Hybrid workplaces have continued to be necessary into the closing months of 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, but all indications are that this new way of working will stick around long after the health risks necessitating it have faded.
The digital workplace that remote and hybrid work requires is an ecosystem of different technology and service capabilities more than it is a single "thing" or product, said Adam Holtby, principal analyst of mobile workspace with Omdia. Automation tools have an important role to play in that model of working, with McKinsey finding that two-thirds of companies accelerated the use of automation and AI since the pandemic began in March 2020.
That pandemic embrace of new digital tools fit in with digital transformations already underway at many organizations, and will continue post-pandemic – for example, a PwC survey found that half of CFOs plan to accelerate automation and the digital workforce once workers can return to the office.
“Automation lies at the heart of transformation, and businesses are going to continue making significant investments in intelligent systems and infrastructure to support the pace of change that the digital age mandates,” said Hansa Iyengar, principal analyst of enterprise IT strategy with Omdia.
When it comes to the tools that make those digital workplace transformations possible, three areas stand out as priorities: legacy modernization, technical support and cloud-based infrastructure.
On the journey to digital transformation, legacy systems can be a boulder in the middle of the road. They can be slow and inefficient, unable to deal with modern data and security needs, and incompatible with sophisticated analysis and automation tools.
“The biggest pain point is the huge amount of technical debt that lies hidden in legacy systems, and the fact that so far businesses have been doing lip service to digitalization by painting APIs and microservices architectures over legacy systems without actually doing anything to retire them,” Iyengar said.
Investments in modernizing and/or replacing legacy systems are happening. The 2020 SIM IT Trends Study found that replacing and replatforming legacy apps was among the top 10 largest IT investments for organizations from 2009 to 2019. “Now more than ever, enterprises have realized that legacy technologies are a hurdle that will prevent them from reaping the full benefits of digital unless they retire them,” Iyengar said.
“One thing I have certainly seen is a surge in priority around improving technical support activities, of which automation will be an important element,” Holtby said.
Automation in IT and technical support services isn’t new, he said. However, the pandemic made the conversation more urgent, especially given the challenges faced by these teams in supporting employees. Improving and streamlining those support services is one way to improve employee satisfaction with and success in hybrid and remote work – arrangements that many workers already want to hold on to. For example, a CNBC/SurveyMonkey report found that remote workers showed higher overall job satisfaction, and many of them wanted to continue to work from home at least part of the time.
If organizations want to support their employees’ desires for continued remote work, solid technical support tools will be important – and automation can increase their availability and success. “I see self-service, automating workflows/processes that guide support activities and self-heal capabilities/solutions all being of key interest to IT teams,” Holtby said.
For obvious reasons related to remote and hybrid work arrangements, cloud computing investments have increased during the pandemic. A Society for Information Management study released early this year found that cloud computing was the top organizational investment for the first time in a decade.
Hybrid cloud automation brings together two powerful digital transformation support tools, further building success in the digital workplace. Tools such as IBM’s Cloud Pak for Automation allow for the integration of robotic process automation (RPA) in the hybrid workplace, for example, and Azure Automation allows for both cloud and on-site resource management.
Automation-focused tools like these will continue to become important as organizations evaluate how the workplace looks going forward while continuing with their digital transformation strategies. It looks like COVID-19 will continue to impact normal life through 2022, Iyengar said, but enterprise investments will continue nonetheless.
“This will not change, pandemic or not, as these are not investments that can be turned off,” she said. “Doing so will harm the business.”