A Workstyle Retrospective of 2020
A Workstyle Retrospective of 2020
The year 2020 has been the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s – albeit short-lived, with most economic indices bouncing back by the 3rd quarter of 2020. In terms of COVID-19 cases, Thailand has been handling the situation particularly well compared to neighboring countries, Europe or the United States. With the borders of the country closed to most visitors, this has also meant that as early as August 2020, most of the life for the average Thai returned to ‘normal’. For several months many companies had moved their workforces to a remote working style, either completely or partially, a measure that for the most part now has been reversed again with many workers having been asked back to their desks. A handful of companies have embraced remote work as part of their daily operations regardless of the situation of the COVID pandemic, and in this retrospective, we want to highlight their reasons for success and actual results; how many companies managed a successful Workstyle Transformation?
Just as we look back at the solutions and initiatives that showed the most success during COVID-19, Thailand has started to register its highest daily rates of transmission since the beginning of the pandemic. While the situation is under control according to the Department of Disease Control, due to the source of the infection, it shows that the risk of going back to working remotely still exists. New Year countdown events have been canceled (but can resume if the right measures are implemented) and workers are asked to work from home for the next 14 days starting December 21st; a completely voluntary measure at this point.
For some companies, those news start ringing alarm bells; not only because of a potential slump in demand, but an expected decrease in their workers’ productivity. If that is the case, we can assume that previously implemented measures and policies during the first lockdown earlier this year need to be reviewed and put under a microscope.
Companies that continue to rely on the same implemented measures, policies and systems since the lockdown started – even during a time when most companies in Thailand slowly reverted back to ‘business as usual’ – seem to have achieved a Workstyle Transformation, by making the following topics their main drivers for success and productivity:
- Development of a Remote Working Culture
- Capitalization on Process Automation
- Implementation of strong Cybersecurity and Remote Infrastructure
Companies that achieved high productivity levels during their remote work period, continue to allow remote work as an option for their workers. Their individual measures are tailormade based on their industry, business type, processes and culture. But they all have touched the above-mentioned areas to a degree that allow for the continuation of previously implemented measures (See Figure 1). Cybersecurity and Remote Infrastructure are the foundation to allow for technical feasibility, followed by Process Automation to facilitate remote working, using a safe environment. A Remote Working Culture is the result of both of those drivers, supported by a strong management message. Why is a Remote Working Culture a desirable goal for companies?
Remote Working Culture
One of the most significant early indicators if a company would remain productive or not during their remote work period seems to have relied on the stance they took, and the training their employees received. Companies that called remote work from the beginning of the lockdown an ‘emergency’ or ‘temporary’ measure, were also among the first companies to ask their workers to come back to the office, citing a clear increase in productivity the moment people were back. On the other hand, companies that announced to make remote work a permanent option for their employees, saw commitment from their individual workers to improve their virtual skills and to increase their productivity accordingly; employees are aware that lower performance might cause companies to go back on their decision if targets are not met.
Virtual collaboration itself is not simply something companies and their workers can ‘switch on’, but is in itself a skill with a steep learning curve that can only be achieved if the right message, motivation and state of mind are in place, which in turn should foster the necessary type of culture to succeed. In the case of ‘temporary’ or ‘emergency’ measures and policies employees know that there will be an end to their current mode of working, which automatically leads to lower motivation to acquire or invest in this new skill that might become redundant as soon as companies return to their offices; ‘surviving long enough’ becomes the motto, with productivity not being the main priority.
Several reasons exist for companies’ employees to be less productive than expected; some are due to habits specifically in Asia for not utilizing video conferencing in online meetings, relying mostly on audio-only meetings. 87% of remote users feel more connected to their team when using video (Source: GigaOm), while also discouraging multi-tasking while in a meeting, since people can see each other’s faces. The most well-known rule for communication is 7%-38%-55% by Albert Mehrabian, with words accounting for 7% of communication, tone for 38% and facial expressions for 55%, while some scientist might comment that the non-verbal part is even as much as 70%. This also means that at least half of our communication capabilities are lost in those meetings, resulting in less productive meetings. Internal studies and experiments by ABeam have also shown that similar tasks were solved up to 40% quicker by teams that were using video versus teams only using audio. In mixed teams, the members with no camera would almost go unnoticed while their camera using colleagues led the discussion.
Companies that strive to be more efficient with hybrid collaboration tools have therefore invested in meetings with video conferencing capabilities that allow for a reduction in total office space, reducing cost in the long run. Successful Workstyle Transformation can account for an up to 32.6% in office space reduction, while performing the same duties and tasks as before, but needs to be backed up the right policies and rules. Some companies are allowing employees to work from home for a few days, while requesting all staff to be in the office for one or two days per week to encourage social interaction (e.g. on Wednesdays). These kind of rules – also known as daily quotas – forces companies to keep their full office space while not being used at 100% capacity except for the predetermined dates. Virtually fluid companies that have embraced remote working are able to create floating quotas across all working days, establishing full or high occupancy rates during any day of the week, allowing all employees to meet face to face when needed but at the same time work virtually with their teams (See Figure 2).
Overall, a firm message in favor of remote work and the right culture result in several benefits for employees, which raise motivation and mental well-being, which in turn is linked to productivity. ABeam’s survey found that permanent remote work policies increased the mood of employees, with 50% of employees feeling more productive than before, 32% feeling the same level of productivity and only 18% feeling less productive than before. Regarding their health, from initially only 50% of employees sleeping well and eating healthy, the numbers rose to 78% and 80% respectively. Other surveys have shown the same results or preferences, but the best model for employees in terms of their productivity seems to be to work 2 or 3 days remotely and the rest in the office, which is something that can be achieved with floating quotas, backed up by the right processes and systems.
During the initial stages of the lockdown, many processes were implemented by companies to facilitate remote submission of documents, requests and so forth, that originally would have needed to be done in person and/or on paper. Many companies have benefitted from those changes, prioritizing processes that previously would have stayed at the status quo.
As we see those processes being digitized, we can clearly identify two major scenarios emerge:
- Properly thought threw digitization of processes
- Makeshift solutions for temporary operations
Some of the investments made by companies resulted in slower or more complicated processes due to the lack of technology to fully support end to end an improvement of processes but allowing workers to execute those processes remotely. Unfortunately, those were processes that were retired as soon as the workforce moved back to on-location operations, resulting in an investment that had temporary impact. Other companies on the other hand, fully embraced the opportunity for Digital Transformation, investing in low-code solutions and platforms, designing flexible digital processes that could be adjusted easily based on employee feedback, utilizing an agile development approach for quick adaptation. At the same time, companies achieved building the skill of their employees for those solutions and through experience creating an analytical mindset that makes it easier to spot potential process redundancies and opportunities outside their framework of remote work only.
Potentially intimidating at the beginning, identifying areas for process automation and finding the proper design can be also considered a skill that has to be acquired step by step. Companies that started with processes like expense submission, online leave requests and similar processes, increased their scope to request flows for back-office transactions after seeing the benefit of those platforms.
Floating office quotas to manage capacity are easily maintained through check-in and check-out processes at office entrances, giving transparency to staff about the current density of workers in the office and if safety standards are kept or not (see Figure 3). Solutions for Digital Signature allow to get rid of most paperwork and an analog way of working, requiring people to meet and/or deliver papers to each other to move along processes.
The most successful and productive companies have been leveraging the push towards digitization to not simply stop at what was necessary for survival but to build on the experience gathered during the lockdown and identified additional areas of improvement to move towards are more efficient way of working, reducing workload and bureaucracy. Each individual project might only save a few minutes per transaction, but the increase of different types of small transaction and time savings ramp up over time, showing clear signs on return on investment.
Cybersecurity and Remote Infrastructure
2020 was not only the year of the COVID pandemic, but also the year of the cyberthreat pandemic. The number of unsecured remote desktop machines rose by more than 40% (Source: Channel Futures), resulting in brute-force attacks increases of 400% in March & April alone (Source: Catalin Cimpanu on ZDNet), while email scams related to COVID-19 surged by 667% in March 2020 (Source: Barracuda Networks). Most companies have implemented strong security defenses within the physical constraints of their office locations but have still to achieve a similar level for individual users that are working from an alternative working space. Those are usually called eggshell securities which protect from the outside but ignore potential harm that can be done by employees on the inside, which becomes even more of a threat the moment employees start working from outside the actual eggshell itself.
Companies that have maintained efficient remote working practices have kept their previous spending on cybersecurity and remote infrastructure or even increased it, while total global spending on organizational cybersecurity is expected to actually decrease by 8% in 2020 (Source: Statista), showing that some companies are trying to cut cost on areas that actually matter when it comes the flexibility during times like these. Especially with phishing and similar scams on the rise, companies in Thailand should consider this as an even bigger threat than before the pandemic; Thai people are connected to the internet across various devices far above the global average, while at the same time the nation ranks low (42.89 / 100 points) on the National Cyber Security Index.
As a response to the increase in cybercrime, ABeam has been working with clients who have suffered from those incidents in 2020, handling them by containing breaches and supporting swift recovery via forensic services. Working on this since the beginning of the pandemic has given us a unique perspective as to how to advise companies on their security strategy, execution of penetration tests and deployment of other methods to ensure that their security budget is spent in the right areas, facilitating remote work from a technical point of view.
While technical enablement of remote work is fundamental, ABeam has concluded that so-called ‘soft requirements’ like people and process are just as important especially when it comes to remote work and the average Thai consumer. In a survey conducted by ABeam in Thailand, 72.5% of all correspondents answered that they had knowledge of what ‘risky’ actions are regarding potential cyber risk (not opening emails from anonymous senders with attached files, different passwords for different accounts, etc.), but only 45.3% of those actually followed pro-active measures to prevent the risks they were aware of (not changing the password, keeping logged into an account when away from the computer, using free Wi-Fi spots, etc.). The majority of employees – even if aware for the most part – do not have the habit of avoiding risk when working on the internet or outside the office. Awareness training and people readiness check have been a big part of the cybersecurity portfolio offered by ABeam during 2020 for several companies.
If the prospect of allowing their staff to work remotely is still considered a concern for CIOs and compliance leaders, it should be assumed that the fundamentals of enabling employees for remote work have not been establish properly and would impact the company again during any future lockdown of the country. Companies that are aware of their weakness or lack of infrastructure will not be able to instill or foster a culture that thrives in virtual collaboration, necessary for a strong Remote Working Culture.
With 50% of the Thai population scheduled to be vaccinated by 2021 and 70% by 2022 – required to achieve herd immunity – there is still a long way to go until a sense of normality can return (Source: Financial Times). Companies should re-evaluate their preparedness for a potential return to remote work and to start embracing – like a handful of companies already did – a more productive way of working and an increase in their Digital Transformation initiatives, to be flexible in case of any future event, requiring a swift adjustment of their work modes.
ABeam Consulting (Thailand) Ltd. is a subsidiary of ABeam Consulting Ltd. –headquartered in Tokyo having 6,600 people serve more than 1,100 clients throughout Asia, the Americas and Europe providing consulting services in Thailand since 2005, ABeam Consulting (Thailand) has more than 400 professionals serving more than 200 clients in Thailand with expertise in digital transformation services that create strategic advantage, improve business processes, leverage technology innovation and enhance organizational performance.