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Why Workplaces Are Becoming Digital First, Remote First

December 11, 2020 Digital Workplace
David Roe
By David Roe

When Satya Nadella took over at the helm of Microsoft in February 2014, he instigated a major shake-up of the Redmond, Wash.- based company across all its business units. Under the mantra "cloud first, mobile first," Nadella pushed the notion of working anywhere through any device at any time.

There have been many different versions of that mantra over the past seven years but it always comes back to the same thing: vendors offering organizations the tools to work anywhere inside or outside of the physical workplace. In fact, if you look at the current understanding of what the digital workplace is and how it works, a lot rests on this work environment without walls.

Even that is changing, though. In its recent Strategic Technology Trends for 2021 paper Gartner points out that an anywhere operations model will be vital for businesses to emerge successfully from COVID-19. The model for anywhere operations is “digital first, remote first.” It is not a lot different than the earlier cloud first, mobile first, but there is an important change in emphasis.

The focus now is on work as a remote activity whereas the earlier model has remote as an addition to work onsite.

Digital Is the Default Mode

In these circumstances, digital will be always the default. That is not to say physical space does not have its place but it should be digitally enhanced with, for example, contactless check-out at a physical store, regardless of whether its physical or digital capabilities should be seamlessly delivered.

And yes, it is just about certain that the hybrid model will indeed be the preferred option of progressive digital workplace managers, but the emphasis on remote and digital nomads is leading the way for fully remote jobs, said Poland-based Yoann Bierlin, founder of International Business Consulting, which advises organizations on digital development.

“What has happened this year with plenty of newcomers in the teleworking world has been experienced for years by full-time digital nomads that are working fully remote with no physical interaction at all for years,” he said.

“While it probably started with tech-related jobs such as software development, the possibility to become a remote freelance is now accessible in nearly all jobs, and the first government that is fully contactless and digital, Estonia, has shown us that we do not need physical contacts even before social distancing started to exist."

The lesson learned that companies are starting to implement is that offices are an unwanted cost, personal time is more valuable than other types of compensation and customers want more accessibility for all products and services.

Related Article: What Enterprise Leaders Need to Do to Manage Remote Workers

Digital First Across the Organization

A digital-first model is not confined to a single department but will extend across the entire organization. Take the example of marketing. In 2021, CMOs will be expected to make the digital-first business model work, said Lakshmi Srinivasan, global head of TCS Interactive at India-based Tata Consultancy Services. This is an enormous multi-stakeholder agenda change, where chief marketing officers will have to step into the CEO's shoes to plan and execute.

To support this, CMOs will look for technology partners to deliver more for less, requiring extreme agility while maintaining the brand's innovation edge. Further, expect consolidation of in-house efforts as well as "as-a-service" outsourcing across creative, technology and business ops domains. CMOs will prove themselves as chief growth officers, displaying a new integrated mantra of marketing-led sales and service as opposed to the traditional approach of marketing as enabler and sales functioning as driver.

Akhilesh Tiwari, Tata vice president and global head of enterprise application services, pointed to the example of human resources. He says this department hit a major reset in 2020 as the pandemic radically changed organizations. Leaders became acutely aware of the significant impact their employees had on both the customer experience and business continuity. This mindset shift kickstarted massive talent transformation efforts.

“In 2021, HR will embrace digitized EX strategies and processes for health and well-being programs, diversity and inclusion, reskilling and upskilling initiatives, as well as new future of work strategies, models and planning,” he said. “We will continue to see businesses operate with multiple different workforce models, and in response, the HR function will need to establish and refine new processes and policies and remain agile to quickly pivot in response to ongoing uncertainty.”

Related Article: Keeping Pace With the Technology Behind Digital Transformation

The End of Traditional Work and the Rise of the Digital Economy

At this stage, remote and digital have almost become synonymous, said Simon Elkjær, chief marketing officer of Denmark-based avXperten, which gives clear directions about where the workplace is going. Working remotely requires adjustment at first, but it makes these digital teams even more productive and determined to work.

“The important factor here is not ‘remote’ or ‘digital’ but ‘productivity’ which can be better achieved in a digital environment,” he said. As the digital world is constantly evolving and challenging the constraints of a physical workspace, businesses whether they like it or not will be forced to make changes to adapt. 

With the ongoing impact of the pandemic, many are still exploring how local and global economies approach the situation. One solution is the idea of a digital economy, according to Chris Muktar, founder of WikiJob.co.uk. “I believe that the remote-first world already exists before the pandemic starts and upgrades as technologies evolve throughout the years," he said.

In the digital economy, technology builds productive remote workspaces, creating virtual desktop infrastructure and securing virtual networks that enable smooth user experience. It allows teams to collaborate remotely to develop a long-term business model. “For the moment, leaders should focus on the ability of this new paradigm to make sure employees understand its fundamentals,” Muktar said.

The traditional workplace is dead, said David Karandish, CEO of St Louis, Mo.-based Capacity. It's wrong to assume business will be done in person in the same location anymore. The definition of “availability” is also shifting as people learn to unplug in different ways.

“We’re moving from a Blockbuster model to a Netflix one," he said. "Blockbuster was open 12 or so hours per day and you picked your own movies. Now we are more of a Netflix-modeled society – open 24/7 and with personalized recommendations."

Organizations are being forced to do things differently, which means determining how to do the most with their technology. His answer? Digital must be the channel.

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