A pandemic is not on our minds when we talk about globalization. Serious disease and possible death are some of our worst fears as humans. And let’s be honest, we don’t really know how to handle this COVID-19 problem. No one alive has had any first-hand experience in dealing with pandemics.
The world has seen decimating pandemics before, but the COVID-19 pandemic is unique. For the first time in pandemic history, the effects are so immanent, life-changing, and powerful that the pandemic has touched every single living being on this planet even those that aren’t infected. For many people, the social and economic disruptions are even more scary than the fear of the virus itself.
Our social distancing and “stay at home” response to the COVID-19 pandemic triggered the work from home initiative that now seems like it’s here to stay. That’s why in this and the next few blog posts, we will be analyzing these changes in more detail.
The Inconvenient “Work From Home Experiment” Outcomes
Without any warning, as Saikat Chatterjee, Senior Director, Advisory at Gartner says: “We’re being forced into the world’s largest work-from-home experiment and, so far, it hasn’t been easy for a lot of organizations to implement.”
The first group of enterprises stopped working completely in new COVID-19 coronavirus conditions. Some were closed down by the authorities. Some, could not implement the proper measures to prevent the spread of the disease between employees and customers while continuing to work. For others, nobody was interested in their services, such as the tourism industry.
The second group of enterprises started working from home. They did reforms on the fly and hoped for a positive outcome under the circumstances. This forced change came abruptly without any real preparation. This wasn’t a planned “next step forward” in enterprise development. It was just the opposite: an emergency response that enterprises had to do.
The third group of enterprises suspended their activities for a period of time and tried to evaluate whether they were capable of working from home and preserving the high level of security. Banks, insurance agencies, government organizations and more are trying to find the balance between servicing people’s needs for their services and the availability of technological tools.
We will be focusing on the second and third group for this blog post series.
Why Do Companies Like The Work From Home Movement?
The work from home trend wasn’t created because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we can see from this Gallup survey. in 2012, 39% of workers were remote in some way, even if it meant working from home just a few hours a month. In 2016, that number increased to 43% of enterprises who were experimenting in this direction because of the possible benefits that included:
- Employing workers regardless of geographical boundaries
- Eliminating transportation time and expenses
- Reducing the costs of offices
- Creating flexible working hours
That was the expectation. In reality, it was a mix of benefits and challenges. If we can separate and distinguish them, we will have a clear overview of the technological challenges.
So let’s start with Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University and his two year study about the effects of working from home in Ctrip, the most prominent Chinese Travel company. 1000 employees were randomly selected to work from home for 9 months. “The results we saw at Ctrip blew me away,” Bloom says.
Productivity increased by 13%. Employee retention rate grew by 50%. Initially, 500 of them were against remote work. At the end, only 30 were opposed to working from home. Those who worked from home reported increased work satisfaction, especially from those with stabilized social lives like parents, married workers, older workers, etc. Furthermore, in those 9 months, the enterprise saved about $1,900 per employee.
Bloom believes that one-third of the reason for the productivity increase was the quieter home environment for receiving calls. The other two thirds he associated with the working hours. Employees took shorter breaks, started earlier, finished later, and had no need to commute.
His view on the best-case scenario was when workers came into the office about one to three days of the week to stay connected to the enterprise and increase their creativity.
On the other side, the tech society still remembers one year earlier the previous Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s famous ban on remote work of any kind. Granted, call center jobs are easy to shift from an office environment to a home environment, but not all work is as easily done at home.
How Does Work From Home Affect People?
There are some unique aspects of the interaction between humans that don’t translate well through technology. “Screens are distancing,” says Thalia Wheatley, a professor of psychological and brain science at Dartmouth. “In face-to-face communication, you are sharing a moment in time and space with someone. That is incredibly compelling for our ancient brains.” And this is something that technology today is not capable of imitating and replacing.
Why is in-person communication superior? Scientists haven’t found the answer yet, but there are some strong indications.
First, the more eye contact people make while they communicate, the more they will be synchronized one to another. We cannot replicate that experience using video calls while we are working from home.
Second, the level of trust rises when people share a communal meal together. Not dining with the team doesn’t strengthen the team. This is even worse for workers who live alone because they will probably dine alone. “The brain becomes unstable with solitary confinement,” says Wheatley. Solitary confinement and social isolation in prisons increased the risk of premature death by 26%. Another study shows that social isolation reduces the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Furthermore, the effect of loneliness is estimated to reduce life expectancy by a staggering 15 years. This is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. “It’s not just that everybody loves social interaction and parties and whatnot,” Wheatley says. “I think it’s critically important to our mental and physical health.”
This was the reason that led to another study. People have to accomplish a stressful task. The support they could receive can be either in-person or over a text message. As Susan Holtzman, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, says, “it wasn’t that texting was bad, it’s just that it was consistently not as good as in-person support.”
So how can we solve these challenges? Once more to quote Wheatley, “the thing has to get solved on the tech side. The tech needs to kind of disappear, so that you believe that you are in the room.” The level of user-friendliness needed for tech to disappear is easier said than done. Simplicity is not simple to achieve. Any UX designer will nod to this statement and be able to explain at length why this is such a challenge that we are only slowly solving.
Technology To The Rescue(?)
The problems are emerging from both sides: the enterprise side and the workers that work from home. Most of the legacy software solutions were built around the idea that the office will always be accessible, and someone will always be there to provide physical access to securely stored documents. These systems usually reside on an enterprise intranet and providing wide accessibility to hundreds or even thousands of remote workers is technically not possible.
Luckily, the Software as a Service industry has been growing for the past decade. In many aspects, these cloud solutions are providing the needed features and benefits and were built with scale in mind. From productivity tools like Office 365 or ZOHO to collaboration and conferencing tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, to industry-specific ones such as ArkCase FOIA and DSAR Solutions, enterprises are spoiled for choice.
The critical step in this transformative time for each enterprise will be to find a reliable technology implementation partner. Without one, companies and government agencies can quickly find themselves in trouble.
Armedia LLC is a CMMI Level 3 company that provides a niche focus in Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and Case Management technical and advisory services. With 18 years of deep ECM experience, our skilled team with industry certifications has helped deploy hundreds of ECM solutions.
Anil Parthasarathy, the USPTO CMS Technical Lead once said: “I cannot say enough about [Armedia’s] unwavering support, never-say-die attitude, and work ethic in helping CMS get better. [They] have been a rock in this project.”
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