Office automation in the era of remote work

Office automation in the era of remote work

Robert Ćwiertnia,  Senior Consultant for office process robotization at Crowe 
3/27/2020
Office automation in the era of remote work
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, up to 88% of companies in Poland use the home office, as shown in a study conducted by the Lewiatan Confederation. How do these new RPA technologies and solutions support teleworking? 

Before the coronavirus pandemic, only 1/3 of employees had the opportunity to work remotely, and 76% of respondents declared that they would be willing to work outside the office, according to a report by Kantar TNS[1] . Will the current necessity of the home office result in a permanent increase in the popularity of this type of work?

Employees who have been allowed by the companies to work remotely find themselves happier because of this (91% of responses). Moreover, they are more willing to work after hours if necessary (Owl Labs study, 1.2 thousand employees aged 22 to 65). One of the factors deciding on starting remote work was the desire not to waste time commuting to the office (78%).

Nowadays, a lot of start-ups start as fully virtual offices, and more and more job positions in the economy are shifting from the physical office to virtual reality [Elance Desk Annual Impact Report, 2014]. The highest growth in this area is observed in accounting and legal services. This trend has been driven mainly by the high availability of qualified freelancers operating via the Internet. Large corporations have been increasingly using the services of such specialists. For example, Hewlett-Packard in certain markets conducts almost 200 projects a month, their realization would be impossible without the involvement of non-office specialists.

What is teleworking?

According to the Labour Code, remote work is a form of work provided outside the employer's premises with the use of electronic communication tools. In this model, an employee sends the results of his or her work via the Internet using tools such as conference calls, instant messaging, LiveChat, VoIP (Skype) or network drives. There are many tools supporting various areas (teleconferencing, file sharing, contracting, market research, newsletter systems), and the problem lies not in finding them, but in selecting them properly.

SaaS solutions versus on-premises

IT tools enable remote implementation of joint ventures in a way that was impossible a few years ago. For example, each member of a music band can work completely independently and from a different place thanks to the technology of recording individual soundtracks which are later combined in the post-production process[2].

The necessity to work remotely results in the spread of Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions. These are one of the cloud models in which the application is stored on the computers of the service provider and is only made available to users via the Internet. Typical examples are e-mail and office tools (e.g. Office 365). This solution eliminates the need to install and run the application on the user's computer. An increase in popularity of cloud solutions - partly due to their availability - is a positive condition for the development of process automation. The application in the SaaS model can be used anywhere (also at home), also via mobile devices, wherever there is Internet access.

For many internet users, the list of its advantages ends with sending emails, browsing the web or exchanging information on social networks. Meanwhile, some applications can significantly increase productivity, both in professional and private life.

One of the tools that support this is the software for signing contracts online. This is an increasingly common form of contracting and, interestingly, an encryption key is not required for this. Appropriate applications (e.g. DocuSign or Adobe Sign) allow to store, send and track changes in the document requiring signature. Each change in the content of the contract is registered. Finally, all contractual parties receive the signed document. The approval of the contract is done by means of a convenient and binding digital signature linked to an e-mail address. It is possible to introduce automation to this solution e.g. to remind about the contract expiry date.

Automation and the daily problems of the home office

Popular tools such as intranet, e-mail and instant messaging obviously make our daily work in the office easier. But are they sufficient to carry out tasks from home? How to manage work, projects, share tasks and budgets and be sure that everything was delivered on time and according to plan?

Remote work involves a variety of problems that have not been a challenge in the office. Examples can be multiplied here - how to sign and send back a contract; how to enable an employee to sign documents; how to control the work time and progress; how to gain access from home to an IT system (e.g. accounting system, ERP); how to conduct an audit at the client's premises?

Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which eliminates manual activities and is used in the processes of invoicing, data search, deadline control, recording, reporting, order entry, payment settlement, purchase execution, sending communication, verification of applications, placing orders, calculating bonuses or drafting employee attendance lists, can be helpful here. The advantage of this type of tool, apart from cost and time savings, is the elimination of errors and the possibility of implementation within a few weeks.

Popularization of the home office formula has shown that a large part of company documentation is still in paper form, making it difficult to access it remotely. Digitisation tools come in handy. Due to the spread of remote work, it can be assumed that the process of digitisation, i.e. moving the paper version of documents to computer memory, will continue. This will create the basis for accelerating the automation of processes in which the electronic version of a document is necessary.

What is robotic process automation?

To put it simply, automation is the replacement of human work with robot work. A robot, in this sense, is software that allows tasks to be performed - within existing information systems - without human intervention. Automation is therefore the robotization of simple business processes that were previously performed by employees.

The robot imitates an employee's activities (e.g. logging in, searching, copying, conditional checking) by performing repetitive tasks without making any decisions. And what is important - implementation of robotization does not require any changes in IT systems used in the company. RPA software enables integration of various applications and technologies, allowing to build a robot performing the activities of a predefined process (e.g. sending e-mail reminding contractors about overdue invoices).

If a company uses many independent systems (CRM, accounting system, HR records), an employee needs to have simultaneous access to several different programs and often directly from the office. In the case of remote work, this is a serious obstacle, which at the same time is not a problem for a robot able to log on to all systems and carry out pre-defined activities.

Employees may not have access to some of these systems or may not know how to use them. At the first remote login (or usage) attempts, there are often problems (permissions, accesses, password). Solution can be time-consuming and require helpdesk support. The software robot does not have such problems. Not only does it not forget the password, but it can change it on time, understanding all the features of the tool.

The IT systems used by companies sometimes do not meet new business requirements, especially when the processes change (e.g. under the influence of amended regulations) and the upgrade of existing systems is too expensive. The robotic automation of processes also helps here, allowing for flexible reactions (reprogramming of the robot) based on existing IT resources.

Robotization as a condition for a teleworking

The current situation changes not only the way of providing work, but also affects the needs and the level of the robotic automation of office processes. Coronavirus has made it evident that many repetitive, simple tasks require direct presence of the employees in the office. Employees who suddenly become absent from the office.

If a company operates remotely and uses multiple IT systems (CRM, accounting system, HR records, ERP), employees do need simultaneous access to several independent programs, previously used directly from the office. The employees previously had no access to some of them or just do not know how to use them. During the first remote attempts to log in (or use), there are often problems (e.g. forgotten or expired password). Automation of processes in which the robot logs into the system (it does not forget the password and at the same time can change it on time) eliminates a group of problems connected with logging in, accessing and using it.

This type of technical problems in the office could easily be solved by a helpdesk. However, teleworking and the associated technical problems place a greater burden on IT resources and reduce their availability even further. Robotization reduces the necessity of IT involvement by the elimination of human errors. Furthermore, due to the simplicity of programming and administering the robot, the entire automation process can be carried out even without IT involvement.

Remote use of the systems by teleworkers might entail a lack of comprehensive knowledge of the software's functionality. In the office the problems can be quickly solved, while at home it requires more information and effort. Robotization eliminates this obstacle. A software robot has precisely defined activities and a place where data should be downloaded. This reduces the risk of error and shortens the duration of the process.