How COVID-19 will enable companies to embrace digitisation and remote work

COVID-19 has officially been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation and countries around the world are taking drastic measures to flatten the curve of infections. In light of this, many companies are asking employees to work from home to avoid their workforce being infected and potentially spreading the disease.

Analysis by KPMG estimated that three million Australians could be infected by COVID-19. This, according to Dr. Brendan Ryenne, KPMG chief economist, would translate to a 1.2 per cent loss in productivity, or a loss of 30 million workdays. Given the risk, companies who embrace digitisation and remote work are likely to reduce potential losses, as they’re able to maintain a productive workforce despite the logistical challenges. Those who are already digitally equipped will fare well in this climate and those who aren’t are faced with challenges and opportunities.

There’s been a rise in fully remote companies like Remote. In a survey, Remote found that 99 per cent of respondents wanted to work from home at least some of the time and 95 per cent encouraged others to work remotely too. The main advantage of remote working, from the employees’ perspective, was the flexibility in their work schedule.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2016 almost a third of employees in Australia regularly worked from home and in 2019 an Indeed report showed that 68 per cent of Australian companies allow working from home. Many companies, including those who have been deterred from remote work, are being forced to have a distributed workforce during these difficult times.

One issue that often discourages companies from operating with remote staff is privacy, however there’s no reason why those who have a heightened focus on privacy, like finance and law for example, can’t be fully digitised and distributed.

Take neobanks, for example. CB Insights revealed that neobanks raised US$2.5 billion in the first half of 2019 and Aussie neobanks, like Xinja and Up Bank, have announced solid customer adoption rates. Revolut, which expanded into Australia last year, and is possibly the best known global neobank, has raised US$336.9m according to Crunchbase earning unicorn status. Neobanks know all about operating remotely; they’re defined by their digital nature and not having physical branches like traditional banks. This has transcended into their ability to navigate their way through COVID-19. UK neobank Starling Bank, for example, isn’t worried about the office exodus. “We have been built for this [COVID-19],” said CEO Anne Boden. “We’re built on technology that allows us to offer a scalable and resilient service that’s not tied to a particular location and that can continue to be available to customers 24/7.”

Take the legal sector too. According to Jodie Baker, deputy chair at the Australian Legal Technology Association, Australia is leading the legal tech revolution. In the past few years, there has been rapid expansion of legal technology. In the UK and US, there are such things as legal robots who can perform relatively mundane tasks like legal research. In Australia legal tech for data analysis, block-chained access to legal aid, and comparison and collaboration software all exist and are set to make their mark in the coming years.

The companies who have embraced remote work fully know that productivity, not time spent in a chair, is essential. Take for example Jason Fried, CEO at remote company Basecamp. In his TED talk ‘Why work doesn’t happen at work’,he claims that the best work that people do is actually in their own space and time, and that staying later doesn’t result in higher productivity. “There is a ‘presence prison’”, he says, “at many large organisations where one feels that they must stay back late.” Furthermore, a study completed by Airtasker found that remote workers are more productive, exercised more and save money by not commuting.

Companies who see COVID-19 as an opportunity to digitise are likely to fare much better in this climate than those who don’t. Given the extremely high infection rates, it’s necessary that companies consider digital ways of working now and potentially in the longer term. Research shows that remote, distributed teams can work— the test will now be to see if companies with a heightened focus privacy, and have previously snubbed a remote form of working, seize on the opportunity and the technology that’s available. These new ways of working could change industries for the better and accelerate digitisation.

Daniel Bowbyes, GM Strategy, Datacom Cloud

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