In 2020, we saw a generation’s worth of change to working habits unfold at an accelerated pace over a few months. Remote work – which many parts of the business world had been gradually moving towards – became an overnight necessity for swathes of the global economy, including the delivery of professional IT services.
As the world hopefully begins to emerge from the shadow of COVID-19, more businesses than ever will have the opportunity to be more deliberate. First and foremost, they can bank the dividends of more flexible working practices while also deciding how to optimise and evolve existing physical workplaces.
Last year clearly imposed several unavoidable demands, but 2021 will likely present more choice as countries roll out mass vaccination drives, leaving organisations to consider what really works for them. Do we work at home, in the office, or both? Should we host a meeting virtually or in-person? Is travelling really needed?
These decisions should not be treated as binary equations. Since the start of the pandemic, we have learned a lot about both the benefits and drawbacks of remote working.
Many of the costs and benefits are now widely understood. However, the ultimate influence of all these major changes to working practices should be measured in years, not months. For example, it is still too early to be fully confident about the long-term effects of remote working on things like recruitment and retention, individual career development, and collective productivity.
From the perspective of training and consultancy in information technology, I believe there are some issues we should be aware of. In consultancy, any agreement will have a fixed number of criteria that need to be met for the assignment to be successful. But any consultant will tell you that these requirements are only table stakes. The real value comes from an experienced consultant observing their environment, making specific recommendations, and delivering beyond the brief. Is that kind of intangible value, so dependent on being integrated in a customer’s working environment, possible in a remote setting?
While much training can be – and is – delivered to an outstanding level through self-managed online learning, there are some obvious limitations – some more complex than others. For example, we all learn differently, yet with e-learning everyone gets an identical experience. By contrast, an experienced trainer in situ can adapt to the needs of a particular group or the individuals in it, personalising and deepening the session. Moreover, a classroom module deliberately takes people out of their normal working routine to limit distractions. Spending 30 minutes staring at the same screen you use for work cannot create the same conducive atmosphere for learning complex concepts or techniques.
Deep-seated limitations affecting both consultancy and training must also be considered in the African context. Analysis from DataReportal indicates that 90% of the population has internet access in the USA, and the figure is similar for other developed nations. In Africa, however, cost, availability, and a lack of relevant skills present obstacles to accessibility.
Internet penetration rates vary wildly across sub-Saharan Africa: on the higher end is South Africa at 64%. In the lower range, Ethiopia is at just under 21%. Nevertheless – despite the challenges, and out of necessity – digital transformation is being embraced at a faster rate in certain parts of the continent.
In South Africa, the Dell Technologies Digital Transformation Index 2020 shows that the number of businesses classed as ‘digital adopters’ had grown from 23% in 2018 to 49% in 2020. This bodes well for a future of remote or hybrid working. So too does a survey by recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, which recently found that 66% of South African professionals reported an increase in productivity when working from home.
The same survey also revealed that around 40% of South Africa’s senior professionals want to move to full-time remote work.
Looking ahead then, there are two key factors professional service providers must carefully consider. The first is the importance of casual interactions, serendipitous meetings, and the ability to observe an organisation at work. That simply doesn’t happen when your working world shrinks to the size of those you digitally communicate with.
Second is the challenge of providing added value within a remote context. A consultant working virtually on a long-term project risks becoming a face on a screen rather than a fully embedded member of the customer’s team. You want to be seen as a trusted adviser, not a commodity service.
None of these points deny the huge value remote working offers both professional service suppliers and customers. It is all about striking the right balance.
Indeed, F5’s training and consultancy teams were already delivering many of their assignments remotely before the pandemic occurred. In the past year, we’ve all been surprised by how much can be achieved to a high standard virtually. This includes training methods that we would never have previously attempted.
In the (hopefully not too distant) future, many of our training and consulting engagements will surely embrace a hybrid approach, with face-to-face meetings used to discuss task execution and confirm expected outcomes. This will help to build trust between all parties.
The challenge for organisations now is to find the right balance between traditional and remote working: blending the urge for efficiency with the imperative for effective teamwork.
The ultimate goal should be a working environment that considers and addresses limitations to remote work and maximises the contributions of all concerned – not just employees, but professional services suppliers and partners, too.