In the early 1970s, computer engineers developed an experiment. They set up two rooms, and the only connection between the rooms was a fax machine. They sent development requirements from one room to the other via fax to determine whether work could be effectively accomplished by a remote team. The experiment was successful and became the genesis of remote work and offshoring. However, the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic shook the very foundations of the successful offshore work arrangements that had evolved in recent decades.
Palaniappan Rajaram, a ThoughtFocus vice president who has led business analysis, quality assurance, and development teams for a variety of projects, has some fascinating thoughts as to how work—domestic, nearshore, or offshore—can be reimagined to reduce risk for financial services organizations.
In the earlier days of offshoring, the move was primarily a cost-reduction measure. Although containing costs is still a meaningful consideration, many financial services firms in the US have faced a shortage of technology workers. For business continuity purposes, many firms have continually expanded their remote teams. Although a highly effective arrangement, managing remote teams in the midst of a pandemic has been challenging. But with some new thinking, remote team constructs will be stronger than ever.
Even though ThoughtFocus has teams based in four different cities in India and in the Philippines, this geographic distribution was not sufficiently diverse to avoid pandemic-induced disruption. Might further geographic diversity be helpful in decreasing the risks of future operational disruption?
Raj: Absolutely. In our strategy work to identify measures to reduce future risk, we identified further geographic diversification, technology-enabled strategies, and working arrangement reconfigurations. I’ll start by discussing further geographic diversification.
We have been talking about this issue for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issue to the forefront. The ThoughtFocus executive team generally believed that our technology centers spread around India, coupled with our center in the Philippines, represented sufficient geographic diversification. However, the COVID-19 pandemic proved that more geographic diversification is likely needed.
Ultimately, increasing the political and geographic diversity of our technology centers serving the financial services industry makes a great deal of sense. The leadership of some nations was simply better suited to containing the pandemic, which reduced the degree of disruption in their societies. In addition, some countries are more isolated than others and do not tend to host as many international visitors; these countries also tended not to be hit as hard.
Therefore, providers such as ThoughtFocus should consider diversifying risk by having delivery in geographically and politically diverse areas around the world.
You mentioned that technology-enabled strategies could be part of the answer for managing work-from-home technology team members. What might this look like?
Raj: Some of the processes our team conducts for our financial services clients are quite sensitive. The pandemic has forced our workers to sometimes work from home rather than always working in our secure technology centers—this is obviously a huge concern. We can do things like disabling USB drives on laptops to protect data, but when workers must work from home, typical supervision and restrictions are obviously not in place. There is a risk that workers could do something like take a picture of a computer screen to capture sensitive information.
But what if we split up processes so that no one worker can access or see valuable confidential information? This approach takes a bit of inspiration from spy agencies passing information up the chain of command—no team member has the full confidential story. I think of it as business process encryption.
Have you made lower-tech adjustments to manage both teams and work during the pandemic?
Raj: Hybrid working arrangements have worked well, especially as restrictions in many parts of the world were partially lifted. Basically, a worker comes into work at a technology center two or three days per week, then works at home two or three days per week. We have been able to readjust work assignments and have people working at home when they are not working with highly sensitive information, but working from a technology center when they are working with sensitive data.
This allows us to keep the worker count down in technology centers so that we can operate safely but work with sensitive data while in a secured environment.
Is the pandemic delivering changes to how work gets done that will be with us after the pandemic is over?
Raj: People will start traveling more again, but I don’t think we will return to pre-pandemic levels. I was traveling nearly every week, as were many of my colleagues. The pandemic has taught us that we can manage work and relationships remotely. Although travel to resume in-person connections will be healthy for business relationships, I believe the amount of travel will be reduced.
Additionally, onboarding teams might be handled differently in the long term. It was common for at least some key members of an offshore team to spend three to four weeks in a client’s office at the beginning of a new project or relationship. This approach to onboarding probably will not resume.
We’ll need to continue to invest in advanced video conferencing technologies, but I have a feeling that this is the way clients will want to manage these processes for years to come.