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Megatrends for this decade – XXXVI

Results of the polling of 83 CEOs of innovation companies in Silicon Valley on their plans towards teleworking in a post Covid landscape. 51% are planning to keep teleworking for a significant percentage of their workforce, over 60% will survey their workforce to see who is willing to telework, 45% will impose teleworking to a part of their workforce and 89% will develop a plan for returning to work on premises in a different way. Image credit: The Silicon Valley Leadership Group
  • Companies that are working in the “cyberspace”, like software companies, are clearly in a different position from restaurants or retail stores for which the physical space is a must. This shows in the relative easiness of their shift to teleworking and most important in the lesser way they have been affected by the pandemic. The production part of their business has been mostly unaffected by the lockdown. The sales part, on the other hand, has suffered both directly (loss of personal contact with prospective clients have made selling propositions more difficult) and indirectly (a significant portion of their potential customers base have been affected economically by the pandemic leading to decrease investment in innovation. In some cases, a smaller percentage, they have experienced an increased demand from companies that needed their product/services to shift their biz to the cyberspace).
    Part of these companies were already operating with a remote workforce, either teleworking from home or located in different places/Countries. What the Covid-19 did was to increase the number of workers operating from remote (home) to the point that several companies premises have been closed. From a productivity point of view, in the short term there have been no losses, actually a number of companies are reporting increased productivity level (commuting time is often converted, at least partially, into productive time). Some chit-chat typical of office work has disappeared increasing productivity. However, this is a mixed bag since although part of that chit-chat is inconsequential, a part may result in knowledge spread, creative thinking and serendipitous discovery. Furthermore the chit-chat is perceived by several workers as a bonding that is sorely missed when working from home.

    Pros and cons of telework, as seen from workers and managers. Workers satisfaction is a mixed bag, with a prevalence of positive aspects. The communication, knowledge exchange and oversight effectiveness are all suffering from teleworking. Image credit: OECD

    This latter brings up the point of how workers are adapting to telework and their willingness to keep it once the pandemic will be over. Commuting time is perceived as wasted time by most, and as a cost by all. Hence working from home is better in that respect. However, in addition to the loss of the human touch deriving from on-premises interaction, there are a number of negative perception playing against teleworking:- home ambient may not be ideal for work (kids, pets, spouse, dedicated work space not available/unsuitable);
    – presence of distraction and lack of focus (difficult to separate home chores from work)
    – fear that one’s work contribution is not perceivable by the “boss”
    – fear of becoming monitored by the “big brother”
    – fear of losing the “big picture” that is deriving from living and sharing the company physical space
    – losing the sense of being part of a team, small talks and physical co-presence are crucial
    – inadequate collaborative tools (video conferencing is ok for a short meeting but becomes unnerving if using for a whole day)
    – video fatigueIt is also about how managers feel about teleworking. The loss of direct, physical co-presence is felt by several managers as loss of control. Notice that control taking place at the office as a passing glance is not perceived as inquisitive whilst a control taking place in the cyberspace is felt as a loss of privacy and strongly adversed.
    It goes beyond the loss of control. It is also about loss of serendipity, about the casual opportunity of pointing out something in the middle of a small talk, of motivating people with subtle signs, like a handshake or a smile.
    All of this is true in the short term. But what about the longer term?
    Will productivity remain constant or will start decreasing? Will people get used to telework so that the negative perception of some factors will fade away? There are, obviously, statistics on teleworking since millions of people have been teleworking for years now, however this is about those people, and those jobs, that used to work on premises. One of the structural issues about this pandemic forced teleworking is that it has not been designed from scratch, it has been imposed by external necessities. Hence, working processes used were/are the ones deemed effective to work on premises; these processes may not be an ideal fit when applied to teleworking. As a matter of fact, this was a recurring theme when I spoke a few months ago with a number of CEOs to discuss the new working landscape deriving from Covid-19 countermeasures: there is a need to re-think processes. This is not a minor issue, particularly for big companies that operates on an infrastructure made of processes. This is also a reason why a number of companies are finding a process re-engineering costly and will go back to the “old” normal as soon as possible.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.