In a recent Financial Times article called “The shift to remote work carries an inherent risk”, Sarah O’Connor, advanced the argument that the forced rise of remote working could lead to companies recognising that if a job can be successfully performed remotely during the Covid pandemic then why not move that position to a cheaper location permanently.
This argument has been heard before (although in very different times). In 2007, Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton University, estimated that between 22 and 29 per cent of US jobs would be offshored within a decade or two however this prediction proved inaccurate. Of the 26 occupations in the US that were identified as potentially offshorable 15 actually grew while only 11 reduced their local presence.
However, things could be different this time. The pandemic has forced companies and employees to embrace the technologies used to allow for remote working. Computer Weekly reported that as of 14 June 2020, use of Microsoft Teams grew by 894% compared with 17 February and in the same period, Zoom use grew by 677%. Mark Read, chief executive of WPP, told a Financial Times event in November 2020. “We spent five years trying to get people to adopt Microsoft Teams, and we had 60-fold adoption in a week”. Initial studies also show remote working may improve productivity. A study by Stanford of 16,000 Chinese workers over 9 months found that working from home increased productivity by 13%. This increase in performance was attributed to a quieter working environment and working longer because of fewer breaks and sick days. Commuting was not a factor in the Chinese study, but the removal of commuter fatigue will surely also improve employee productivity. On an episode of BBC’s Bottom Line Rachel Higham, Managing Director of IT at BT said that programmers output has increased by between 5-10% during the Pandemic.
But as working practices have changed to allow for remote working the reasons for not using external resource have diminished too.
However, in the FT article Sarah O`Connor also points out the risks of moving large numbers of jobs to call centres. When Covid hit India and the Philippines some buildings were forcibly closed as part of lockdown measures as their staff didn’t have laptops, internet access or security provision to work from home. The jobs they were filling simply stopped functioning. Telstra, an Australian telecoms company, was badly hit by shutdowns in the Philippines and eventually had to hire 3,500 temporary staff in Australia.
As a company that offers remote IT support, Orb Data found that we could adapt to the necessary changes quite easily. We already had a contingency plan that had been written in case of disaster (which admittedly had not anticipated a pandemic) that allowed every employee to work remotely. We had a morning “Teams” meeting to discuss our support service and any issues at customers we were working on that day and this meeting simply carried on with our staff now all working from home. Our contingency plans enabled every member of staff to use remote collaboration tools such as Slack, Teams, DropBox and SharePoint and we for any work on our customer’s systems we used secure VPN’s often using 2 factor authentication using tools such as Duo.
We had already begun a process to move our key services to the cloud such as our customer facing service desk which had been migrated to Jira. The servers we used to build test and demo solutions which previously had been office based were migrated to various Clouds (IBM, Azure, etc). In many ways we found advantages in this way of working. More Orb Data employees were able to join our support calls and as a result were able to offer advice on potential fixes and service improvements. Instead of concentrating on just the fix we started to use these calls to discuss how we could make the solution better. For example, the automated daily checks we had at one customer were improved and then migrated to all customers so that we had a standard set of checks. Any new check we add will then automatically benefit every customer. We imported all code into GitHub so that we could see what was running on any customer without a login and also understand the history of changes as well. Building cloud-based solutions allowed us to use the tools we were promoting to our customers with prior knowledge of any issues we faced, and these new builds were automated using DevOps tools such as Ansible, Puppet etc. And at one company where we found that we were being regularly called-out to check the status of a Netcool implementation, we developed a Grafana dashboard to show the status of the environment so that the customer could check this before they called us. Even when the pandemic is over the changes we have adopted will continue and although it’s nice to see employees face to face I’m sure there will be less commuting and more remote meetings going forward. Interestingly Slack’s Future Forum research of 4,700 workers found that only 12% of employees wanted to return to full-time office work, and 72% wanted a hybrid remote-office model moving forward. Rachel Higham of BT suggested that she would only return to the office 3 days out of 5.
Not every job that is currently being performed remotely can move offshore as language, culture and time zones are important. Prior to the pandemic we tried using an offshore team too but found the quality wasn’t always as high as we wanted and the control we had over working practices and administration of the company were lacking. We moved all work back in-house which meant we controlled the days and hours that employees worked and how each support call was handled. As a result, our quality improved.
Eventually some jobs will return to an office, but it is likely that these will be using a hybrid model of working from home and visiting a hot desk in the office. Employees whilst enjoying the fact they don’t have the long commutes may start to feel working remotely may curtail their chances of advancement if the only contact they have is via a Zoom call. Some employees may never have met another member of staff. Overall, I think the past year may encourage companies to reduce their permanent staff and instead use external companies that can provide a defined service at the same quality as in-house but without the cost. Hopefully companies that choose this approach will look at local companies like Orb Data before using the offshore approach.