Without a doubt, 2020 was a challenging year for employees. Widespread and sustained remote working forced many to learn and embrace new ways of working, bringing disruptive and rapid change. As businesses now prepare the strategies to help them emerge from the pandemic on a confident and stable footing, the voice of the employee is more pivotal than ever.

Every year, my firm CCS Insight surveys employees about their attitudes to technology in the workplace and perceptions of big technology trends. The latest survey explored the impacts of COVID-19 and home working on how people use technology for work and their expectations for the future. We surveyed more than 680 employees in the US and Europe on topics including remote work, collaboration, employee devices, security and privacy, artificial intelligence, automation and other emerging technology trends.

Here I offer a brief overview of some of the most significant findings from the report, "Employee Workplace Technology Survey, 2020."

Employees Embrace the Flexibility of Remote Work, But Crave the Social Interaction of Office Life

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated what was an already growing remote-work trend, with almost two thirds of employees able to work from home during the crisis. The experience has proven the value and viability of remote working to employees, whetting their appetite for more flexibility in how and where they work in the future. More than half (56%) of employees want the continued option to work from home at least some of the time, compared with the 43% who were able to do so before the pandemic. Interestingly, the survey results nicely complement findings from our Senior Leadership IT Investment Survey, 2020, which saw strong recognition among business leaders for increased demand for remote working.

However, the sustained lockdowns are taking a toll. Employees are struggling with the behavioral and cultural challenges of pervasive and long-term home working. Although most of the technology basics are now in place to enable them to access their work tools remotely, employees highlight a lack of social interaction with colleagues (33%) and a lack of connection with what's happening in their organization (22%) as their biggest challenges with remote work.

Clearly, many companies have yet to adequately address the social demands of a highly dispersed workforce, and the need for a new approach to community, peer support networks and relationship building, as well as top-down communication strategies, when staff aren't in an office together.

work from home challenges
The result is that most employees don't see full-time remote work as a long-term solution, with three-quarters keen to return to the office at least one day a week. Corporate offices will continue to play a crucial role in enabling collaborative working and team bonding, but with a third of employees wanting to work from home three or more days per week, the days of having an office desk for every employee are probably behind us.

Related Article: Will We Ever Go Back to the Office Again?

Video Calling Dominates Collaborative Tool Adoption, But Fatigue Sets In

After years of trying, video calling finally became mainstream in businesses in 2020, as people looked for ways to replicate in-person meetings away from an office space. Alongside formal internal and external meetings, ad hoc catchup calls and one-to-one check-ins between employees and managers also switched to video calls, to such an extent that meeting fatigue is becoming a growing problem. Employees spend 1.7 hours per day on average in video meetings, with almost a fifth in video calls for more than four hours per day. With half of all employees also working longer hours while working remotely, it's no surprise that employee well-being is an escalating priority for business leaders.

Collaboration software providers Microsoft and Zoom have stood out as the main winners of this surge in use of video since the early days of the pandemic, and this was underlined in our survey, with both companies dramatically increasing their adoption among employees since 2019. Microsoft is now the most widely used collaboration tool, used by 30% of employees compared with just 13% a year ago. Zoom takes the second spot with 25% adoption, up from 6% in 2019.

Related Article: Hidden Dangers: Productivity Killers That Sap Energy and Time

Learning Opportunities

Employee Experience Must Remain a Priority, With Hybrid Work Now Added to the Mix

The shifting of work processes and practices to a remote setting also highlighted for many employees the inefficiencies and frustrations that get in the way of productive work. The survey found that employees spend an average 2.1 hours a day on simple, repetitive tasks that are ripe for automation, and continue to face frustrations in their technology experience from disruptive app authentication processes and software updates. Slow technology and old hardware remain bugbears, with investment in a new laptop topping employees' tech wish lists. For the most part, employees rate their technology experience at work positively, but IT leaders clearly need to prioritize these areas.

Employee experience is a growing area of focus for businesses, in part because of its implications for staff retention and for the ability to attract new talent. About 75% of employees in our survey said that technology experience is important in choosing an employer. Given that remote work is expected to remain a strategic part of our work lives after the pandemic, this hybrid, part-office, part-remote working reality must become integral to employee experience strategies and investments for businesses.

However, the survey also highlights some important misalignments between IT strategies and employee expectations when it comes to the employee experience. Although IT leaders highlighted security as their biggest focus area amid the shift to remote working, employees are largely oblivious to the increased security risks to themselves and their employers when working from home. Indeed, less than a third of employees recognize any additional risk.

Many businesses are now considering new monitoring investments to help them mitigate and manage these security risks and track employees' remote working experience. But our survey highlights a wariness among employees of increased monitoring, especially where it's perceived to be monitoring them personally. Businesses will need to carefully balance their needs in this area with the need to maintain the trust of their employees, particularly at a time when workforces are already under strain.

Related Article: How the CIO and CHRO Will Rethink Employee Experience Together

Employees See Voice as the Most Transformative Emerging Tech

As technology innovation continues to accelerate apace, transforming and improving many different aspects of business and consumer life, employees believe voice-based technologies have the most potential to bring marked changes in their experience at work.

emerging tech trends
Voice commands and artificial intelligence-enabled digital assistants that help automate tasks and eliminate the need for people to touch shared devices are particularly attractive to employees as they contemplate a return to offices in 2021.

A Timely Reminder of the Need for Employee-Centric Decisions

These findings offer valuable insights for businesses considering workplace transformation, as well as for suppliers targeting opportunities in the employee experience. Today's fast-moving business environment and shifting work practices provide an accelerant for technology-enabled change, but it's vital that businesses and suppliers alike continue to meet the needs of their employees, supporting them throughout this transition to ensure investments deliver the expected returns.

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