How the tech sector is shaping the return to work (and why that shape resembles a duck bill)

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of work is being redefined. Find out how remote work is accelerating tech innovation and adoption and impacting five emerging trends.


Image: GettyImages/Kelvin Murray

Technology companies live and die on the ability to develop and market innovation. And while the pandemic has presented serious challenges for every business, tech professionals have fared better than most, flexing well-developed innovation muscles to transform almost every aspect of how and where we work.

In the first months of the pandemic, the economy closed, opened, then closed again. A handful of tech giants made sweeping, high-profile work-from-home pronouncements. Others quietly moved forward with flexible or hybrid work. Over a year later, those changes have become the norm across the industry and beyond, with many businesses moving to virtually fully remote operations, and almost all expanding how and where many employees can do their jobs.

And along the way, they’ve been actively redefining the future of work. 

How high is the “duck’s bill”?

Deloitte-duck-curve graph-virtual-work.jpg

To help visualize the future of work post-pandemic, we can map the changes on a graph, plotting time on the horizontal axis and amount of virtual work on the vertical axis. We start with a point representing the amount of pre-pandemic virtual work, then see a sharp uptick with the rollout of stay-at-home mandates. The numbers eventually peak at the top of a curve that’s coming to look remarkably like a duck’s head.

As the stay-at-home mandates begin to subside, the amount of virtual work decreases, and our curve moves down the duck’s face until it stabilizes, in a horizontal line that forms the bill.

Now the operative question: What is the optimal amount of virtual work for your organization? How high is your ideal duck’s bill?

In-house innovation

It’s no surprise that tech businesses have been at the forefront of the shift to virtual work. After all, they produce most of the technology that enables today’s remote work, from laptops and mobile devices to Wi-Fi, online chat and videoconferencing. They tend to be early adopters of technological solutions, with a focus on maximizing productivity through technology, and many of their employees have successfully worked remotely, often across global teams, for years.

Setting tech adoption to fast-forward

The pandemic acted as a super accelerator for innovation within the tech industry — but it also accelerated adoption of those innovations, across industries, far more quickly than anyone had thought possible. Telehealth, online grocery ordering and videoconferencing went mainstream in a matter of months. Even resolutely in-person activities were forced to go virtual. User acceptance testing (UAT), for example, which traditionally required IT consultants to sit beside project team members in the final stages of ERP implementation, suddenly had to be performed remotely, often by teams in different time zones — with little to no decline in testing quality or productivity. And with the acknowledgement that remote work actually increases employee productivity, the market for technologies that support remote work is only likely to expand.

Silver linings for both workers and businesses

Beyond selling and using technologies to boost their bottom line, the new normal of remote work has led many companies to question long-held assumptions about the best ways to work. Teambuilding, onboarding, strategy sessions and collaboration all went virtual, with similar or even improved outcomes. Multi-day business trips and conferences centered on in-person meetings were replaced with one- or two-hour videoconferencing sessions over several days. These changes also reduced costs and increased flexibility — a necessity for those suddenly needing to work from home while caring for children or other family members.

This increased accessibility has been one of the few silver linings of the last few years. The rise of remote work has expanded opportunities for workers, in the U.S. and around the world, to offer specialized skills to new industries or companies.

The opportunities for businesses are just as compelling. As my Deloitte colleague Stacy Janiak points out in a recent blog post, as competition for talent increases, the winners will be those able to attract new hires and retain workers with a company culture that is transparent, flexible and grounded in mutual trust. Successful tech companies will use technology to expand teams and resources far beyond traditional confines, embracing a culture of collaboration in which “workers all over the world [are] tapping into skills and expertise that may have previously been underutilized or inaccessible to them.” They’ll also replace the belief that innovation requires serendipitously “bumping into each other in the hallways” with processes such as frequent 30-minute brainstorming sessions that draw input from a wider cross-section of employees — along with the possibility for surprisingly innovative results.

Walking the talk to embody employees’ values 

As the younger generation enters the workforce, many bring with them expectations that their jobs align with larger environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles — priorities that will undoubtably shape the future of work. Tech-enabled remote work supports these trends in multiple ways, including minimizing carbon footprint by reducing the need for commuting and air travel; expanding job opportunities for caregivers, workers with disabilities and those living outside traditional tech hubs; and opening up avenues for input and collaboration for a widening number of employees.

Seeking balance amid new ways of working

Of course, not all tech companies have responded to the pandemic, or view the future of work, in the same ways. Some executives pushed a return to the office as soon as it was safe to do so, though many employees didn’t share their urgency. Could generational differences be a factor, or executives’ default reaction of “this is how it’s always been done”? Whatever the reasons for the disconnect, companies navigating the future of work would be wise to use a pull, rather than push, strategy to secure employee buy-in, balancing what’s best for employees and for the organization as a whole. Whatever happens, we believe that former assumptions about when, why and how employees and teams work together will be reshaped by recent learnings and thoughtful decision-making.

New trends — and new questions

So much has changed over the last two years, but many effects of the move to remote work are still to come. These emerging trends pose several far-reaching questions:

  • Purposeful business travel. Most organizations — and especially their younger employees — are reevaluating the need to travel for business, especially when flying. As of Q2 2021, fewer than 1 in 5 companies had reached even 25% of their 2019 quarterly business travel spending. This begs the question: Just how important are in-person meetings and events?
  • Communal space. Many tech companies are doubling down on shared office space. If employees are going to come into the office, the reasoning goes, a long communal table encourages interaction, collaboration and diversity of thought. Stacy Janiak looks more closely at why employers seeking post pandemic growth should prioritize company culture.
  • Blending virtual and in-person work. For most tech businesses, hybrid beats out all-or-nothing models. A company might host concurrent in-person events in multiple locations, connecting groups via video conference and following up with in-person breakout sessions.
  • Virtual meeting planners. To help participants engage with virtual presenters or participants, these professionals will configure work and event spaces to make the most of camera angles, lighting, audio feeds and more.
  • Zero-trust security. Identity and access security lets an organization control who has access to what and from where. To maximize security and trust, ensure equal access for both in-person and virtual interactions.

It’s clear that no one, including the tech sector, is going back to entirely pre-pandemic ways of working — and 100% virtual scenarios are almost as unlikely. Most likely, the proportion of remote work in each organization will resemble our duck-bill graph, settling at a level reflecting companies’ and employees’ needs. And whatever the height of your particular duck’s bill, the future of work will require businesses to prioritize flexibility, adapt to ongoing change and make thoughtful choices that meet the needs of a new generation of employees.

This article was written by Paul Silverglate, Deloitte vice chair and US technology sector leader. 

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