Last week the Economist led with an article exploring “the fight over the future of the workplace” which addressed everything from the ROI of watercooler-ideas to the impact of loneliness on the remote worker.

But amid handwringing think-pieces over the feasibility of remote working and its impact on city centres, it’s important to take a step back and put things in perspective.

It’s worth remembering that 2.7 billion workers worldwide (80%!) neither work in a traditional office nor have a dedicated desk.

Global businesses in vital industries such as agriculture, retail, hospitality, healthcare and transportation all operate principally on the work of “remote” or mobile employees.

These deskless workers are the backbone of the global economy but crucially don’t have the flexibility to do their jobs from home. Research from LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) shows that the sectors which require more human contact (and fewer desk-bound workers) such as airlines, restaurants, hotels, arts and entertainment have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

With the shift to remote working, businesses in the IT, technical and professional services sectors are fortunate to be experiencing the digital transformation they’ve been selling to their customers for years. Technologies such as mobile computing, drones and 5G networks have fundamentally changed the experience of deskless employees from a range of industries all in the pursuit of digital transformation.

In the services sector, we’ve been talking about the business benefits of these mobile and digital technologies for years, from enhanced productivity to improved communication and cost savings. This process has always required an investment in both technology and culture.

Now’s the time to practice what we preach.

Of course the transition won’t be totally smooth; the challenges of digital transformation are well known. But this should make it easier for newly remote businesses to learn from the industries that have overcome these challenges the hard way.

Last year we worked with Workplace by Facebook to understand the frustrations and challenges of frontline workers in staying connected with the wider business. We found that, while it’s incredibly easy for culture to break down in remote businesses, regular and active use of collaboration tools and digital comms platforms has a profound impact on company culture, increasing engagement and employee satisfaction.

The responsibility for seizing the opportunities and benefits of remote working lies with business leaders and managers who must quickly adapt to their new environment and throw their weight behind a new remote-first culture.

Digital transformation has always been a game of two halves – technology deployment and culture development. For business leaders who are fortunate enough to keep their employees working from home, the technical challenge has largely been met. But the future of the workplace will be decided by their ability to meet, and overcome, the cultural challenges inherent to digital transformation.

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