There is no doubt that COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation trends and shifted the way we all use and rely on technology, particularly in our work lives, for ever. This was hardly a linear process, as businesses were challenged to adapt under the rapidly changing conditions brought about by the pandemic. In fact, COVID-19 and increased technological investment go hand in hand, with a recent report finding that one-quarter (28%) of business leaders believe digital is now part of their companies’ DNA.
However, as we move into a post-pandemic society, tech leaders are being challenged to determine which tech trends are set to stay. To help discern the facts from the fads, five tech industry leaders share their expert insights on the digital transformation trends that are truly set to transform the way people work, socialise and conduct business below.
A flexible future
Callum Adamson, CEO and Co-founder of Distributed, suggests that the changing definition of flexible working is one of the most significant tech trends to come out of the pandemic, and one that will have a huge impact on the future of work. “The pandemic has emphasised that co-ordinating a workforce around a centralised location is unsustainable and unproductive,” he says.
This may mean saying goodbye to watercooler chats in the office for a while as, according to Adamson, hybrid working models have “given businesses the opportunity to free their employees from an office-bound existence. With the technology to support remote working, and the evidence that employees are more than capable of doing so successfully, there is no legitimate reason why they can’t offer flexible working on a long-term basis.”
As such, while many companies are prioritising hybrid models, Adamson is of the opinion they should be taking it one step further, as “the learnings from the past 18 months will only really have been applied when the business world embraces fully remote working. After all, we’ve already seen that remote-first operations can work – if they can during the pandemic, they certainly can as we come out of it.”
Implementing hybrid working is by no means a straightforward task but, done correctly, it can go a long way towards creating a fairer working environment. Adamson suggests that “the flexibility and work-life balance it offers goes beyond the ability to work from anywhere. Choosing a remote-first approach also creates a level playing field that avoids the emerging hierarchy that businesses are developing between those in and out of the office.”
The key solution here is implementing remote technology to re-shuffle the unspoken hierarchies that can make the office an unfriendly environment – particularly for graduates and new online starters. “Workforce decentralisation also means remote-first companies benefit from access to a broader range of global talent, while opening up opportunities to a broader range of applicants rather than limiting recruitment to those within a commutable distance,” says Adamson.
Looking to the future, Adamson foresees a working world that doubles down on worker autonomy. He predicts that “although hybrid working has been touted as the biggest trend to come out of the pandemic, I’m calling for it to be the rise of employee freedom – not just for the benefit of existing employees, but also to support business productivity and diversity. This is what will truly define the post-pandemic workplace.”
Cyber-security for a cyber world
The pandemic has also given rise to a wave of increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks taking advantage of the chaos that has ensued over the past 18 months. In fact, in 2020 malware increased by 358% overall and ransomware increased by 435% as compared to 2019. Mark Belgrove, Head of Cyber Consultancy at Exponential-e, suggests that “in many cases, security has moved quickly to adapt to and neutralise the explosion of cyber threats that has emerged since the pandemic began. But even now, as a glimpse of normality begins to come into view, there are several impacts CISOs should expect to encounter long after the pandemic has passed.”
In a similar vein to Adamson, Belgrove suggest that hybrid working is here to stay long term, but this requires more robust cybersecurity than the short-term solutions that have been implemented to date in order to keep employees and business safe. “Remote working requires business to appropriately – and proactively – patch and secure an abundance of remote devices to avoid potential threats from hackers,” says Belgrove. “There’s also the need to connect employees to networks to access company servers, and CISOs must ensure these connections are secure and that controls are implemented for cloud-based applications.”
As a result, since many, if not most, of our business interactions continue to be conducted online, Belgrove proposes that we need to see a trend of companies devoting a significant amount of time and money to cybersecurity. According to Belgrove, these include “new security technologies that are designed to help overcome these long-term issues. Many not only protect systems, but also reduce the risk of unnecessary security side-effects, such as the possibility of latency on devices. SD-WAN, for example, has end-to-end encryption built in to ensure data security both in-flight and in the cloud, and accelerates access to business applications by connecting to multiple cloud estates with ultra-low latency.”
More innovation = More regulation
“The pandemic has created a boom in innovative technologies to support our new way of life, with IoT and AI being two emerging technologies that have seen a particularly huge rise in use. In fact, the total number of IoT-connected devices worldwide is projected to reach 30.9 billion units by 2025, while AI investment has also increased significantly to enable better remote working and even improve vaccine development.” That’s according to Rob Walker, UK&I MD at Cognizant.
Yet this explosion of technological innovation comes at a price, and that means greater oversight and control is likely to be required. As Walker puts it, “in light of this landscape, we can expect further waves of increased regulation across the tech industry at large in our post-pandemic world.”
In fact, Walker highlights that “the EU is already scrutinising how AI is deployed. A recent government report also discussed the potential for regulating IoT devices in the UK and looked into some of the top concerns around the technology, including security risks and monopolising big tech firms. But finding solutions to these concerns is yet to keep up with the pace of these technology’s development and deployment.”
Furthermore, heavier regulation of IoT devices “will be vital to helping guide businesses’ decisions when innovating and adopting these technologies, ensuring they are doing so responsibly” says Walker. Simply put, stricter regulation ensures that we transition into a post-pandemic world as fairly as possible.
Heavier regulation in the tech industry ultimately strives to safeguard innovation. Walker suggests that “regulations can enable all types of distribution and commercial models and work alongside technological companies of all sizes to help drive innovation, and not allow monopolies to take hold or remain. However, implementing them will involve significant debate, which we can expect to see more of over the next two years.”
Business’ increasing appetite for risk
“The pandemic has accelerated the pace of technology change for businesses and has fundamentally altered organisations’ appetite for risk,” says Simon Bennett, EMEA CTO, Rackspace Technology.
Just over a year ago, businesses were risk averse and largely adopted a cautious and conservative approach to technology implementation and adoption. However, according to Bennet, “businesses were somewhat forced to forget about risk [during the pandemic], and instead focus on the opportunities technology offers – many of which have been vital for companies to stay afloat these past 18 months.”
Bennett highlights that companies must strive to build a conduit between their business and IT teams to take make taking these risks successful. He says, “businesses are now savvier to where the risks lie, to what technology can do for them and to how quickly it can be done. This means their appetite for risk, and for fast digital transformation, has increased. But despite this improved understanding, businesses must still rely on the expertise of their IT teams to execute on digital transformations. As a result, it’s no longer feasible for a successful company to maintain a sturdy brick wall between business and IT.”
Bennett warns that, “technologists need a deep understanding of their companies’ day-to-day work to deliver on business outcomes and ultimately drive the success of their organisations at a quicker pace. So, if your IT department still speaks a different language from the rest of your company — or even if you encounter occasional translation issues — now is the time to take action.”
“High streets all over the country faced some of their toughest times during the pandemic, with the various lockdowns forcing more consumers to shop online,” according to Paul McHugh, Area Director UK, Cradlepoint.
Wireless networks just may be the digital bridge to help retailers transition smoothly into the hectic holiday season. McHugh says that “with restrictions easing and Christmas preparations kicking into full-gear, bricks-and-mortar stores will be looking for solutions that will help them compete with the speed and efficiency of online retailers. LTE and 5G wireless networks are the best way to deliver that.”
McHugh predicts that if retailers are to recover from the pandemic, they need to operationalise 5G so that it is customer focused. He notes that “above all else, people now expect immediacy and convenience in-store. By deploying 5G connectivity, retailers can provide just this. For instance, virtual styling services and augmented reality to test whether furniture fits in certain living spaces are two trends that require higher bandwidth and lower latency, which can only be achieved with high-speed wireless connectivity using LTE and 5G.”
By integrating traditional aspects of retail into wireless networks, businesses can revolutionise the customer experience at every single touchpoint. McHugh highlights how “click-and-collect services and temporary kiosks within stores are increasingly being tied into the wider corporate network, which requires wireless access for IoT devices and cloud-based applications to keep operations running smoothly.”
LTE and 5G can also streamline the job of retailers dramatically. “For example, staying connected to wireless payment devices and updating on inventory levels. LTE and 5G networks enable retailers to stay connected beyond the range of their fixed primary infrastructure. This grants smaller retailers the flexibility to continue running their operations in newer locations, for example through opening temporary pop-up stores,” says McHugh.
Looking to the future, McHugh says that “for retailers and customers alike, LTE and 5G have become the benchmark for making a shopping trip into a shopping experience, and this trend is only set to continue as physical stores battle to attract and retain more business.”
As we enter into a post-pandemic world, it is important that business leaders are equipped with the knowledge of the technology that will come to define this new era. We cannot simply expect life to return to normal – or at least the normal we knew before COVID. Hybridised working is just one of the huge trends we are already experiencing, which itself will have big implications for businesses, including the need for more robust cybersecurity. As our use of technology in turn increases, from 5G to AI and IoT, increased regulation of this usage will seemingly also be vital to ensuring a smooth transition into this new age. Business leaders and those at the forefront of implementing new regulation cannot drag their heels when it comes to embracing these new tech trends as they are vital to us all remaining agile and safe when turning to these new ways of working.