As developments continue to unfold in the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, the realisation is starting to set in that we may be in this for the long haul. Many companies who were previously unaccustomed to remote or distributed working have had to reinvent their processes on the fly: adopting communications and project management tools, scheduling meetings and check-ins online, and finding ways to co-ordinate and liaise with each other from afar.

But beyond the short-term changes to working practices, what are marketers’ greatest concerns about working remotely over a longer period of time? In a recent Econsultancy and Marketing Week survey of more than 2,200 marketers, respondents were asked what challenges their organisation would face if a large share of its knowledge workers were remote for a significant period of time.

Among respondents working at large enterprises – defined for the purposes of this article as companies with a revenue of more than £50 million per year – the primary concerns are around creativity in a distributed work environment, performance management, and the ongoing availability of tech support.

Sixty-one percent of respondents from large enterprises say that creativity in a distributed environment would be a critical (23%) or significant (38%) challenge. Fifty-seven percent of enterprise respondents say that performance management would be a critical or significant challenge in a long-term remote working situation, with a full quarter (25%) believing that it would be a critical challenge. And 51% of enterprise respondents believe that tech support for a remote workforce would be a critical (19%) or significant (32%) challenge over a long period of time.

COVID19 Business Impact Survey creativity in a distributed environment (global)

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs), defined in this article as businesses with annual revenues of less than £50 million, have concerns about broadly the same areas but to a lesser extent. Forty-nine percent of respondents from SMEs believe that creativity in a distributed environment would be a critical or significant challenge over the longer term, while 49% also have serious concerns about performance management and 38% are similarly concerned about tech support.

The areas in which large enterprises and SMEs diverge most in their concerns are data security and maintaining GDPR/privacy compliance, with SMEs significantly less concerned than large enterprises about the implications of long-term remote working for both. Forty-eight percent of large enterprises think that data security would be a critical (22%) or significant (26%) challenge in a long-term remote working situation, versus only 27% of SMEs (12% of whom think it would be a critical challenge).

As for maintaining GDPR or privacy compliance, 44% of enterprises see this as a potentially critical (16%) or significant (28%) challenge, compared with 23% of SMEs – only 8% of whom believe it would be a critical challenge.

It stands to reason that large enterprises would have the most to worry about with a shift to distributed work, given the proportionally larger size of their workforce – making everything from performance management to tech support a greater challenge. However, they also have more resources to draw upon in terms of investing in solutions that would aid with the challenge.

Data security, too, is likely to have much more problematic implications for a large enterprise which has both a much higher volume of potentially sensitive data to manage and keep track of and likely also a higher number of potential weak points among its workforce.

Small and medium enterprises, however, shouldn’t get complacent, as data security is likely to be a challenge for a workforce of any size working remotely. A recent Fast Company feature highlighted the numerous risk factors of a workforce suddenly transitioning to remote work from a cybersecurity perspective, including employees connecting to company infrastructure in an unfamiliar way, and employees using personal devices like a home computer or a smartphone for work. They may also be less certain without colleagues on hand for a second opinion. And while the scale of the potential problem is again greater for large enterprises, it affects SMEs as well.

Interestingly, when asked how proficient their company is at enabling remote work today, large enterprises were slightly more likely than SMEs to state that their organisation is “very” or “somewhat” proficient – and yet they are much more concerned about the implications of long-term remote work. This could be due to the fact that large enterprises have less faith in their ability to cope long-term than short-term – or that, as habitual remote workers, they are more attuned to the potential risks and challenges.