How do IT leaders prepare for a refusal to return to the office?

With working from home likely to become a permanent option across many businesses, it's important to plan ahead as the end of lockdown is finally in sight

The government has laid out its roadmap for lifting COVID-19 restrictions, with 21 June the earliest possible date companies could consider returning all employees to the office.

For his part, Prime Minister Boris Johnson does not believe remote working will become the norm. Speaking about people not wanting to commute again or get back to face-to-face working life, he told a virtual conference: "I don't believe it. Not for a moment."

Contrast that to the boss of Unilever, who in January said his office workers will never return to their desks five days a week.

By and large, experts do agree hybrid working will stay 'a thing' but if staff refuse to come back in the same pre-pandemic numbers, how should IT leaders be planning? Should greater levels of remote access be offered even when COVID restrictions are gone? And if so, what are the implications?

Andrew Sellers, MD of Foundation IT, says: "The reality is we aren't going back to the office anytime soon, whatever is announced. The changes brought about by the new forced way of working will be permanent and largely we will all be better off as a consequence. There's still much to do to make sure that working from home actually works, though." 

He adds: "Once the tolerance phase is over, we will see significant investment being made in helping people to WFH. By then the balance sheets will show for many that they are better off with people working as they choose. 

"As we come out of this, more permanent decisions will be made to WFH and we will see an increase in investment for that purpose."

Sellers could well be proved correct, according to figures from Harvey Nash's UK Tech Survey 2021. It found that 95% of IT professionals want to work two to five days a week from home after the pandemic, compared with only 42% of tech professionals doing so before it occurred.

The right software solutions must be adopted

Simon Wilson, CTO at Aruba UK&I, agrees employees will expect hybrid working to continue and for it to be a permanent option in the future. “The need for businesses to provide a professional remote working environment is non-negotiable; this goes well beyond the annual stipend typically spent on a keyboard, mouse or video conferencing aid,” he says.

"Agile, secure businesses require seamless, business-grade workflow tools that provide significant benefits to management and security. These provide much more control than business to consumer solutions as they allow for the separation of traffic in a network and can ensure the right applications are prioritised."

Data from ECI Partners' Growth Index 2020 found 28% of the UK's fastest growing businesses were planning to switch to permanent remote working and 43% planned to increase the flexibility of working from home. Only four in 10 said they planned to invest in more technology to support it, however.

Mayur Mistry, IT operations manager at mixer drinks brand Fever-Tree, explains IT budgets will have to be reprioritised, especially in terms of security. He says: "Budget will be spent on software that enables support, collaboration and efficiency but also hardware to keep employees comfortable working from home.

"There will also be an emphasis on security, which is where most of the budget will be spent. 2020 showed many organisations gaps in their security so this year they should … invest more in their security either on end points, on-prem and their cloud infrastructure."  

He adds: "More employee cybersecurity awareness training is needed. We have increased it monthly and it shows by more employees highlighting phishing emails."

Listening to employees

According to Ricoh Europe's latest research, 63% of European employees trust their company will be more open to flexible working following the pandemic, meaning IT will need to find ways to match the IT requirements with this desire.

Mark Petty, of Littlefish, believes replacing users’ own hardware will be a priority, saying: "There are a lot of new devices in homes as a result of remote working, likely set up rapidly to accommodate the sudden work-from-home order.

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"IT budgets for 2021/22 will therefore likely need reviewing to cope with the increased pressure and demand on network security and cloud rollout more generally. Given the increased security risk from things like supply chain attacks, recently brought to the fore by the SolarWinds breach, BYOD culture is likely to phase out as businesses seek to take greater control over their infrastructure and endpoints."

Dan Harding, CEO at Sign In App, suggests the working world is facing “a complete reset", saying: "Hybrid working is here to stay and the right hybrid working model will fast become key to attracting and retaining talent. 

"This is a shift in management culture as well as employee behaviour – and one that will require trust on both sides."

IT will look to implement technology that can, and will, create a safer and more flexible environment when an office or a desk is needed, Harding adds, changing the nature of why we go into a business premises to be around colleagues and clients. 

"From collaboration to mentoring and simply sharing experiences, face-to-face contact will always be part of the mix, even if that is just a couple of days a month,” he explains.

"Companies will need to think hard about how they are going to entice people back into the office, once they are allowed. Whether it is fear or just a love of WFH, some people will need coaxing."

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