Remote working has become the new normal in many offices and universities. Yet, moving to this new working style does not come without costs – and creates new power dynamics. We take a look at what has changed at the workplace and beyond.
A Comment by Nicole Stein and Christoph M. Abels
Working remotely always had an undertone of adventure to it: The first association would be some digital nomads traveling the world, sipping cocktails at the beach, completing their tasks, earning piles of money and living the dream of a free and financially independent life.
When first non-glamourous options for remote work entered the European market, usually only partial-remote, i.e. one or two days per week, was possible. Prior to the pandemic, remote work was only to an extent accepted and continued to carry a taste of rebellion, loss of control and accountability that organisations were not keen to implement in their very own strategies.
Fast forward to 2020: When Corona hit, organisations worldwide were confronted with a dilemma of social distancing and sudden limitation of offline operations, including office work with sometimes only little intra-organisational digital processes. Obviously, most businesses could not afford to fully shut down – especially given the uncertainty of the duration and impact of the crisis.
Remote work is here to stay though
With Coronavirus on the rise, many organisations decided to allow its employees to work from home for a longer period of time. In many cases, that transition was rather drastic: as the European Commission reports, the share of employees in the EU-27 who have worked remotely at least sometimes has increased from 5.2 percent in 2009 to a staggering 9 percent in 2019.
By now, an estimated 40 percent of employees in the EU are working remotely full time due to the pandemic. With numbers still rising in many countries, these arrangements are likely to stay with us for a while anyway.
Twitter has basically rang the doom bell of corporate office space. In May, the company announced that its employees are free to return to office whenever they want, extending the remote work arrangement indefinitely. Facebook announced similar measures, albeit connecting remote work explicitly with extensive cost-savings, e.g. paycheck cuts, if the remote employee moves to a location with lower living costs.
Companies are even preparing structural changes, with some starting to fill executive positions demoted to remote working, such as “Head of Remote Work”, as the Washington Post points out. With these measures being discussed in corporate boardrooms, it is obvious that office spaces undergo changes as well.
Europe again missing out
The need to work remotely triggered a craze for software services that make home office possible and efficient. Although there are known communication tools such as Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting and Slack, the US-based tech-company Zoom has really benefited recently from this new modus operandi.
The company went public only in April 2019. Since then its user numbers and stock price have rocketed: in 3 months, Zoom increased its daily active users from 10 million to over 300 million, its stock jumped from 61.20€ on 2 January to 230€ less than six months later. So, offering digital communication platforms during a pandemic seems to be a lucrative – and influential – undertaking. “We live in Zoom now”, as the New York Times poignantly summarises the services’ impact on our everyday lives.
What is noticeable, however, is the absence of an established European conferencing tool in the discussion. Seeing itself as a soft power, the lack of software solutions from EU-based companies is certainly a liability in this respect – and is hardly surprising, as the bloc has largely missed out on becoming a host to high-tech companies.
Europe’s most valuable company (by market capitalisation), Royal Dutch Shell, was founded in 1907. In comparison, the most valuable company in the US is not an industrial but a software company. Microsoft was founded in 1975. It was companies like Microsoft, Apple or Amazon that have greatly shaped our lives in the last decade or two. Given the cultural change in many people’s workplaces, we again see how the US is benefiting from this head start. Leaving aside this rather academic issue of soft power, moving to mostly remote working creates a more tangible problem: security.
Challenges and Best-Practices
Zoom’s success has been driven by its intuitive usability. The one-click login allows for a immediate connection and thus is easy to use for employees outside the digital native bubble. However, their convenient conferencing came along with security issues that created a number of problems. From Zoombombing to privacy concerns, data safety suddenly became an obvious issue. Connecting remotely from home to the corporate network creates access points for hackers.
Depending on whether corporate hardware is used, safety measures might prevent the worst. When using private equipment, which might not be updated regularly or provides proper security software, the situation can be different. Especially when companies did not allow remote work, security staff might not be able to handle the newly increased demand for information and support.
The problem here is serious: the WHO reported a five-fold increase in cybercrime since the start of the pandemic. Since internal processes and sensitive discussions about them are literally on display, data security must be considered by decision-makers around the globe.
Acceptance is another issue. By making remote work safe, companies might implement new procedures and programmes, which are not always welcome. Therefore, tools need to be reviewed for their acceptance on a regular basis. Sometimes a tool is only used for communication, while background processes are conducted on different tools, resulting in a scattered data map with an increased risk of data loss and/or abuse.
In other words, the more complex the organisation and/or sensitive the data, the more crucial a precise and efficient attribution of access rights with underlying user authentication. Organisations are encouraged to assess tools in terms of end-to-end encryption, data storage and compatibility with internal software.
Remote work or home office seems to be more than a lifestyle choice for travel-affine freelancers. It literally saved thousands of businesses from insolvency. The ongoing increase in remote openings is a positive sign for a new work economy. Now organisations have to make sure that they use it properly to maintain or even increase data security while leveraging organisational output.
The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.
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Nicole is an entrepreneur and researcher at Wuppertal-Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and research associate at IE Applied – Tel Aviv University. Her work focuses on the interplay of sustainability and digitisation, especially focusing on new business models and AI-supported activities. She is part of the Digital Transformation and Cybersecurity programme at Polis180.
Christoph is a PhD candidate at the Hertie School in Berlin, where he studies the reach and impact of disinformation and misinformation. Christoph co-heads the programme Digital Transformation & Cyber Security at Polis180. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Hagen and a master’s in public policy from the Hertie School.