Is the future of the intelligent workplace at home?

CIOs are focused on creating an intelligent workplace, but COVID-19 is mutating the concept of the workplace by forcing enterprises to adopt work-from-home policies. IT leaders from across Singapore discuss whether the future of the intelligent workplace does indeed start at home.

Work from home
Photo by Goran Ivos

For many CIOs with an eye on the horizon, a top priority is to make the workplace an intelligent one. The term “intelligent workplace” naturally means different things to different companies, but in general, it involves harnessing the power of digital platforms, cloud, data analytics and AI to create a more productive, efficient and flexible business.

At a virtual roundtable hosted by HKBN JOS and Citrix, and organized by Jicara Media, senior IT executives representing a wide range of organizations gathered to explore how enterprises can build the intelligent workplace. Interestingly, however, in the context of COVID-19, it seems many are currently thinking of intelligent workplaces in terms of work-from-home (WFH) policies.

That’s not to say everyone thinks WFH is the future – at least not exclusively. But with many enterprises forced to adopt WFH whether they want to or not, at the very least CIOs are now imagining a future workplace that will put a premium on WFH-related elements such as collaboration tools, security, workforce flexibility and security.

COVID-19 has altered the way we envision the future intelligent workplace, and as the roundtable discussion illustrated, it’s shaping our discussions about how we get there.

Classic roadblocks

Even without COVID-19, migrating to the intelligent workplace of the future is a formidable challenge – especially for enterprises that are mired in legacy processes and workflows both internally and externally, said Alex Woo, Head of Workspace Technology at CLSA.

“In the financial services industry, we have a lot of legacy systems – not just internally but also externally with our clients that our systems connect to. That means we have limited choices to change to more agile or innovative solutions until the whole ecosystem can collaborate together to evolve to a new system,” Woo said.

Sandeep Maheswari, Technology Senior Director of ASPAC at Johnson & Johnson, faces a similar issue. “Making J&J’s internal systems future ready also has to take into account how to connect to our external customers – buyers, merchandisers, decision makers – and getting them used to making and negotiating buying decisions online using collaboration solutions rather than face to face meetings.”

The onset of quarantines and stay-at-home orders courtesy of COVID-19 have shed light on additional roadblocks to the future workplace in terms of their ability to adopt WFH policies.

For example, said Christopher Ching, Head of IT at Roche Singapore Technical Operations, his company’s biggest roadblock with WFH is that the company is still very reliant on paper to comply with best practices and regulations.

“We have a lot of papers that people have to sign off on or get signatures from someone else. So it ends up now that with this current COVID 19 situation, we have to go out and start buying printers for staff so that then they can print out their documents at home and get it signed off, scan it and then send it to somebody else to get it printed off,” Ching said. “But of course we are looking at other digital solutions to resolve this.”

Paul Loke, director (technology) and chief information officer for the Singapore Government’s Accountant General Department, told a similar story. “Mostly our staff are used to working on-site, and not to remote working. We still have legacy issues like pension files from more than 30 years ago that are still paper based.”

Change management

From an IT management perspective, WFH readiness for both IT and staff depends on the extent to which the enterprise in question was already allowing remote working before COVID-19. Interestingly, however, the challenges aren’t really technological.

For example, said William Chong, Senior Director of Workplace Analytics and IoT, JLL Digital Solutions, at Jones Lang LaSalle, a big challenge is the fact that companies have had to shift to WFH quite quickly as governments implement various stay-at-home polices.

“Some companies are struggling because they have to make a lot of changes in the way they work within weeks as this was being forced onto them,” Chong said.

I have friends who work in traditional offices with top-down management where face time in office is important, and you’ve got to be at your desk before 8:00am – the culture shift from that to WFH takes time to build. I don’t think you can get it done in two weeks or four weeks.

Kevin Chan, senior manager of presales at Citrix, added that enterprises who are behind the WFH curve have to employ both short-term and long-term thinking.

“If you’re in Phase 1 [of WFH implementation], your immediate goal is: how do I get my business back up and running as quick as I can? What can I do? Can I just immediately VPN in? Can I get people devices and ship them out? And that’s just purely to get the business up,” Chan said. “But then there’s the next step: how do I look at this from a long-term strategy perspective? How do I manage this better in the long run?”

A participant observed that WFH isn’t a technology issue so much as a user change management issue.

“A lot of us are still very much working on-prem most of the time. So working from home requires great change management for our users,” he said. “But we started trialling working from home early, and so far I think people are adapting well.”

Keith Rutherford, Director of Technology at Tanglin Trust School, agreed that change management is a challenge. “Everyone wants to be online, but what actually happens is that when they realize how much they have to change the way they work – whether it’s less reliance on paper or learning new processes or changing existing ones – then it’s suddenly, ‘do we really want or need to go this fast?’”

For some enterprises, the real challenge to WFH isn’t the tech or the employees but the suitability of the actual home environment.

“For example in Hong Kong, many people live in small apartments with multiple occupants,” observed Chong of Jones Lang LaSalle. “For our employees there, even if we gave them all the tech tools they needed, there’s no way they would be able to work from home productively because their living space and conditions are way too small.”

This is why different enterprises need flexible, bespoke approaches to WFH, said Roche’s Christopher Ching. “For my company, we are pushing our staff to work from home, but some of them have some challenges working from home. So we have to look at whether we can provide some shared spaces where they can work, or do they go to a subsidiary or partner’s place to work from there?”

Privacy concerns

For organizations like Tanglin Trust School, swapping a work environment for a home environment also raises substantial privacy issues, says Rutherford.

“Coming from a school perspective here, we now have teachers inviting students and parents effectively into their home. And teachers get very nervous about that because they don’t want parents having their personal mobile phone number so they can ring them anytime they feel the need,” he said.

Applying the same concern more broadly, he continued,

“If you think of it, I’m inviting my vendors and my customers into my home and they can see what’s going on around me to a limited extent – that makes people think slightly differently.”

A related privacy issue is the extent to which management trusts employees to actually get work done while they’re at home – and the measures they take to ensure it, said Zhang Jianxin, Director of Management Information Systems at Dou Yee International.

“One of the points from our HR was that they were thinking of how to trust our staff when working from home,” he said. “Let’s say we trust our staff, but still maybe 1% or 2% will have discipline issues. From an HR point of view, that’s a concern.”

Zhang added that he’s aware of some companies whose IT teams use technologies like face recognition to confirm remote employees are working or mobile tracking to determine where they’ve been. “But we don’t do that – I feel uncomfortable with technology being used that way.”

This raises another key challenge of WFH for IT teams: security. Even before COVID-19, enterprises have been wary of WFH in part because of the risks of allowing devices outside the company firewall or LAN to access sensitive company data.

“One key thing is really the policy of the company around data sensitivity,” said Jayden Soh, Head of Solutions at HKBN JOS. “For example, some companies have company-issued laptops – those are easily controlled. Some of the policies you can already force down to the endpoints. Some companies let you make use of your own personal device to access some of your company info, but not the sensitive data, which can be a challenge if you need to access it from home.”

Paul Loke said that security concerns especially relevant because end users would often trade security for productivity.

“For the Singapore government, our office laptops do not have internet access. In order to attend this morning’s conference, I am using my personal iPad,” Loke said. “This is perfectly fine as this conference isn’t sensitive, but imagine if you have employees who are using their spouses’ or child’s device to undertake a time sensitive business transaction because their office issued laptop malfunctions while they are at home. The trade-off on security now becomes a huge concern because as anything goes for the employee to be productive.”

When the working day is done

Enterprises are also finding out that change management for staff working from home doesn’t just mean ensuring they can successfully work from home, but also that they don’t overdo it.

“Where people in our company are getting advised [with WFH] is to get up from your chair and take care of your health, because most of the people have been stuck at their workspaces at home, quite often because they have multiple meetings and they feel the need to be always online,” says J&J’s Sandeep Maheswari.

Keith Rutherford of Tanglin Trust agreed, noting that one of the challenges of WFH is separating work time from personal time.

“Getting on the MRT, getting on the bus, getting in the car – that’s a circuit breaker between work and home, whereas if you’re working from home, you do lose track of the time,” he said. “From a well-being perspective, you have to make sure employees are not overworking themselves, and also that they have a level of physical human contacts to interact with, rather than being completely isolated. Those are real challenges that we’ve got to address if we are genuinely expecting people to be able to work from home effectively for a long period of time.”

The future of WFH

One interesting side-effect of COVID-19 is that many conservative IT managers who have resisted WFH for whatever reason have been forced to take a leap of faith – and that will have profound implications on the future workplace, says Chong of Jones Lang Lasalle.

“For example, certain banks will say, ‘We will never be able to do this work-from-home arrangement’ – the bosses and managers will never allow it. But they’ve been forced into this situation by the government and policies, and then they have been operating from home and they see it actually works and they are still doing business.” Chong said.

So many sacred cows have been sacrificed and killed during this pandemic.

That doesn’t necessarily mean WFH will be the new normal for the future intelligent workplace. But roundtable participants generally agreed that many companies are likely to focus their investments and efforts on things that will make WFH a reliable and seamless back-up option.

“I expect the future will take the lead from this, and it will be a lot different when we are designing our workspaces to include provision for WFH, virtual meetings and remote meetings,” said J&J’s Maheswari. “There will be more investment in collaborations tools, sharing of data workflows so they’re nor dependent on physical location. Also, the drive to cloud will be stronger.

“There’s a high chance we’ll continue to have some staff work from home, but not all,” said Sandesh Dessai, Assistant Vice President of IT and Cyber Security Risk Compliance at OUE Limited.

CLSA’s Alex Woo said his vision of the post-COVID-19 workplace would include web-based apps decoupled from the device, password-less authentication and self-service IT support (as opposed to IT doing everything for users).

“We’ll also have to revisit our bandwidth strategy,” he added. “Traditionally we’ve designed the network so that users can get out to the internet as quickly as possible, but if the workforce is outside the office, we have to design the network to let them in before we let them out.”

Paul Loke agreed. “VPNs aren’t designed to support employees 24/7 on such a large scale. If an employee is connected via VPN and watching Netflix at the same time, this creates a large amount of traffic to the corporate network. This results in IT teams creating a split tunnel to ensure that the corporate network is not saturated, but this creates new security holes for the enterprise.”

Christopher Ching of Roche said that he’s not sure if WFH will continue after COVID-19, but he does see value in collaboration tools to help meet Roche’s environmental goals. “One effect of the lockdown and no traveling is our carbon footprint is much smaller.”