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Megatrends for this decade – XXXVII

Everyone who can must work from home. This has been the Covid-19 main message to workforce with effects that will be lingering throughout this decade. Image credit: WEF – Zurich
  • Between those business that are rooted in the physical space (like retail stores, restaurants, transport, hotels…) and those that are already living in the cyberspace (just addressed in the previous post) there are plenty of other businesses (like the whole sector of manufacturing) that are rooted in the physical space (the factory) but at the same time have a significant portion of the workforce that can operate in the cyberspace (administrative processes, customer relations, monitoring processes, …).
    In most of these businesses the workforce operating on those processes has been using computer assisted tools and, in fact we have seen that the pandemic response was to have this workforce moved to remote working. This is what the WEF calls: Everyone who can must work from home.
    However, many companies undertook this shift with plenty of reservations, with security consideration being an important factor. The physical presence of workers on company’s premises provided a protected environment for work in line with security procedures. Processes have been finely tuned over time to fit that particular working environment. Changing the company’s premises for private homes that are no longer controllable created quite a bit of anxiety for CEOs and security heads. On the workers side, working from home took away the technical support that they were used to on the company premises. Unlike technical (and software) workforce, administrative workforce has very little familiarity with the inner working of the tools they are using. Any problem is referred to a support team that was, clearly, no longer available at home.
    This has brought to the fore the problem of re-skilling the workforce and indeed several companies have engaged in a retraining program to ensure a minimum of skill supporting remote work. Even something as basic as video conference had to be learnt.
    Additionally, considering teleworking from home as a stable situations (which turned out to be the case as the pandemic stretched countermeasures over several months) companies had to recreate a sort of company’s premises decentralised cocoons at the homes of their workforce:- fast, secure and stable Internet connection (the link capacity -fast- was not really dependent on the company, it had to match with current network availability. However, in several cases there might exist several options to ensure a good connectivity, like using a wireless link. A number of companies provided wireless connectivity access via dedicated company smartphone tethering;
    – set up of private virtual network to provide secure access to company servers (applications and data);
    – assign the required devices to workers, like laptops, smartphone …
    – train workers on security aspectsBeyond providing this basic infrastructural set companies had to revise processes and identify the proper digital channels to be used for each of them (as an example when to use a chat, a common communication area, a videoconference) and how to manage document flow (sharing documents for concurrent perusing and updating vs create a sequence of steps defining ownership for each one), creating mailing list, authorisation check points…

    Real estate in the cyberspace is a growing business. A company may use a cyberspace “location” to create their offce space with all support that would be available in a physical location (the one that still makes sense, no heating/air-conditioning needed … Image credit: eXpRealty

    Work on company premises is regulated by a context, like everybody shows up at 9am every week day. Working from home provides much more flexibility letting people to work potentially, at odd hours. Sometimes this may not be in synch with a team work so that rules have to be enforced.
    To make up for the physical separation alternative ways to create a team “spirit” have to be found, setting up specific moments for socialisation, although mediated by digital channels and one of one interactions with the supervisors. The increased flexibility in work organisation shall be complemented by very clear objectives, KPI and milestones. This may be easier for certain types of activities than others.
    All of the above are useful guidelines, however, in the long term, companies need to realise that a massively distributed workforce, operating from remote. requires a significantly different work organisation, a different set of tools and this leads to a new working and workforce landscape.
    In this decade we are going to see an increasing use of virtual office space in the cyberspace. This has the root in the ideas proposed and tested by SecondLife at the turn of the century (SecondLife was launched in 2003) that for a few years generated a strong interest also from the business sector. One of the problem with SecondLife was the perception of a “fake” world that eventually discouraged people and business, after the first wave of enthusiasm.  Now, however, we have better technologies available (better and widespread connectivity mostly) and a growing shift from application to data (rather than having applications to generate and manipulate data we have data that stimulates the creation of applications). The pandemic, as previously noted, has forced the shift to the cyberspace for many industries -wherever possible. In this framework the development of offices in the cyberspace becomes a need.
    An example may be eXpRealty, a real estate company, having several hundred people and providing them with offices, meeting rooms, auditorium and more all in the cyberspace (take a look at the clip below).
    I am sure there will be huge biz opportunities for companies that will provide a full package of services for companies to set up offices in the cyberspace and that will likely become a very profitable market by the end of this decade.

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 Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. 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.