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Three changes to office work post-coronavirus

While it’s early days, experts believe the coronavirus pandemic could change working practices. We investigate

The global response to coronavirus has seen many organisations adapting to remote working. 

According to Canalys, the coronavirus (Covid-19) has led to a turnaround in PC sales as businesses equip a newly remote workforce, placing urgent orders for tens of thousands of PCs.

Commenting on the Canalys Market Pulse global PC shipments report for Q1 2020, Rushabh Doshi, research director at Canalys, said: “The urgency of demand from both the consumer and commercial sectors, combined with the shortage of supply, meant device cost was no longer the key consideration. Instead, speed of supply was the most important factor.”

Some organisations have found they are able to get by without the need for physical PCs, even in situations that would normally merit the use of high performance workstation class machines.

London-based wealth management firm JM Finn, for instance, has deployed virtual desktops to its staff to enable them to work remotely.

Jon Cosson, head of IT and chief information security officer at JM Finn, said that in the London office, the firm’s dealers run high intensity applications across eight screens. “We have taken virtualised this,” he said. “All dealers can work from home using four screens.” Access is via a thin client Wyse terminal, which connects to the virtual desktop Windows 10 environment running on Nutanix Enterprise.

He said the IT team is now no longer supporting the company's six main offices. Instead IT is managing over 300 remote offices for its 300 remote workers.

Managing home networks

Working from home shifts network management from the responsibility of the network manager to remote workers, who, understandably, may never have had any need to understand the inner workings of their home network. Paul Routledge, country manager for D-Link points that for network engineers, being able to log into a router and set up network quality of service, which prioritise network traffic based on application, “is dead easy, but very difficult for the man on the street”. 

Cosson’s team at JM Finn developed a website for staff to help them to work remotely. “It gives instructions on what to do,” he said. But, in a residential environment, where games consoles, smart TVs and internet of things (IoT) devices are constantly streaming data, there can be network contention on the home network.

Everything connected to a home network impacts bandwidth, irrespective of how good the connection to the internet is, said Cosson. “We all need to be aware of everything that is connected to our home networks. We need to be aware of bandwidth. We know that microwaves can interfere with signals. Is a mobile phone connected to the router?” 

This complexity highlights a need for the industry to make home internet routers as easy as possible to configure. While companies like D-Link sell consumer-grade internet gateways, which aim to make it easy for a non-techie to understand what devices are connected to the home network, the devices that ISPs tend to ship out to people’s homes are often more complex for home users to configure.

D-Link has been working with managed service providers who can use its Nuclias cloud service. This enables businesses to have a device setup for their home workers remotely, which offers zero touch provisioning and provides an access point for corporate laptops. According to D-Link, it can provide a level of protection against Trojan horse malware that someone in the household inadvertently activates when they open an email.

Such malware can infect anything unprotected on the home network, but with Nuclias, D-Link says, the corporate laptop can remain protected.

Read more about the future of work

Beyond the home network, popular web services are also experiencing a huge increase in demand as more remote workers log in. Tech4i2, an international technology consultancy, recently measured internet speeds across Europe and found internet infrastructure is under pressure.

It reported that there has been a 5.3% decrease in internet speed in Europe and Amazon and Facebook have fallen by over 50%. Tech4i2 said Microsoft experienced a 29% decrease, possibly due to more people using Office 365 when working at home.

The industry has responded to this peak in usage by building up new capacity to copy with the increase in remote working. But beyond providing access from home to office productivity and enterprise applications, some experts believe that remote collaboration is the next technology frontier.

Augmenting business

Accenture recently published Covid-19: 5 new human truths that experiences need to address, in which it described how the pandemic may drive adoption of virtual reality and augmented reality. In the report, Accenture said that the trend towards more virtual experiences is rocketing ahead for both employees and customers.

According to Accenture, there is likely to be an uplift in use of, and investment in, virtual and augmented reality as an after effect of the pandemic. “The shift towards virtual will affect ways of communicating across learning, working, transacting and consuming. This will affect everyone,” Accenture noted in the report.

Similarly, In Forrester’s Work from home is simply step one: Employee relationship management for Covid-19, vice-president and principal analyst, JP Gownder described how working from home could teach everyone that “virtual” is a decent replacement for many in-person interactions.

“If I am the person who designs machinery, I can probably work from home,” he said. “But the people who are in the field need something else. This is where augmented reality has a role to play. Gownder says he has been seeing growing interest in apps like Vuforia Chalk from PTC, where a smartphone or tablet is used to overlap technical information on top of a live video. Such apps are being used to enable engineers in the field to connect to colleagues while remaining socially distanced.

Forrester is working with Accenture on a study looking at what Gownder describes as “a more naturalistic” interaction for knowledge workers that tries to overcome the limits of video conferencing.

“The more people on a Zoom call, the more it becomes like a broadcast,” he said. Generally, the application tries to focus on one speaker at a time, which is not how real world interactions occur. The study is looking at virtual reality such as AltspaceVR, to encourage groups of people to interact.

Monitoring

The coronavirus has forced businesses to reassess how they operate. However, some bosses may be worried that people who are not in an office are actually working less.

A study measuring the hours worked on work computers and applications in major European countries between 24 February to 26 March 2020 has reported that Europe has seen a decline in productivity.

The Global Remote Work Productivity Tracker, based on data aggregated from millions of employee devices from over 500 Global 2,000 companies managed via the Aternity SaaS product found that in the UK, people were using work applications 20% less than if they were in an office. Germany and France both experienced a 55% decline, while in Southern Europe Spain saw a 33% decline while in Italy, hours of work application usage fell by 70%.

Speaking at a  recent TechUK webinar on the future of work, Darrell West, vice-president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution suggested that as organisations plan what happens after the pandemic, there is a risk of an increase in worker surveillance.

“As people will be spending more time working online, the risk is that this surveillance could be accelerated in a less pleasant way. Business leaders will have to use tools in a constructive, not destructive way,” he said, adding that they should not look to bring Big Brother to the organisation’s life.

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