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What could the new era of remote work mean for data roles?

29 Jan 2021

Hays’ Brendan O’Donovan shares what data professionals could expect in 2021, from the sharper focus on security to the tools in high demand.

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Like all professions, working in data has changed considerably in just 12 months due to the pandemic. Remote working has been one of the major changes to knowledge economy roles, such as analytics and data science, and it’s likely that data workers in 2021 will continue to feel the impacts of this change.

Even beyond the current pandemic, the shift away from traditional offices as the centre of people’s working lives can be expected to continue. Employers have learned that productivity working remotely can be just as high as from the office, and many employees appreciate the time and money recovered from their daily commute.

This reduction in the importance of location opens up an important opportunity for both employers and employees. Employers are able to tap into a far wider pool of talent than before, benefitting from skills that weren’t previously available to them or lower employee costs in different regions.

Employees might no longer need to move their family to take a new role and can benefit from different lifestyles or living costs away from traditional employment hotspots.

At the same time as these opportunities, though, remote working demands change in how data roles are done.

Security awareness is more important than ever

Remote working has led to a huge spike in cyberattacks, ranging from phishing to spyware and malware. A job in analytics often means high levels of access to data, both commercially and personally sensitive.

Although IT departments share responsibility for security, the acute nature of the threat and scale of potential exposure for data roles mean that a high level of caution is warranted.

Ongoing remote working will require:

  • Regular checks that your antivirus software is up to date and functioning properly
  • Suspicious treatment of unsolicited emails
  • Caution around new tools and only deploying those from trusted vendors
  • Practising data minimisation wherever possible; if you see any personal data in a dataset it’s not needed in, make sure that it’s removed

These steps are even more important when you’re starting a new role. Although it may feel awkward to ask questions about security practices established before you joined, any reputable employer will value the responsibility you’re demonstrating for their business reputation.

Look out for remote learning opportunities

Learning and upskilling are more important in the world of work than they ever have been. The pandemic has certainly shone a light on just how crucial it is that we learn and adapt in response to what’s happening in the world around us.

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Thinking about technical skills, data teams in many exciting organisations are still relatively small in size, which means that self-sufficient candidates with full-stack analytics skills – not just the likes of Python, R, SQL and visualisation, but also areas like database architecture and DevOps – are in particular demand.

Don’t limit your learning to the obvious technical skills, either. Soft skills are being given a particular focus by employers. This is especially true for communication, which 55pc of employers said was most needed by their organisation, according to the Hays Salary and Recruiting Trends 2021 guide.

Working remotely shouldn’t create a barrier to upskilling opportunities, but it’s something that data professionals will need to be proactive about. Enquire about remote learning opportunities at your organisation or with a potential employer and make the most of what’s on offer. There are plenty of free learning resources online to look at too, such as FutureLearn or Coursera.

The right tools for data workers in 2021

Working remotely has made workplace tech a very real consideration for us all. Along with broadband speed, having the right set-up is particularly important for data professionals who anticipate working remotely for much of this year.

Your success in your role will depend on the tools you have available, so it’s important to ask questions during an interview that will help you ensure you’re set up to succeed.

‘It is crucial that data professionals are supported by a united and dynamic working culture, particularly under the current circumstances’

Here are two key questions to ask potential employers: To what extent have you moved data storage and computing into the cloud? If data will need to be worked on locally, what hardware would be provided?

For people working for a smaller employer, whether permanently or on a specific project, it can often be challenging to quickly make a case for investment in new tools beyond Excel.

Fortunately, there are many free tools available to work with, from open-source tools like R, ELK and Knime to free versions of enterprise tools like Tableau Public and Microsoft Power BI Desktop (a personal favourite, providing not just strong visualisation capabilities, but also a very powerful in-memory database engine for more complex data manipulation).

Working culture will be redefined

Before our world of work got turned upside down in the wake of the pandemic, working culture was centred around staff in an office. Remote working certainly hasn’t ‘gotten rid’ of working culture or made it any less important. Rather, it has been redefined and will continue to be throughout this year.

The work of a data professional often sits at the crossroads of several teams – sales, marketing, operations, finance and IT – which means it is easy to not feel like a full insider in any one area. It is therefore crucial that data professionals are supported by a united and dynamic working culture, particularly under the current circumstances.

The priority during 2020 for many organisations was dealing with the imminent impacts of the pandemic. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I think we’ll see working culture redefined throughout 2021 for data professionals in a way that makes it more united for all.

In truth, 2021 is still clouded in uncertainty and the pace at which things are changing remains fast. But remote working is here to stay – certainly for the near future. Being armed with insight about what to expect from the working world will enable data professionals to put their best foot forward into what 2021 might have in store.

By Brendan O’Donovan

Brendan O’Donovan is group data marketing director at Hays.

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