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Three areas of remote working to consider

A number of tech firms have used the shift to working from home, to develop new product offerings. We look at the IT impact

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Meet the CIO connecting IT in the most inhospitable environments

In June, a Gartner survey of 127 company leaders reported that 82% of respondents intend to permit remote working some of the time as employees return to the workplace.

Nearly half (47%) said they intend to allow employees to work remotely full-time going forward. For some organisations, flexible time will be the new norm, as 43% of survey respondents reported that they will grant employees flexible days, while 42% will provide flexible hours.

According to Gartner, for many organisations with employees working both on-site and remotely, adapting to a new, more complex hybrid workforce is the main challenge as how people work together to get their job done evolves.

Elisabeth Joyce, vice-president of advisory in the Gartner HR practice, said: “As business leaders plan and execute the reopening of their workplaces, they are evaluating more permanent remote-working arrangements as a way to meet employee expectations and build more resilient business operations.”

This may be the driver behind the IT sector gearing up to provide products and services that will help businesses keep productive long-term, if large proportions of staff choose to work from home permanently.

Zoom, which has seen usage of its video-conferencing service skyrocket during the pandemic, has introduced a $599 smart screen called Zoom for Home, DTEN Me, which it claims is a single box that creates an immersive and productive workspace. The device features a 27-inch display, three built-in wide-angle cameras for high-resolution video, an eight-microphone array for meetings and phone calls, and a touch display for interactive screen sharing, whiteboarding, annotating and ideation.

But it is not always necessary have a single-purpose device or a powerful office laptop at home, especially as remote management and break and fix of such devices can be problematic.

According to Gartner, adoption of desktop as a service (DaaS) is expected to grow by 98% during in 2020. DaaS gives home workers access to their corporate work desktop environment from any device.

“DaaS is inexpensive compared to shipping a new laptop, and you can run it on an old laptop,” said John-David Lovelock, distinguished research vice-president at Gartner.

Any work device on the home network needs excellent security, reliability, and fast connectivity. HPE recently announced it was acquiring Silver Peak for $925m to extend its Aruba business. Silver Peak’s EdgeConnect family of products aims to deliver a work local-area network (LAN) in people’s homes.

At the time, HPE’s CEO, Antonio Neri, said: “The campus of the future will be very different – more of us will work from home, the branch is your home. To connect all these micro branches, you need new technology.”

Extending the corporate network to support home workers long-term requires more than a virtual private network (VPN) connection, as they are often not ideal for applications delivered via the cloud. In effect, a home user connects through the VPN, which then connects to the public internet-based cloud service.

Many believe that delivering a reliable network connection for home users requires IT to ensure the network in people’s homes is robust, secure and offers the quality of service needed to run enterprise applications, software as a service (SaaS), collaboration, video conferencing and internet protocol (IP) telephony.

Simon Pamplin, technical director at Silver Peak, said: “When it comes to the network, the primary challenge is in connecting this workforce to business-enabling applications and services residing in the datacentre and the cloud. Some users require access to voice over internet protocol [VoIP] systems, virtual desktops and video conferencing that require fast and highly reliable network connections.

“For example, a company that had 50 branch offices before lockdown must now grapple with the idea that every user, and their home network, is a new branch they have to support, representing an exponential increase in the number of sites.”

Maintaining company culture

Beyond access to video conferencing and enterprise software, business leaders also recognise that as the workforce becomes highly distributed – and employees each have their own micro offices – there is a greater need for people to feel like they are part of a company, rather than an individual worker.

This is the area Workplace from Facebook has been focused on. Speaking at the company’s Transform event, which had more than 400 attendees, Hande Corapcioglu, global community lead at Heineken, said: “We wanted to have all employees on a single platform.”

The beverages company has 120,000 employees, of whom 70% are active at least once a month on Workplace from Facebook. According to Corapcioglu, the platform fosters collaboration with teams that would not otherwise know each other.

Another guest speaker, Nathalie Adamczak, digital workplace and collective experience business leader at home improvement retailer Adeo, described how Workplace from Facebook has provided an effective way to distribute new product information across the company in just one day, something that used to take a month to achieve.

Rather than relying on employees to go to a company intranet to find the new information, frontline staff, who generally carry smartphones, can see the new product information directly on their smartphone.

Keeping connected to frontline staff

If a substantial proportion of the workforce continue to work from home, businesses will need to look at how to connect these people with the frontline workers who need to be in offices, stores, factories and warehouses.

Pat Byrne, head of GE Digital, said that problem solving with customers involves the use of digital whiteboards and a dataset to represent the architecture of the problem. GE Digital uses digital twins to run simulations of its machines.

Real data collected from these machines is then used to retune the simulation model. Byrne recognises that sometimes people need to be onsite, or at the very least, have access to physical data. This is a component of lean manufacturing called “gemba”, which is Japanese for the real place.

This idea of gemba was recently demonstrated during VentilatorChallengeUK, where a number of companies, including Ford and Airbus, needed to collaborate on how to ramp up production of ventilators to support coronavirus patients.

Graeme Hoare, Ford’s executive director for business transformation, said Microsoft HoloLens and Microsoft Teams were used to streamline the problem-solving process. HoloLens was used to plan factory layouts at Dagenham and Airbus, diagnose problems remotely, for optimisation and to train employees.

Supporting remote working effectively will require the use of tools such as augmented reality headsets and digital whiteboards that can link frontline staff to home workers, and, where it is needed, digital simulations that “learn” from data gathered in the real world.

Read more about working from home strategies

  • In this week’s Computer Weekly, with staff working from home during the coronavirus crisis, we look at three key technology areas to consider.
  • Forrester analyst Andrew Hewitt explains how companies have adjusted to remote work, what they need to be effective now and what to consider before reopening the office.
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