The distributed workforce may well be the business phenomenon of the decade, thanks to the pressures of the pandemic. Before 2020, remote working was a luxury for a very few percentage of professionals. Most businesses took a dim view of home working, mainly from productivity and trust standpoints. That all changed completely when governments issued stay at home orders and within weeks, whole sectors underwent not just physical change in how they work, but emotional too: a reset of sorts occurred whereby the future of the office grew to include people’s own homes.
This was of course aided by technology, specifically Cloud. It offered businesses the opportunity to rapidly deploy distributed workers the connectivity and compute they needed to work at home, accelerating the trend of home working and reducing the arguments against it in tandem. What has been harder to predict, however, has been the effect all this has had on culture. Technology can’t solve every challenge.
With Keme Nzerem moderating, the speakers of this roundtable debate include:
- Ashish Arora, VP Cloud and Infrastructure Services, HCL Technologies
- Paul Coby, CIO, Johnson Matthey
- Harry Moseley, Global CIO, Zoom
- Ian Cohen, Chief Product and Information Officer, Acacium Group
- Avril Chester, Chief Technology Officer, RIBA
Office to home
“One of the first things we’ve learned about the office space is that isn’t, or wasn’t, all about work,” began Ashish Arora. “We saw the workforce work outside of it and possibly be more productive too, but we’ve clearly seen that the invisible things—things like culture—matter.”
It has been noted, ironically, that the one thing people do miss about the office is more to do with the personal parts of the space rather than the work itself. It’s meant that team communication is fully remote making previously important tasks, such as onboarding new members, that much harder. For Arora, that extends also to onboarding new vendors, and has shifted responsibilities onto both parties to make any new partnership start on a good note. It wasn’t all bad though, as he continued.
“We’ve realized how resilient we are; that’s down to intentionality and how we’ve used that to understand and define a workplace culture that can be maintained and protected.”
Within the healthcare industry, the pandemic has created further chaos within an already fragile period. Acacium Group is integral to the placement of healthcare professionals across the UK, and its technology leader Ian Cohen reported how his management style has adapted.
“We knew people were adaptable but we should never assume people are comfortable,” he said. “Where some people are visibly adapting to these types of [virtual] interactions, are people emotionally comfortable with them? We should use this as an opportunity to validate and check in with people.”
He went on to describe how rapidly the shift to digital healthcare came about, all technology-enabled but emotionally driven—and stressed the importance of the latter. For Cohen, the technology in the pandemic was second to the individual.
And few organizations can lay claim to being such arbritars of remote connectivity such as Zoom. The business has almost become a verb. It’s Global CIO therefore has witnessed first hand the potential of technology to transform how we work, and yet he too stressed the value of culture in a remote setting.
“I have seen a flip side to culture by remote working,” said Harry Moseley, in response to Arora’s statement earlier that culture had been negatively impacted by the pandemic. “I’ve seen more of my colleagues than I ever thought possible!”
Referencing a now famous article on not social distancing, he went on to say how he’s seen his colleagues in different parts of the house, with their families and pets, in settings that wouldn’t be deemed appropriate pre-pandemic. These relationships, he argues, have become richer, deeper and stronger because of this.
Authenticity and culture
Avril Chester of RIBA went one step further, describing how these “more authentic” connections have challenged much of what we take for granted: office formality and corporate language.
“I’ve noticed a shift away from formal language and into a more relaxed atmosphere, both internally and externally,” she explained.
Of course, the debate moved on to the technologies of cloud computing, its enablement of the trends discussed above and what the future holds for it. Agreement on its importance also highlighted that the promise of cloud was stated over a decade ago. What was perhaps more interesting though was that the conversation always came back to culture.
Paul Coby of Johnson Matthey explained it best.
“We have seen a lot of paradoxes about the pandemic, experiencing highs and lows in short space of time, but technology proved what it can do even to those who were perhaps cynical of its power. The challenge is, and always has been, the very human issues that make a business tick: its culture.”
This roundtable is in partnership with HCL Technologies.