifting and changing their business continuity plans, which now incorporate a lot more budget and awareness around new, digital technologies.”
Nicola Dowdall, managing director at GRC World Forums, added: “Technology will be forever moving. It’s going to be moving so much faster than it’s ever moved before.
“I looked at something two months into lockdown that has totally changed to what’s out there now in such a short space of time. When you used to review something every 12 months, that’s now every three months.”
Steve Dimmick, Chief Commercial Officer founder of doopoll, suggested that the combination of technology and remote working will see businesses change their performance measures. Traditionally, workers are judged by how many hours they spend at their desk. But that is changing.
“We’ve realised things have become focused on what you achieve,” he explained. “When you’re in an office environment, it’s easy to blag. It’s easy to be charming and deflect away from priorities. When you’re remote, you have to go and get things done and prove it on the daily or weekly catch-up.”
Steve also suggested that digital company retreats could become a huge market in 2021. While smaller businesses find it easier to take staff for a meal or to do an activity once a month, it is naturally more difficult for medium and larger businesses. Steve believes larger businesses could take the entire workforce to a dedicated online destination for health and wellbeing courses, motivation seminars, team building exercises and more.
The future is coming
Although the specifics of what the new way of working will look like when we do eventually come out the other side of this pandemic, there was clear consensus among the group that there will be considerably more remote working than before, supported by wider digital adoption. And while that culture may have been more somewhat exclusive to younger, smaller businesses, corporates are starting to stand up and take notice.
But there is certainly an appetite for at least some elements of the old normal; physical contact, face-to-face interaction.
As James suggested, the second half of 2021 is likely to be just the first version of the new way of working. Cultures and tech will adapt businesses to evolve and adapt how they approach this new world.