The future of work is remote, and the future is here.

During this unprecedented time when more people than ever are working from home, the response to the coronavirus has also become a grand socioeconomic experiment.

Developers for major technology firms are learning to cope with overcrowded last-mile connections as they commit code remotely. Finance professionals are installing enterprise networking at home, juggling calls to support lines in corporate IT and private ISPs as they get up and running. Households are learning to balance the shared networking needs of dual working parents coming to grips with teleconferencing and multiple children experiencing distance learning for the first time, under the same roof. As we integrate our home and work lives like never before, connectivity and mobility are proving essential, letting us work and learn wherever and whenever — trends that are likely to define the future of work.

According to a September 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, only a small percentage of U.S. workers — just 2 percent — had telecommuted full-time the previous year (almost 24 percent, according to the BLS, worked at home occasionally). Mostly professionals, ranging from developers and accountants to project managers and writers, this small group has become the vanguard for a much larger transition.

Acting out of caution or in compliance with shelter-in-place orders, 88 percent of HR executives responding to a Gartner survey in March reported encouraging or requiring employees to work from home as part of their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The response to this pandemic represents, according to a McKinsey report released in March, “an imminent restructuring of the global economic order,” rapidly accelerating a nascent transition towards flexible work and telecommuting on a large scale, and in the process reshaping the ways many of us work and live, in unforeseen ways.

“CIOs will have to continue thinking about how to help employees and customers weather the crisis and adapt to new ways of working and engaging with products and services.”

Cody Sanford, EVP, CIO and Chief Product Officer, T-Mobile
The office can be everywhere: extending the virtual workplace.

As millions more Americans now work from home, broadband usage has spiked, with major providers reporting data traffic up more than 30 percent since March 1 of this year. ISPs in major municipalities have so far been up to the challenge, with some local slowdowns, but by and large providers have responded by eliminating data caps and raising speeds in order to better serve business customers working from home.

With good management and team solidarity, the transition to remote work can be a relatively simple one for professionals — moving from a workday spent in meetings crunching numbers or drafting contracts in an office environment to doing the same effectively via videoconferencing, shared documents and organizational tools in the cloud. It’s a challenge of time management and culture. But the transition has also highlighted both opportunities and challenges for organizations.

Opportunities to connect at scale.
Each year, Utah-based business intelligence provider Domo hosts Domopalooza, a conference for its business users and a critical opportunity for the company to connect with its current and potential clients. The event was set for March 18 in Salt Lake City, with 3,000 people confirmed to attend.

As news of COVID-19 cases in Washington state began to emerge in February, Domo CEO Josh James made the decision that the event couldn’t go on as planned. The company announced on February 28 that the event would take place online — and three weeks of intensive preparation began.

From the outset, the team decided that they wanted to find a way to take advantage of the virtual setting. “We didn't want to just put a camera up in front of a stage and pretend like we were just watching a normal conference,” said John Mellor, Chief Security Officer at Domo. “If we could have done that, that would have been easier. But it wouldn't have been interesting. And I don't think we would've gotten the same kind of response and interaction.”

Mellor and his team approached the conference as a television shoot instead of a live theatrical production. The team shot prerecorded conversations and presentations on location to bring the flavor of Utah to virtual attendees, taking advantage of dramatic Utah settings from the slopes of Snowbird and the Bonneville Salt Flats to the darkness of the Redmond Salt Mine; and visits to Domo client locations such as an auto parts dealer and a bottling facility provided a way to reach out visually to customers.

An event that had gone virtual out of necessity became an opportunity for Domo to extend their reach and engagement significantly: 9,500 people preregistered in the weeks following the announcement, and on the day of the event, 12,000 unique visitors watched at least some of the content offered — a fourfold increase over the physical event.

“We went into this knowing at least that we couldn't do it wrong because nobody had even done it,” James says. “I think the success of Domopalooza involves the same principles involved in how we work from home during this time…making sure that it's as rewarding and as productive as possible. Are you engaging the people you're working with every day? How do you use video? How do you make sure you're making the most of people’s limited time when you are taking their full attention through a conference call? It’s a good framework for thinking about how we run our own team."
The challenge of managing in-person services.

But for those who must deliver services face-to-face, the transition has been far more difficult. From retail and social services to laboratory-focused educational programs, managers and employees have had to come up with creative solutions to continue their work.

This is the challenge faced by Liahann Bannerman, Director of Volunteer Engagement at United Way of King County in Washington. The UWKC has a staff of nearly 100, who have transitioned effectively to remote work from their homes around the Seattle area, with employees communicating virtually and rolling out online campaigns and peer-to-peer fundraising efforts. Having donors submit contributions digitally limits the need for accountants to come in to process checks at the office.

A bigger challenge has been to create functional alternatives with the dozens of nonprofits United Way works with in their efforts to support underserved communities. In some cases, Bannerman and her team have been able to find virtual alternatives. A key spring program connects those eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit with no-cost tax advisors.

“We have over a thousand volunteers who do our free tax campaign,” Bannerman says. “And that got shut down right away. But our tax team was able to make a connection with Code for America and found that they have a tool that wasn't getting a lot of use. We were able to get our tax site volunteers and managers connected through that so they’re still able to help."

But providing a substitute for face-to-face services remains a problem, especially when serving Seattle’s unhoused community. As the crisis began, Bannerman had been coordinating a large-scale community resource exchange; a one-stop-shop to access a range of services, from dentistry and clothing aid to a job fair. There hasn’t been an obvious way to transition to an online alternative.

“The challenge, even if you can offer a virtual resource exchange — and a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness do have phones — is that when you're in-person, you talk to someone who can connect you to the right providers in the room. Whereas doing it online, you may go through a process and then find out you can or can't qualify for that resource and may not have someone to help you get to the right resource," Bannerman says.

The future of work will never be solely digital; there will always be a need for face-to-face interaction. But many organizations must confront the challenge of enhancing their delivery of in-person services, whether they are serving the most vulnerable, delivering critical care or assisting customers in retail. In more and more cases, increasing mobile accessibility and managing physical interactions with efficient digital tools will be essential, and these services will be enhanced by extending reliable mobile access to those who need it most.

Supporting learning continuity for our future workforce.

With nearly every school in the country closed, educators from K-12 and higher education institutions have transitioned to remote teaching with varying degrees of success. One of the biggest challenges is reaching students who lack tools or connectivity at home. Of New York City’s 1.1 million students, many of the 80 percent who are low income only have the means to connect to the internet via their phone. The city’s Department of Education has made a massive effort to provide tablets to those students, checking out 175,000 devices during the first couple of weeks of school closures. Since then, the DOE has been working with Apple and T-Mobile to provide an additional 300,000 LTE-enabled iPads, which IBM sets up with software and appropriate content filters and connects to the internet.

But broadband service in rural and poorer urban counties remains an issue, with those in smaller markets historically underserved by broadband and struggling to support remote learners and workers. (The situation has improved markedly, but nearly 21 million Americans remain without significant broadband access, according to the FCC). The FCC has called on providers to waive fees under the Commission’s Keep America Connected pledge, and the Senate’s stimulus bill earmarks $100 million for rural broadband improvements. ISPs are providing basic service tiers at low cost or in some cases without charge to rural customers. And on the mobility front, T-Mobile has been leasing additional spectrum in order to better serve severely impacted customers.

Reimaging the future of work: lessons for the long term.

It is too early to tell how transformational this experience will be. Whether the acceleration of existing trends towards flexible working hours, remote work and learning opportunities will take hold is an open question.

“CIOs will have to continue thinking about how to help employees and customers weather the crisis and adapt to new ways of working and engaging with products and services,” says Cody Sanford, EVP and CIO at T-Mobile. “That means expanding technology capabilities in digital workplace resources to support new ways of working from a more distributed, nimble workforce — in call centers, retail, corporate and other environments. Just as important is expanding access and capabilities in digital technologies that support customers and their increased demand for self-service web tools."

Whatever the long-term outcome, it has become clear that it’s possible to include remote work options to an extent many employers had never considered. But to make it work, mobile providers and ISPs will need to build universally accessible nationwide infrastructure. While it may not be possible to fully bridge America’s digital divide during this pandemic, it is clear that building a more resilient nationwide data infrastructure is essential to meeting future connectivity challenges — and it is likely that nationwide 5G is going to be the answer to providing last-mile connectivity for underserved Americans.

Originally appeared on CNBC.com.

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