Remote and hybrid workplaces existed before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, of course. But in March 2020, many organizations that had not considered those models a key part of their operations had to make them so – quickly.
That swift move to remote and hybrid work environments understandably came with a lot of hiccups, but the increasing availability (and affordability) of workplace-focused automation tools eased the transition somewhat.
“Automation played an important part as it was easier for businesses to let bots take over repeatable tasks when manpower was iffy or when people had to take time off to care for themselves or family that had been impacted by COVID,” said Hansa Iyengar, principal analyst of enterprise IT strategy with Omdia, of the shift in operations when the pandemic began.
Now, as we move into a new stage of life with COVID-19, many expect the increase in digital workplaces – either full time or part time – to continue. For example, information released by Gartner this summer forecast that just over half of knowledge workers around the world will be remote by the end of this year. Three to four times more people could end up working from home than were before the pandemic, McKinsey predicted.
“All our data shows that more work is going to take place away from the traditional office environment when compared to pre-pandemic levels,” said Adam Holtby, principal analyst of mobile workspace with Omdia.
To make that move viable going forward, businesses need to navigate a variety of challenges by moving away from a focus on where people are working and providing the resources needed independent of location, Holtby said. Given that, organizations are looking at where automation and hybrid work fit into their operations longer term – and how they can successfully interact.
The Role of Digital Transformation
When it comes to answering the question of if hybrid workplaces made automation easier or more difficult, it’s important to know where a given organization was on the path to digital transformation when the pandemic hit.
“A clear picture has emerged that the businesses that had already made significant investments in the technologies to support remote working were the ones that did not witness any major disruption,” Iyengar said.
There are logistical issues to consider, Holtby said, including infrastructure that ensures remote and hybrid employees can work productively and securely, wherever they are. There are also cultural challenges, he pointed out – people can be resistant to change, especially after a period when so much of daily life radically transformed.
But even considering the unexpected expenditures that organizations have faced during the pandemic, they are still investing in pushing digital transformation – and automation, by association – forward.
“We are not seeing any indication of digital agendas slowing down at all,” Iyengar said. “If anything, the pandemic has proved that it is possible to provide undisrupted services despite a majority of the workforce working from home, and that businesses with a solid digital foundation are the ones that will survive the next decade or two.”
Demand for Automation in the Hybrid Workplace
But given that many workplaces were already planning or in the midst of digital transformation, automation continues to be a focus area for IT investment in many sectors.
“We are seeing higher interest and investment in automation tools/solutions as large parts of the workforce continue to be remote,” Iyengar said, “and where businesses are finding it harder to backfill positions that had been made redundant during the past year.”
Over the past few years, concerns have emerged across professional categories about the potential of automation to replace existing roles filled by humans. Even as proponents of digital transformation tout its potential to allow people to focus on more rewarding work, some shifting and redundancy seems inevitable.
“The future workplace is one where automation/bots and humans will co-exist, with bots doing most of the mundane tasks, freeing up people to focus on adding value to the customer,” Iyengar said. But training (and retraining) seems like an inevitable part of dealing with labor shortages and ensuring that the post-pandemic economy works for all workers as automation changes what that workplace looks like, both on-site and remotely.
“In addition to the actual adoption of any new automated technical solution,” Holtby advised, “implementing new automation capabilities should also involve programs to help educate people on the benefits and implications related to their role, and empowering people with new skills where possible.”