Exploring the Requirements for the Next New Normal
Verticals including manufacturing, oil and gas, power and utilities, healthcare, and transportation are expected to see significant pandemic-driven Future of Operations changes, including expanded remote work initiatives. We predict more than 50% of local and international employees of the Global 2000 top public companies will work remotely or in hybrid facility environments.
The Remote Work Concept
Cloud-based solutions, open APIs, converged IT, and operational technology systems provide an immediate technology framework in support of the remote work concept. One difference between WFH (work-from-home) and WFA (work-from-anywhere) is that while WFH employees are isolated at home, WFA employees may, in theory, work in the same location on the same process.
A survey by IDC asked 40 representatives of manufacturing technology end-users: “If you could turn back time 12–24 months but know what you know now, what measures would you implement or recommend to your management to prepare for the COVID-19 crisis?”
The answer from 60% of respondents: “Establish flexible work-from-home concepts for our employees.”
Before the COVID-19 outbreak in Q1 2020, remote operations deployment was already part of the digitalization and automation journey of operations-intensive organizations. Oil and gas companies, for example, have been remotely managing operations through a combination of automation, digitalization, and engineering technology. Organizations have also been using remote machine servicing to reduce the number of maintenance staff, in particular during night shifts.
The recent growth of the WFH/WFA concept in operations would not be possible without the digitization and automation expansion of recent years. The continued growth of WFH/WFA in operations process areas in the years to come will depend on the maturity and readiness of individual organizations.
Some less recognized areas suitable for WFH/WFA include:
Quality control of process/process outcome (e.g., final product)
Programming and setup of production assets, instruments, and devices
Maintenance and servicing of production assets, instruments, and devices
Product development and testing
Digital engineering (deployment of digital tools and solutions)
Absolute Basics: Rules Compliance and Solid IT Infrastructure
The success of WFH/WFA in an operations environment depends on two factors: employees following clear rules, and a reliable technical infrastructure that enables communication and the fulfillment of tasks.
WFH/WFA employees must follow a clear set of rules to ensure they do not put critical processes at risk. They must:
Be online for their entire shift/working hours
Take breaks only at approved times
Be backed up by another employee at certain times (e.g., beginning/end of a shift, breaks)
Allow themselves to be remotely supervised to assess their presence and focus
Allow monitoring of their vital life functions if working in a critical position (e.g., controlling safety measures)
From a technology standpoint, securing safe and efficient WFH/WFA operations requires:
Solid IT infrastructure to ensure secure and stable data flows between systems and users
High latency internet connections
Seamless data flows among enterprise applications to eliminate the need for a human presence (and errors caused by human activities)
Cloud-based applications to tackle VPN issues and provide automatic updates
Secure remote access to operational technology to avoid unauthorized breaches and attacks
Digital twin(s) of critical assets and processes
Condition monitoring and predictive maintenance applied to (critical) assets leveraging AI/ML-powered algorithms
Autonomous quality control of processes and related outputs
Converged automation and digitalization so assets can be operated remotely
24 x 7 testing of infrastructure to avoid system failures
Remote guidance and collaboration tools based on augmented reality and voice and picture transmission technology
WFH/WFH as a New Standard
Relying on WFH/WFA employees to build and secure a resilient operations environment requires substantial planning and investments in infrastructure and automation. In my view, some operations environments may be too complicated to enable the broad deployment of WFH/WFA employees.
The COVID-19 experience has shown us, however, that WFH/WFA is not temporary—it is here to stay, a key component of the “Next New Normal.” As such, the WFH/WFA approach must be harnessed in ways that take into account both the Future of Work and human wellbeing.
People’s work habits have changed due to pandemic-related restrictions and forced isolation. But most people do not want to spend their working lives sitting in front of a computer terminal at home. Human nature insists that individuals have at least some regular face-to-face interaction with other humans.
Employers face the challenge of balancing the WFH/WFA concept with employee demands for human interaction and an interesting work environment. These realities—alongside the cost and risk of creating and running complex infrastructure—will likely lead organizations to develop hybrid models that enable staff to combine WFH/WFA with operations center/office work in the company of colleagues.
As organizations seek new ways to become more resilient, the share of WFH/WFA positions will almost certainly rise in the coming years.
Organizations increasingly understand that WFH/WFA is the way to go!