Putting the foundations in place

Quinton O’Reilly looks at ways to combine working partly from the office, partly from a remote location

5th July, 2020
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Businesses must remember that when planning for this future, the focus should be on creating a system that considers employee needs. Picture: Getty

Whatever happens over the next few months, the office is going to look different – and not just in terms of how it’s physically laid out. The many adjustments made to cope with the current working reality will be apparent in the tools and services used by businesses for years to come.

When the pandemic hit, the focus for many was to get a remote working set-up in any way possible. This has led to a piecemeal solution with the likes of Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams and other cloud services quickly adopted to avoid significant disruption.

With it being almost four months since the lockdown first began, and government guidelines allowing for a gradual return to the office, the focus is moving to developing a hybrid workplace where possible.

This could mean some staff work in the office and others remotely, or a flexible schedule where different workers will come into the office on different days of the week.

Putting these solutions in place isn’t just to help with accessibility. It’s to ensure that, further down the line, the only difference between working from home and the office will be the physical location.

In saying that, businesses must remember that when planning for this future, the focus should be on creating a system that considers employee needs.

“In conversations both internally and with others, and following what various organisations are talking about, one of the key things here is to get that balance between what the business would like, what it needs, and what the staff are comfortable with,” said the founder of Blacknight, Michele Neylon.

“Technology is not self-serving; it’s there to help you run your business. When you introduce technology, it’s to bring efficiencies, it’s to free up resources and better focus them. It’s there to help us as human beings.”

While government guidelines will allow businesses to resume office work, that doesn’t mean staff can necessarily return to the office. One reason is that those who have children may be affected by the limited opening of schools, requiring them to stay at home most days, while others may work remotely as they live with loved ones who are vulnerable to Covid-19.

Whatever the reason, it’s a situation that will require significant empathy from business leaders, with signs suggesting they’re open to remote working in the future.

A recent report from the Institute of Directors in Ireland found that out of 391 business leaders in Ireland, 40 per cent expect an equal mix of staff working in an office and remotely after the pandemic.

In addition, 31 per cent are considering or planning on downsizing their workplaces, although 30 per cent said their offices wouldn’t allow for sufficient physical distancing measures.

With regard to how many staff will work remotely, 26 per cent expect a small number to do so, 18 per cent expect it to be a majority, and 5 per cent believe all staff will do so. With almost half of respondents expecting remote working to feature in some form, it shows just how important it is to get the set-up right.

Agnostic setup

It can be difficult for businesses to think about the long-term implications while coping with current restrictions, but it is crucial.

While the situation in March required instant decisions to cope with the new reality, recent times have seen more careful and strategic thinking for decisions that will be felt years down the line. That means considering what tools you use and how they tie into the overall ecosystem that you create.

“The reality of the technology is that most unified communication platforms are proprietary and are like islands, where all users communicate with the same ‘language’,” said Terry Crowley of Videnda Distribution.

“The output of this remote working period will result in greater user knowledge of collaboration tools and the appropriate devices for their consumption. This will bring tremendous benefits when users return to the office.”

In most cases, businesses know what they need but not necessarily the options that are available to them. The last few months have seen those providing solutions, consulting or doing both experience a significant increase in demand.

One has been Workair. Stephen Mackarel, its managing director, said his team have been working “flat out” since the lockdown started.

“Most companies have an idea of what they want, but they don’t understand what’s out there. They also don’t want to spend time with six or seven different companies trying to figure things out,” said Mackarel.

“What we do is we go into a company and say we’re agnostic, we have the four best in the world, we’re going to add to that stable. They’re best in class; they’re financially stable businesses, and we don’t care which of these you sign up with. What we care about is that you tell us a little bit about your business and the challenges you face.”

The likes of 8x8, RingCentral, LogMeIn and Fuze are in its portfolio. These companies are created with the cloud as front and centre, rather than adapting a legacy system to it.

History repeatedly shows us that those who try to adapt with a ‘square peg in a round hole’ solution will fail, with Mackarel referencing one former mobile phone giant as a prime example.

At its peak, Nokia had 80 per cent of the market share in Ireland for simple hardware. Once the iPhone arrived, the priorities of phones shifted quickly and Nokia tried shoehorning software into its hardware instead of following the times.

It’s an important lesson for businesses to keep in mind when considering whom to partner with. Some are pigeonholing legacy systems with a new lick of paint when it’s a revamp that’s needed.

“The big difference is Apple said ‘we’re a software company’ and built a hardware device that enabled it to work efficiently, whereas Nokia was a hardware company and tried to build software to fit its hardware,” he said.

“History is repeating itself in this space because the likes of ShoreTel, they’ve invested hundreds of millions in their kit and hardware and now they’re trying to build software that works with their hardware.”

Changes to new and old

While many of the services covered tend to focus on newer technologies, older practices have been getting their moment in the sun. One example is bookkeeping and accounting, with modern solutions sharing more similarities with products like Office 365, using a licence and subscription service and linking up with other products.

As SMEs work remotely, changing from a fixed model to a more flexible service can be a time-saver as well as providing more insights to help shape business plans.

Much like other industries, the pandemic has accelerated plans for many firms. One of which is Intuit QuickBooks, which launched in mid June.

“About 12 months ago, we researched customers, partners and resellers to understand their pain points,” said Laura Kenny, senior leader at QuickBooks.

“We did a follow-me-home, shadowing how a business works on a day-to-day basis. From there we built a product based on the pain points that we saw.”

With the pandemic coming into play, there was a greater need for virtual and remote access of accounts, especially since its research found that cash flow is a major worry for SMEs. That gave it an opportunity to accelerate its plans, as it knew there was an appetite there for its services.

Using the cloud to carry out bookkeeping works beyond just accessibility, it also opens up services to greater functionality and uses. Something that may have been only touched upon once or twice a year can now be dipped in and out of, and is now engaged with regularly.

“They’re having more value-added conversations and giving more advice to small businesses because they have the information to do so,” Kenny said. “That’s one of the key drivers that we want to be able to give small businesses: that insight on a day-to-day basis.”

If there’s a common thread in the move towards a hybrid workplace model, it’s that the services for successful deployment have been around for a while. It’s just the situation which has speeded up both their adoption and development.

While more established business practices will gain an upgrade, it’s also worth considering newer approaches that may add greater value to their business without breaking the bank.

One type of technology that could achieve this is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), the process of hosting a virtualised desktop environment regardless of a device’s hardware. Much like the other services mentioned here, it requires a good broadband connection to work.

While it can be a core solution, how much of an impact it has depends upon the nature of the use cases.

“VDI would be the strongest core solution, but it depends on the end-user and the profile of the employee. If you have an office worker and the only application they’re using was Office 365, they may not need it, but an engineer that was working on designs using a programme like AutoCAD, those licenses are hefty and you need workstations, high-spec machines locally to work on those,” said Emma Gregan, compute and networking specialist for Dell Technologies Ireland.

“Whereas if those kinds of customers implement VDI, it means they can log in and use those services and see an instance of them at home; the application is hosted in a data centre on a kit that’s owned by the business.”

The purpose of these tools is to give a consistent experience across the board. Provided you have access to good broadband speeds, be it at home or maybe a co-working space if they reopen, businesses can set up their experience so that their employees can get the best of both worlds.

“The ideal scenario would be that working from home is exactly the same experience,” she said. “Going back to the old way isn’t an option.”

The tools for success

For the majority of businesses, upgrades to their work processes will be mainly software-based. Changing from fixed approaches to robust apps in the cloud has been the trajectory for many services and will be the norm for the next while.

What can be overlooked is the equipment and tools that are needed to make this process smooth. Terry Crowley, business development at Videnda Distribution, breaks it down into two categories: the platform delivering the unified communications and the actual hardware devices. The latter requires some critical choices to be made to benefit both the business and employees.

“The important element here is to select the device appropriate to the space and environment where the user will be working,” said Crowley. “Issues with audio and video arise if there is a mismatch in selection. The user has to be comfortable with the device as there are many wearing styles and the choice can be very subjective.”

The same applies to the office where spaces can be fitted with conferencing equipment. While the user experience is the same, businesses can take it a step further if necessary.

“For the more specialised rooms, the demand is for an immersive experience where high-end equipment makes it feel like a face-to-face meeting,” he said.

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