The COVID-19 health crisis has pushed many organizations to reduce physical interaction among their workforces to an absolute minimum. In a very short period, work from home (WFH) and work from anywhere (WFA) have emerged as standard features of the “Next Normal.”

Remote Work Is Already Shaping Operations in the ‘Next Normal’
Remote Work Is Already Shaping Operations in the ‘Next Normal’

Jan Burian, Senior Research Director | Head of IDC Manufacturing Insights EMEA and Leader of Europe: Future of Operations Practice

Verticals including manufacturing, oil and gas, power and utilities, healthcare, and transportation are expected to see significant COVID-19-driven Future of Operations changes, including expanded WFH/WFA initiatives. IDC predicts that in 2021, 33% of the operations employees of the Global 2000 top public companies will work remotely or in hybrid facility/WFH environments. 

 

The WFH/WFA Concept

Cloud-based solutions, open APIs, converged IT, and operational technology systems provide an immediate technology framework in support of the WFH/WFA concept. One difference between WFH and WFA is that while WFH employees are isolated at home, WFA employees may, in theory, work in the same location on the same process.

Ahead of IDC’s European Digital Manufacturing Forum in November 2020, 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. Orangizations 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 digitalization and automation expansion of recent years. The continued growth of WFH/WFA in operations process areas in the next three years will depend on the maturity and readiness of individual organizations.

Some less recognized areas suitable for WFH/WFA include:

  • Production planning/management 

  • 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.

  1. Rules

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)

 

  1. Technology

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 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!

 
 
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ManufacturingTomorrow

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