Automation: How to Thrive Amid Remote Work Stress, Part 1

Roland Alston, Thought Leadership Program Leader
April 22, 2021

In grade school, Joe Kennedy taught himself how to code video games on his home computer. Today, Kennedy is a Partner and Technology Consulting Leader with PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC). In the video call leading up to this week’s Digital Masters interview, Kennedy looked remarkably dapper in a navy blue blazer, dress shirt and slacks and a handlebar mustache curled to perfection.

Kennedy is an expert on remote work and has written extensively about how COVID has accelerated the trend. He argues companies that are slow to adapt their systems and culture to support remote work will lose out to those that do. The situation now, he says, is that the remote work revolution has made doing business more complex, uncertain, and riskier than ever before. So, how do you compete and win in such a volatile environment? There’s no template for success, says Kennedy, but there’s an urgency for organizations to reimagine how and where work gets done and to figure out how to optimize the efficiency of employees in any work environment. 

5 Remote Work Trends You Should Know About

 

The category of non-self-employed remote workers has grown 140% since 2005 according to a study by Global Workplace Analytics.

  • 66% of US employees work remotely at least part of the time.[1]
  • 54% of remote workers embrace the remote work trend.[2]
  • 44% of U.S. workers work from home five or more days per week, up from 17% before the pandemic.[3]
  • 54% of CFOs plan to make remote work permanent.[4]
  • The category of remote workers has grown 173% since 2005.[5]

Yes, we’re still in the early stages of rethinking how work gets done in the post-COVID world. But it’s hard to ignore remote work—on a massive scale—has shown potential to drive cost-savings and worker productivity beyond expectations. And, yet, making the cultural and emotional disruption of remote work pay off won’t be easy. Which brings us back to our conversation with Joe Kennedy.

“There's an advantage to remote work that I think really propels us forward,” says Kennedy. “But there's also enormous risk.” 

The challenge, says Kennedy, is for organizations to stay relevant in the post-pandemic world by finding new and better ways to connect with employees and the culture. Now, let’s tune in to the next episode of Digital Masters and find out how to thrive in a remote work environment:

Appian: Hi Joe. Thanks for participating in Digital Masters. I really enjoyed reading your LinkedIn profile. You talk about how when you were a kid, Atari was a thing and it seemed like every household in the neighborhood had one except yours. Your school provided you with a computer and a book on basic programming and within six months you figured out how to code your own versions of Centipede and Space Invaders. That’s pretty cool for a kid in grade school.

Kennedy: What can I say, I've been motivated by greed ever since I was a kid.

Appian: Seriously, though, I think that story ties nicely into what I want to talk about today. You also said you’re on a mission to help people understand that technology is not just about coding necessarily. It's also about creating. As you think about the acceleration of remote work and digital transformation, talk about the role these two trends play in creating new ways of working.

Kennedy: Yes, sure. And thanks for inviting me to Digital Masters. I think when we talk about creativity and when we talk about things like digital transformation people automatically focus on the idea of creating more efficiencies, and they don't necessarily think about it as a creative construct. 

But at the end of the day, every single thing that we do, whether it's utilizing Facebook, iTunes or some other application, the reality is that technology has changed the way people interact on a day-to-day basis. Technology has permeated our culture. And it's not limited to the things that touch our senses. It's not limited to the fact that hey, you know, you can listen to music better, or you can do this, that, or the other thing better. 

It's really about: Has your technology streamlined things in a way that makes people more efficient. Are your customers and employees satisfied using it? Do they feel better using it? Are they empowered using it?

So, when I think about creativity and digital transformation from the point of view of employees, I take a look at an individual and I say: You have to do X, Y, Z on a day-to-day basis. What would be the best way for you to do that? What's the most creative, and efficient way to help you eliminate the stuff that you don't want to do out of your workflow? That's the creative role of technology and digital transformation. It's really about re-imagining all of the things that we like to do and have to do in the workplace and in our personal lives on a day-to-day basis.

Appian:  Much has been written about how the pandemic accelerated how fast companies actually implemented remote work on a large scale. It was already happening incrementally. But what do you make of the argument that the pandemic just accelerated what was already trending?

Kennedy: I think there's a lot of truth to that, but let's frame that out and have a real conversation about it. If you, if you sit down and think about it, we were already there in terms of embracing remote work. We were already offshoring work to India, China, and Mexico.

Companies have been doing remote work for decades. We were also doing video conferencing. It just wasn't as elaborate as today’s Zoom culture. And it wasn't as accessible as it is today. Today, video conferencing capability is on every desktop.

But 20 years ago, you had to go to a specific conference room in the building and you had to get on a chat with somebody on the West coast for a meeting because it didn't make sense to fly out there to participate in the meeting.

Appian: So, in some ways, remote work is like déjà vu all over again, only better.

Kennedy: Yes, we've always been there. We just didn't embrace it. We just didn't wholeheartedly embrace it. And now that we've had to embrace it, we realized how far we were from mainstreaming it from the fringe to the workplace. From a financial and business perspective, many low-touch companies that didn't have to worry about human-to-human interaction didn't skip a beat. They didn't have to go out and buy $10 million worth of infrastructure. They probably had to buy some security components around systems they already had in place. And that was okay for smaller and mid-sized companies where everybody was co-located in the same building.

When people all worked on the same floor in the same building, it was very easy for them to get together and approve this, that, or the other thing. Now that people are not colocated, some of these interactions are less efficient than they used to be. I can't walk down to your office and have a discussion with you. So, what we've done is re-embrace things that we've already embraced. And we figured out there's lots of gaps that have to now be filled in because there's a lot of processes in place that are not fully digital and require human interaction. 

We’re in a situation now where businesses have to create a digital fabric and stitch all of these capabilities together to make sure that the workforce is still evolving in a way that makes the best use of people's time and enables them to efficiently get things done. That's where I think we are.

Appian: So, what role has automation played in the evolution of remote work, and how has the mainstreaming of remote work impacted the CIOs role in the organization?

Kennedy: Yeah, so two very different questions. So, I think business automation tags onto what I was saying before. Now that we understand that we can work remotely and we've always had the capability to do it, we need to find the rough patches in the business processes that we have to do on a day-to-day basis and make them more efficient. That’s really where I see the acceleration of remote work happening. 

Appian: So, what do you say to companies that are still cautious about scaling automation of their business processes? 

Kennedy: That’s the other point I want to make. We have visibility into the inefficiencies around working remotely. Companies also know where they didn't invest in automation before the pandemic, and where they didn’t make process improvements.

The smart companies are taking the inefficiencies out of their business processes. They’re unifying data and processes and speeding up connectivity between organizational groups, departments and people and making them more efficient than ever before. Now, how has all of this changed the role of the CIO? 

I have always viewed the CIO as the business person's best friend and an enabler.

Most companies today aren't operating in a face-to-face environment. That requires a certain amount of technology which is why every company, to some extent, is a technology company which makes the CIO that much more important.

PS: Remote work is here to stay. If your organization is looking for a better way to build trust, maintain productivity and keep employees motivated in the new remote work culture, tune in next week for the final episode of our conversation with PwC’s remote work expert Joe Kennedy. Read part 2 here.