We Are Now Entering the Future of Work. Are We Ready?

September 03, 2020by Shaun Hurst

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This piece was originally featured in The 2020 PlanetCompliance RegTech Directory.

For the past few years, thought leaders across every industry have given their view on what the future of work will look like. More flexible, more agile, less physical space. Many could see these changes coming from shifts in their employees’ work-life priorities. But few executives were getting the ball rolling to implement this future.

A 2019 Harvard Business Review study found that 71% of business leaders did not feel adequately prepared for the changes happening to the workplace. However, this year’s global pandemic revealed just how unprepared we were for a momentous change in our ways of working.

The shift to digital communication and collaboration

In the months since the coronavirus outbreak forced non-essential businesses to close their offices, companies have had to rapidly adapt to operating entirely remotely. The number of people working from home shot up from 18% to 80%, essentially overnight. Even businesses that had pushed back digital transformation plans for the better part of a decade were forced to embrace cutting-edge communications and collaboration technologies to survive. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack have now become omnipresent, going from the preserve of more tech-savvy firms to the lifeblood keeping businesses going.

It is now apparent that everything from team projects and client meetings, to new business pitches and team bonding sessions can be done successfully without a shared physical space. And even as businesses start to reopen their offices, the way we work will have undoubtedly changed forever. Over 50% of workers now expect to work remotely as much as possible, with a minority of people expecting things to return to "normal." A slew of companies, including Twitter and Facebook, have even told their employees that they never need to return to the office again if they do not want to.

But as we are now hastily entering the future of work, business leaders still need to ask themselves: are we ready? While the digital transformation seen across all industries over the past four months has been immense, it is just the start. Investment in cutting-edge collaboration tools needs to be matched by investment in compliance, cybersecurity, HR, and other business-critical technologies. These are all far easier to manage when employees are centrally located, posing a massive challenge ahead for all businesses.

The effect on communications compliance

This need for a constant focus on transformation can be seen most starkly in communications compliance. As organizations have become used to the novelty of working remotely, many have been surprised to see little impact on productivity. Just 15% of companies polled by Willis Towers Watson said that having almost all their employees working remotely had a material negative impact on productivity. Most attribute this low number to the wide adoption of collaboration tools fostering better workflow management and more connectivity between teams.

However, these tools can pose a significant compliance risk to all business in regulated industries, even more so when factoring in remote working. Many firms still have archiving, capture and monitoring solutions that were designed when e-mail was the preeminent form of electronic communications. But collaboration tools are more sophisticated, enabling users to chat across multiple conversation threads using a wide range of content formats such as video conferencing, pictures, GIFs, and emojis. Meeting recordkeeping and supervision requirements with outdated compliance technology has been a significant challenge for regulated businesses. This is why many, especially financial services firms, had previously chosen to either ban collaboration tools outright or use heavily restricted versions.

At the beginning of the lockdown, it became very clear that employees were going to use collaboration tools regardless of whether they suited their companies’ compliance technology. Freemium usage of Zoom and Slack exploded, putting many businesses at huge risk of regulatory fines and legal penalties. While firms have scrambled to ensure their employees could compliantly use these platforms, we have clearly seen that banning communications platforms due to compliance fears is simply kicking the can down the road.

This is especially worrying since regulated businesses still ban many widely used instant messaging platforms. According to a recent study from Osterman Research, the rise in usage of platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom has been matched by an uptick in other instant messaging platforms, with SMS volumes rising by 250% and WhatsApp by 40%. Most businesses have not yet invested in the technology solutions they need to ensure employees are using these platforms compliantly.

Investing in digital transformation

In the past four months, we have undoubtedly entered the future of work. Being forced to adapt to a new normal has seen unprecedented levels of digital transformation happen in a very short timespan. What has become clear is that when faced with working remotely, employees will use whatever tools they can to do their jobs effectively and collaborate with their teams.

But to ensure that we are truly enabling the future of work, significant investment in digital transformation still needs to take place. Businesses will need to enable their employees to not just cope, but to thrive while working remotely.

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Shaun Hurst
Smarsh Blog

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