The work from home (WFH) model has become a staple for many companies as the pandemic and lockdowns continue to be a way of life.

But is this going to be the default way we work going forward, or will we be returning to the office post-Covid?

Brendan Cuthbertson, head of private sector sales at Cisco

Neither, says Brendan Cuthbertson, head of private sector sales at Cisco, who believes we’ll see a new hybrid model developing, which will include the best of both scenarios.

“In my view we have lived through an evolving scenario, which will probably end up as a hybrid working model.

“In the early months of lockdown, the new way of working was quite exciting in a way – people knew it would be something to tell their children.

“Companies were doing fun things remotely to keep up team spirit, and there was a lot of talk about never going back to the office.”

But the reality is starting to hit now, Cuthberston says, and we are starting to evolve our thinking. “We still don’t know what the final model will look like, although we can be certain that the way we used to work is not how we will work in future.

The hybrid model is starting to emerge as the catchphrase that best describes what work will look like in the future, with some employees working mainly from the office, others mainly from home and many bouncing between the two as required.


By the numbers

Cisco research shows that employees want a greater say in how they work in future.

Just 5% of people worked from home before Covid, but today a massive 87% of them want greater ownership in defining how and when they use office space.

The workplace has undergone a dramatic shift that is fundamentally changing how we work and collaborate plays out in the numbers: 58% of workers now expect to be working from home at least eight days a month.

And 96% of companies can provide better work environments with intelligent workplace technology.

Overall, the current lockdowns will result in a change in the way companies operate, how staff work and the culture of organisations, Cuthbertson says. “Human behaviour is changing, and we are seeing it in the way people engage with one another and source resources.”

“One of the key findings from our recent research is that, even when we’re out of the pandemic and office’s have opened up again, 90% of meetings will still have at least one person attending remotely,” he adds.

With remote working having gained global acceptance over the past few months, there is potential for South African companies and individuals to sell their skills on the global stage. “We are actually a cheap destination for many countries, so now that people can work from anywhere, there’s an opportunity to start selling expertise as a remote service.

“One result of the lockdown is that a lot more companies, even  smaller businesses, are now going after more international business.”


Hybrid working challenges

The decision to switch to remote or hybrid working is an easy one to make – but there are several challenges that have to be overcome before it can be a viable long-term solution, Cuthbertson says.

“The most immediate issue is that of connectivity, and the fact that many employees may have poor connectivity at their home locations. The service providers are constantly building out their infrastructures so this will get better, but it may take two or three years.”

Another issue that has to be top of mind is security, he adds. “Security has been the biggest problem with people moving to WFH. When the first lockdown came, it happened so quickly that a lot of companies had to make do with whatever solutions were freely or easily available. So many of them ended up using solutions designed for consumers in the business space and so there were some issues around security breaches and usability.”

Cuthbertson points out that Cisco has invested around $1-billion into its Webex videoconferencing solution, giving employees a rich and engaged experience even when they are working remotely. “In fact, using Webex offers workers the same or better experience than they would have working at the office.

“There has been a lot of  thought and investment into the user experience with things like noise cancellation, simultaneous transcripts and translation, plus artificial intelligence tools to keep meeting attendees engaged and supported.”

Technology can’t be the whole answer, Cuthbertson adds. “Culture and the human side of work has become really important. As a team leader I’ve recognised that some people can feel very isolated, so management needs to think about issues like mental health. It’s important for leaders to think about how they engage with staff and ensure they stay healthy.


Leadership mindshift

“Also, remember that not every employee has the same work-from-home experience, so leaders need to understand the challenges and have empathy for all workers.”

Indeed, the leadership style we employed in the past has to undergo some major changes, he explains. “We need to rethink how we measure performance, how we motivate our teams, and how we plan work.

“We will need to focus much more on culture, purpose and wellbeing to help people better manage their time, their working relationships and their mental health.”


Get the culture right

Company culture is often going to be the deciding factor in whether remote working has a chance of succeeding, says Cuthbertson.

When employees don’t feel trusted to do their job from home, companies could be in trouble. “Leaders have to realise that good management is not necessarily time management, but rather start to measure performance in results and outcomes. And employees have to adapt, ensuring they earn their managers’ trust,” he says.

Cuthbertson points out that, as younger people start moving into the workforce, managers need to take cognisance of the way they prefer to work. “In the coming years, our workers will have grown up in a very different environment, and they will have  different ways of engaging.  Leaders need to be prepared to embrace the culture changes that will be coming through.”


Do we need a physical office?

With work from home having largely succeeded during the pandemic, there are inevitably calls for the physical office to be phased out completely. But Cuthbertson thinks this could be a mistake.

“Although we have adapted to remote working, most people do still miss some of the things you can only get from physical engagement.”

Team camaraderie is difficult to reproduce virtually, and collaboration can suffer if it’s only online. “We still need human interaction,” Cuthbertson says. “In my own experience, I find that some of the problems we could have solved in a couple of minutes if we were together in the office take a lot longer if we have to schedule everyone for a meeting.”


The security issue

Perhaps the biggest challenge that companies face in the hybrid working scenario is security.

“Remote working opens up new opportunities for security threats,” Cuthbertson says. “Traditional security approaches have assumed that anything inside the corporate network can be trusted but that’s no longer enough as employees work from anywhere, use their own devices to access the network, depend increasingly on cloud-based applications and collaborate with people wherever they are.

“We are getting to the point where each user has an average of four devices, so there are literally billions of devices now connected to the corporate network.

“The only way to manage security and remote working is to have a sound security platform.”

As the largest cyber security vendor in the world, Cisco is well-positioned to tackle this issue, Cuthbertson points out. “Every workload or piece of data has to touch the network at some point, so you need to be able to secure all communications and  every piece of data.

“A platform approach is vital because you can’t look at devices, data centres, workloads and data in isolation. You need a zero-trust model that treats all resources as external and continuously verifies trust before granting only the required access. This makes it harder for attackers to infiltrate and collect what they need.”


Keep data safe

Having secured the network, the next step for leaders to think about is how to keep employee and customer data safe.

In South Africa, the newly-enforceable Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) makes this a legal requirement, and Cuthbertson cautions organisations to start taking it seriously.

“With POPIA the biggest concern is around securing data, and we have seen instances overseas where CEOs have lost their jobs for failing to do this.

“Personal information has got to be secured, because someone will be held accountable if it gets exposed.”


Why Cisco?

Cisco provides the technology that allows organisations to work remotely, to collaborate virtually and to secure the network.

“Customers who had invested in Cisco technology and collaboration solutions were able to move to remote work quite quickly,” Cuthbertson explains. “For them it was an easy transition.

“More importantly, with Cisco the customer experience and employee experience is  world-class.

“Cisco helps organisations to ensure their people have the same experience whether they are working from home or from the office, on the corporate network or in  the cloud.

“We provide a zero-trust architecture, with single sign-on, that gives users a standardised experience.

“In our experience, this is key to building a successful hybrid working model.”


Get more information on Cisco Secure here.