Management

No digital twin: why remote working must be more than just a clone of the office

Mivy James at BAE explains that, while COVID-19 has brought tragedy and damaged the economy, it also brings an opportunity to build flexibility and productivity into organisations.

Covid-19 has transformed many of our lives over the past few months. Most obviously, it has forced us to restrain that most innate of human characteristics, our sociability, and isolate ourselves from friends, family and those at risk. The next biggest impact for most people is that they’ll have spent their time under lockdown working from home (WFH). The question is, what happens next? For employers there’s a real opportunity to build greater flexibility into contracts on a permanent basis — and improve staff wellbeing and productivity whilst reducing office costs.

Yet to reap these rewards, we must start to think differently about remote working. It can’t simply be viewed as a digital twin to office-based tasks. Those employers that learn these lessons quickest today will be best placed to attract the brightest and best of tomorrow’s workforce.

A global experiment

In many ways, Covid-related lockdowns across the globe represent the largest psychological experiment ever conducted. By some estimates, over 60% of the UK adult population worked from home at the height of the first wave of pandemic. On the one hand, this is a positive: it has forced the hand of reluctant employers, who may have subsequently found that WFH doesn’t impact productivity at all, as many fear.

That opens-up the prospect of longer term shifts to working patterns which could transform city centres, and the finances of some organisations, as they downsize from expensive office buildings. Some 45% of workers polled by O2 predict a permanent change in flexible working when the lockdown lifts.

Digital facetime is tiring

Yet the great remote working experiment might not have been the unmitigated success many believe. Many organisations fall into the trap of replicating everything from the face-to-face world online. As plenty of employees will tell you, this can be both exhausting and counter-intuitive. We spend so much of our lives online today anyway, and especially under lockdown — everything from fitness classes to catching up with friends and family — that excessive video conferencing for work can be draining.

Not only that, but it’s not an ideal replacement. Video meetings lack any room for spontaneity and participants can sometimes miss the nuances they would otherwise pickup in person, especially from body language.

For this reason, meetings should be limited in duration and spaced apart during the day. Facebook has an internal rule where even senior meetings are allowed to last only 30 minutes max, for example. Employers and managers could also consider different types of collaboration features. Whiteboarding capabilities allow for workshop-like efforts where individuals can get on with their tasks independently, and then re-join for shorter amounts of time to talk through their work.

Separation of concerns

Employers need to get better at understanding what’s important. Productivity was never really something that was measured in the office, so why is it such a big deal now staff are out of sight? Inevitably, it boils down to trust. But employees shouldn’t be required, or made to feel like they have to be on Zoom or Teams for six hours a day, and answering emails for the rest of their time, just to prove their fealty.

There must therefore be recognition of the importance of setting time aside for creative thinking and problem solving. That means encouraging staff sometimes to disconnect. In computer science, there’s a concept known as separation of concerns which posits that programs must be split into distinct sections so that each one addresses a separate concern. Employers should apply the same principle to collaboration tools, so that only corporate-sanctioned platforms are used for official work purposes. This will help to tackle the digital communications tsunami many home workers may otherwise feel overwhelmed by.

Empowering users

It also sends a more positive message to users from an IT security perspective. So often the department of “no”, the function can help to reinvent itself for a post-Covid world by offering a  whitelisted choice of collaboration tools for users, rather than telling them what they can’t use. As long as there’s genuine choice there and the capabilities are user-friendly enough, this approach could help to combat shadow IT and the security and compliance risks it brings.

Most importantly, it supports the idea of true flexibility. Employees are undoubtedly an organisation’s most powerful asset, and one that can be greatly enhanced with the right use of technology. But simply allowing them to WFH is not enough to harness their potential: it should never be a digital twin of the office environment. Employers that realise this, and trust their staff enough to take their work offline from time to time, will be the true winners of the “new normal” era.


Mivy James is Head of Consulting for National Security and Defence at BAE.

Mivy started her career as an analyst and programmer after completing a degree in Computer Science and Maths. She has worked for a range of clients across UK government on everything from cutting edge technology research to the strategic design of multi-billion pound programmes. Prior to joining BAe Systems Applied Intelligence in 2005 she worked for several international IT consultancies and corporations.

Mivy is the founder and chair of Applied Intelligence's gender balance network.

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