Coronavirus has changed knowledge work forever, after businesses – complying with Government rules around lockdown –were forced to cram months or years of digital transformation into just days to remain operational, let alone competitive.

For those leaders that hadn’t previously condoned remote working, preferring an on-premises approach to white-collar work, a priority became setting up premium subscriptions to a handful of the best-known communication apps.

As such, Google Meet saw a thirty-fold increase in usage between January and June, while Slack saw a 25% increase in ‘simultaneously connected’ users in a single week in March, and Zoom announced 300 million daily meeting participants in late April, reports MarketWatch.

Now, with some restrictions on re-entering workplaces still in place – and worker concerns over health and hygiene on public transport and in offices – attention is on the practicalities of making long-term remote work a less lonely, and more seamless, experience.

An urgent need to help teams to communicate has been replaced by a realisation, based on first-hand experience, that robust collaboration tools, workflows and project management are even more important.

Remote worker
Attention is on the practicalities of making long-term remote work a less lonely, and more seamless, experience

A big problem is that using lots of apps, however brilliant they may be, makes information difficult to locate quickly. Did I get that instruction from my boss on email, in Slack, or on WhatsApp asks the employee, who must go hunting, logging in to each app as they search. It might only take minutes to locate that crucial nugget of information but, do that 10 times a day, and multiply by the number of employees, and it’s a not-insignificant drain on company time and productivity.

Beyond that is something that’s much harder to quantify: the question of how to replicate culture and keep relationships and innovation strong in fragmented teams.

HR departments, concerned with such things as morale and engagement – that are known to affect the bottom line – are wondering how to improve the employee experience and make sure it’s as good in the virtual office as it was in the real office.

Gallup’s compelling and often-cited data comparing work units in the top and bottom quartiles for employee engagement reveals the top outperform the bottom by 10% on customer ratings, 22% in profitability, and 21% in productivity.

Perhaps this is the reason attention now appears to be turning toward the digital workplace, where IT meets culture and engagement. Research And Markets reports the global digital workplace market size is expected to reach $44.9 billion by 2026, rising at a market growth of 21.5% CAGR.

The latest ONS data reveals that 27% of UK employed adults are currently working from home exclusively, and more are splitting their week between homes and offices. As such, the focus for leaders needs to be less on surviving digitally and much more on thriving.

A survey of 450 executives, collected in spring 2020 by CMSWire and Reworked, suggests businesses that aren’t looking at developing and improving their remote work strategies may be left in the dust.

It found that, after three years of relatively static responses, 58% of organisations are now reporting a significant level of maturity in their approach to the digital workplace – a considerable leap from 39% in 2019. The report also found that 72% now have a specific digital workplace strategy or programme, up from 46% in 2017.

Where there is technology there will always be foot-dragging but, clearly, time is of the essence. Businesses that rely on flavour-of-the-month apps and don’t explore all the options – as rivals push on with digital workplace strategies – risk compromising productivity, engagement and their competitive edge.