In a sobering assessment, Professor Kelly warned that it was likely to be the second half of the year before federal and state governments started to ease health and border restrictions. Given the high probability of continued periodic outbreaks in the country, this means business and technology leaders need to recalibrate their thinking that there will be a rapid return to pre-COVID work norms without the need for a plan to manage on-going disruption.
It's positive we are on the verge of the deployment in Australia of COVID-19 vaccines. Despite this, the reality is an immediate, economy-wide “return to offices” is unlikely in 2021 requiring short-term measures put in place in 2020 to be more rigorously formalised for the long-run.
As a part of this change, a complete rethink in making sure that communications services are robust, highly secure and meet all current and future compliance requirements – from the office or at home - should be at the top of the 2021 to-do-list of all CEOs and CTOs throughout Australia. The rush to deploy unified communications solutions for video conferencing and customer communications, for instance, didn’t answer critical compliance requirements such as the need to record calls – and introduced new risks.
Regulators will be in no mood to extend emergency relaxation of compliance rules we saw last year. Time is running out. In a foreshadowing of the year ahead, Britain’s FCA - the Financial Conduct Authority - announced in the first week of January that bankers need to record all communications while working from home, ending a relaxation of compliance rules put in place last year as temporary COVID measures. We expect that will be a widespread trend in Australia as well in 2021.
Human behaviour, logistical challenges, hot spot outbreaks and the staged roll out of vaccines, mean that for most of us, 2021 could look a lot like 2020, and we’ll all be staying home for a good while longer. City centres will likely remain largely shuttered, mass transit will be lightly frequented, call centres will be thinly staffed to maintain social distancing, and anything and everything on-line and supporting remote work will continue to boom.
All around the world, evidence of this extreme reluctance to return to a more “normal” commuter work life abound. In the summer before their second lockdown, the City of London struggled mightily to coax commuters back to work, offering cash incentives and free public transport. Even in Japan, a country with a legendary commuter “salaryman” work culture, working from home has become normalised. In Melbourne and Sydney, CBD office capacities are well below 25%, and plans to have 50% of private sector staff and 25% of public sector employees return to Melbourne’s CBD have only just been green lit, after a postponement by the State Government due to the recent COVID “hot spot” outbreaks in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
What does all this mean for the workforce and companies in 2021? For employees, working from home, and Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex calls are here to stay. For employers, business continuity planning, and keeping their IT systems robust and secure enough to enable all that telecommuting, and compliant with all regulatory requirements, will continue to be their top priority. For Australian business and government leaders, we need to be preparing our economy and our people for the fact that “COVID-normal” may very well be the new-normal, at least for much of 2021 and perhaps beyond.
For most of 2020, our communications infrastructure, the NBN, and the robustness of telecommunications networks, withstood the vast increases of new data and traffic that were put on networks. And while the networks are holding up well, companies across the country should be resetting their plans for an early return to normal offices, and hunker down for a long haul of a “blended” environment – where working in the office and from home environments is the new norm. 2020 was a year of turmoil. Many business processes - like the need to record crucial conversations in regulated industries - were relaxed temporarily. A new generation of communications technology that captures voice data - unified call recording - now enables compliance mandates to be addressed no matter where the employee is. Much like Zoom, Cisco Webex, and Microsoft Teams have made the location of work irrelevant. Businesses need to move faster than ever in 2021 - to “end not knowing” and understand how dispersed employees are performing, what they are saying, and what their health is at home while working, or in the office.
Customer expectations, along with that of regulators, will drive successful businesses – allowing them to be able to manage the dispersed workforce structures we now see - to provide a seamless experience for their customers. To do this, business leaders need to take advantage of the tools that are readily available to them, tools which will provide enhanced value long into the future. ‘Knowing’ the customer initiatives will continue to be a key theme for the IT industry in 2021.