Millions of Americans who continue to work during the COVID-19 pandemic have had their commutes drastically reduced — many to as short a distance as from their bed to their living room.
“The biggest thing right now is the teleworker — that is the big dynamic,” said Frank Cox, the general manager of Vision Technology Group, which has been in business in Harrisonburg since 2004. “How do we work from home instead of the office and still feel like we’re on big team?”
Valley tech industry experts pointed out three major bridges that businesses must cross to ensure their operations can perform as well as possible while relying on technology: security, painting cohesion and a team spirit, as well as finding the proper tech tool for the job.
Security is a major part to keeping a business safe as more and more is done online, according to Cox. This sentiment was echoed by Nicky Swayne, CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Technology Council, and Brian Greenwald, the vice president of business development for Generate Impact.
“There’s no front where security is not important and where it isn't further being developed,” Swayne said. “There’s no standing still.”
Part of reducing the electronic risks faced by businesses is training workers to recognize dangerous emails on top of other tricks and tactics used by hackers, Cox said.
“Ninety-one percent of all attacks on business are launched from within,” he said.
In addition to security concerns, Cox said employers want to ensure productivity from their workers while they are not in the office.
“The truth is they’re finding that a lot of people find they're more productive from home,” he said.
Much of what helps at-home workers is the increased availability, reliability and variety of services, according to Swayne and Cox.
“We’ve all made big strides in a short time,” Swayne said.
Cox said there’s a variety of tools to try and make the work environment for remote employees feel as connected as possible, including mobile apps and connecting services.
One such method is videoconferencing by apps such as Zoom or Skype, according to Cox. And it’s not just for internal communications, but for working with clients and customers as well.
“That’s a big thing that businesses are desiring to do now,” Cox said.
And businesses are not the only ones relying increasingly on video streaming services to stay connected with customers.
Workers and businesses are using the same methods to stay connected to their customers that city and town staff are using to stay connected to residents.
Town and city meetings, where progress and specifics of local matters are discussed and measures voted on, found their way to online services.
One way businesses stay ready to serve customers is through apps that allow them to use their personal cellphone to call customers, but the number appears on customers' phones as the employers' work line, according to Cox.
This way workers don’t have to give their personal number to clients, but can be easily reached.
However, technology is not a silver bullet for all problems a company may face during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Greenwald.
“They’re going to have to focus on technology, and what that really means is before you can start to leverage technology for learning of commerce, you really have to think about it as a human issue,” Greenwald said.
That involves using a “people-first strategy” that assesses actual needs of workers before a firm acquires technology to address a perceived issue to make sure the technology actually meets the need, he said.
“I think one of the most important things to factor in is that we need to avoid hammer and nail solutions when it comes to technology,” Greenwald said.
And a “flex” aspect is also going to be in demand as workers start to trickle back into offices and customers back into storefronts without knowing if they may be working from home shortly in the future, he said.
“I think this has been a big wake-up call for everyone that it doesn’t take much to tilt the balance into a new reality,” Greenwald said.
Swayne, Greenwald and Cox said that the changes and progress made to try to reduce the friction between businesses and consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic using technology has been hard-earned and will not be cast aside and forgotten when the world returns to its pre-COVID traditions.
“I don’t think there is going back from that,” Swayne said.
And businesses will continue to innovate to make sure the disruptions that resulted from the suddenness of COVID-19 are not seen again if a similar disaster occurs, Cox said.
“There’s going to be a big, giant push of people who are going to want to be more prepared for the next time something like this happens,” he said.
Rolling with the punches is part of the churn of commerce that businesses in the Valley and beyond will continue to do even after the pandemic has subsided.
“The businesses and institutions that are going to do best are the ones with plans for adaption,” Greenwald said.