In the world of internet telephony, the concept of the follow-me phone call is well established. A caller dials a number and the call is routed to wherever the recipient is, be that an office, a meeting room or their mobile.
The idea is simple: it’s the person that matters, not their location. But in 2020 it’s increasingly the case that people need that kind of functionality for their entire workflow, and not just their phone calls.
Overnight, the Covid-19 pandemic shifted huge numbers of workers out of their offices and into remote working situations. While some are slowly returning, it’s likely that remote working and hybrid working, with some time at home and some in the office, is here to stay.
As a result, the ability of employers to give staff remote access to the tools they need to do their jobs is becoming increasingly important.
“Most companies have a disaster recovery or business continuity plan in place, but I can promise you that nobody had anything as disruptive as a global pandemic baked into that plan. Most factored in things like a data centre going down or maybe a building going on fire. Instead, we’re living through the biggest proof of concept the word has ever seen,” said Aidan Furlong, Ireland country manager for Avaya.
“There’s no near-term return to the office on the horizon from an Avaya point of view. We aren’t going near an office before 2021, if we ever go to an office again from a sales function point of view. Our customers are out there thinking the same thing and asking how they can make the best of the situation. They need to make their workers more efficient and productive, given that everyone is working in an unplanned manner.”
For most companies, the reality of a staged return to the office is that many people will work part of the week at home and part of the week in the office. Some may not return to an office at all and instead will meet colleagues for meetings only sporadically.
“The new reality is here and those who come out of this period with as little damage as possible are those asking how they can make the best of it. Our customers have mostly stabilised their situation and now they want to know how to do more than just survive a difficult period – they want to plan to thrive,” said Furlong.
According to Furlong, around 9 per cent of Avaya customers’ staff were working remotely before Covid-19; predictably, this figure has now risen significantly to around 80 or 90 per cent. However, most envisage that when things return to some kind of normality, that figure is likely to stay at around 40 per cent.
“Working remotely from your home in a lockdown is different to working remotely from your home in an ordinary situation. You can’t just hop out for a coffee or nip into the office to collect something you need,” said Michael Conway of Renaissance.
“It’s hard when the house is full of people during your working day – spouses, partners, children, pets and so on. It’s a lot easier to work from home when they’re not there.”
As a security specialist, Renaissance found itself called on to help customers put in virtual private networks (VPN) and secure tunnels for remote workers so that data could be moved around securely.
“Often a VPN just isn’t enough and they needed a virtual isolated segment of the office network extended to their home. The other issue is that the situation we’re in now is undoubtedly going to last for another six to 12 to 18 months. Nobody knows for sure,” said Conway.
"Personally I think the effects of this period will last a long time and we will definitely see remote working taking up a bigger part of the working world than it used to. I don’t think we’ll see the death of the office just yet.”
Conway’s rationale is that social distancing and the need for more meeting space will make larger offices more attractive.
“Nobody wants to be packed into a building like sardines anymore. That day is gone. Working from home is one solution, but the hybrid approach where you work some of the time remotely and some at the office is almost certainly the way forward,” he said.
Like a lot of tech companies, NetApp was quite well set up to adapt to remote working. But that wasn’t necessarily the case for its clients.
“We were in the typical situation where everybody on staff was set up with laptops, Zoom-capable softphones, Office 365 and so on. All of our internal systems were sitting on cloud servers, so it wasn’t that big a deal for us to transition to a remote working situation,” said Grant Caley, Britain and Ireland chief technologist for NetApp.
“One interesting thing we’ve seen is that with our clients, Covid-19 has had the effect of massively speeding up adoption of this technology. While it was always on the cards, they realised quite quickly that transitioning to Office 365 and having an online cloud-based service was going to be much easier to manage when they couldn’t necessarily guarantee people would be in the data centre.”
In most cases, the companies that Caley deals with were on a roadmap to adopting more cloud services anyway, but when Covid-19 came along that roadmap was speeded up exponentially.
“Many of them wanted not just cloud services but a kind of hybrid strategy using virtual desktops. They wanted to be able to have desktops that transitioned into the cloud, so that the user could just log on using whatever device they had, and be up and running from there,” he said.
“I spoke to one customer who said they were planning on migrating 400 users by the end of the year – and within two months of the virus appearing, they had actually migrated 5,000. That’s an enormous acceleration and it has influenced business strategy.”
According to Caley, a lack of suitable user devices is a significant problem that many companies have had to deal with when trying to adapt to a Covid-19-infected world.
“What devices are staff using to access the applications and data they need? Maybe they had a desktop machine in the office, and now maybe they have a desktop at home. If not, they probably have some kind of portable device like an iPad or a laptop or maybe a company laptop,” he said.
“Whether your staff are well equipped or not really restricts your options. If they happen to be well equipped, that can open up options.”
CWSI was internally well positioned to adapt to a remote working situation, with Paul Conaty, head of consulting for the company, saying that at the time of the outbreak back in March, 50 to 70 per cent of the software it used internally was accessible remotely.
“A lot of people like myself were in the habit of working out of the office anyway, so we all had special skills and workflows set up to accommodate that. Where we found a big difference is in areas like conferencing and workshop,” he said.
“When it comes to these face-to-face aspects of the business, we’ve had to learn to adapt to doing workshops remotely. The challenge is that it’s very hard for people to maintain concentration on a web conferencing call with eight or nine other people all day long. That’s actually a lot different to sitting in a room with people and hammering out a topic.”
The solution for Conaty has been to schedule workshops in two-hour blocks, with breaks in between to allow people to log off and freshen up. Meanwhile, the other major area of CWSI’s business that he’s seen change post-Covid is in the service desk side of things.
"We run a number of managed services and support desks for clients and typically the primary end of that business would be on site. We would have guys at desks with the service manager and that’s had to be adapted to facilitate people working from home,” he said.
“They were used to working with PBX call hunting and all those service desk technologies and they now have to be made to work remotely. That’s all completely gone into people’s homes now, which means as a company we’re relying on whatever broadband they happen to have at home, and also on their ability to set up a workplace in their homes.”
The challenge is that all this has to happen without disturbing the service levels customers receive – and with minimal interruption.
“There are service level agreements (SLAs) in place that have to be met and if those service levels drop because we can’t manage things, there are real consequences. Overall it’s been managed really well, with managers deploying a little bit more trust,” said Conaty.
One of the first things to happen to Three Business’s workload when the pandemic hit was that many customers wanted mobile wifi (Mifi) dongles from the provider straight away, as they struggled to work with inconsistent or non-existent broadband in employee’s homes.
“This allowed people to get up and running straight away, but these devices aren’t really long-term solutions. From a Three point of view in general though, the pandemic has made a lot of the products and services we offer more relevant to more people overnight,” said Karl McDermott, head of business ICT for Three Business.
“It accelerated their relevance with customers to the point that now even consumers know what previously obscure technologies like unified communications (UC) and internet telephony are, because they’re using them from their homes.
“We’ve seen the rate at which companies are putting in software-based phone and UC systems go up by five or six times. For example, we work with a couple of charities that used to have staff in offices manning phone banks. Overnight, that became impossible to do.”
In these charities, in-house phone systems would take an incoming call and send it around the various phones in the office until someone answered.
“But now they need the ability to do that with a virtual phone bank spread out geographically, and the answer is a cloud telephony system. They need their staff to be able to answer phones from their homes in the same way as if they were in the office, and have it appear to outsiders as if nothing is different,” said McDermott.
One complication for many companies looking to make the best of this situation is the issue of bandwidth. Internet technologies are limited by the bandwidth they have access to, and even in 2020 internet connectivity isn’t uniform everywhere in Ireland.
“To make the most of these technologies you have to have low latency bandwidth – because without that, nothing works. For a communications company like ourselves, there is an opportunity there because we can deliver that,” said McDermott.
For a large company like Dell Technologies, one of the challenges it faces is how to create a hybrid work culture, where some staff work remotely and only those that absolutely have to travel to an office do so. To help it do this, it has developed a risk assessment tool to make sure it is in full compliance with public health guidelines.
“A team of data scientists in partnership with our security team developed a risk assessment tool to help us ensure we're aligned with health guidance and with our conservative approach for those team members returning to site,” said Emma Gregan, technical sales specialist for Dell Technologies Ireland.
Dell had an outside medical expert review its internal processes and help it look critically at the measures it’s taking. Around the world, 90 per cent of its 160,000 employees have transitioned to working remotely.
Obviously, not every company has Dell’s resources at their disposal – but even so, Gregan believes that technology in general holds the key to getting most businesses back up and running.
“Technology is the foundation stone for large-scale remote interaction and engagement and must be at the centre of a remote working strategy and business model. But successful remote working takes more than the right technology,” she said.
“We’ve been able to keep our business running, delivering essential services and solutions for our customers. The lessons we’ve learned along the way are feeding into how we reorientate our business towards the changing needs of customers, making sure we can respond quickly and also help customers with the long-term transformation of their businesses.”
The key, according to Gregan, is that to be able to adapt, companies must foster a culture where work is what you do and not a place you go. This culture requires new supports that extend beyond the four walls of the office and through a screen, ensuring there is an inclusive and productive atmosphere irrespective of where employees are located.
“This is something which Michael Dell has sought to instil within our company over recent years. As we now move from a ‘just in time to just in case’ way of doing things, organisations need to build resilience into their business models to cater for a rapidly changing environment,” she said.
The future of work for Irish companies is likely to depend more rather than less on emerging technologies, according to Dell.
“AI and machine learning can play a key role in providing meaningful business insights from vast amounts of data, while cloud technology can help organisations to scale up their online services practically overnight,” said Gregan.
“We know from talking with companies across the country that some struggle to manage data spread across private clouds, public clouds and edge locations. The lack of control is really hindering their ability to be agile and innovate at speed.”
Dell has a strategic partnership with VMware that allows the pair to support a multi-cloud approach to data management that can speed up digital transformation.
“With transmission speeds up to 20 times faster than current 4G platforms, widespread 5G available to everyone working from home is also another technology that I can see having huge beneficial repercussions towards productivity in the future,” said Gregan.
According to Brian Martin, senior vice-president of Blueface, most businesses have a dual worry when it comes to a return to office-based work. On one hand, like everyone else they want to abide by the public health guidelines, but at the same time they’re worried about reputational risk if they encourage people to do something for business reasons that creates a problem.
"There’s anxiety around public transport and being in an office situation and there’s still a lot of uncertainty around this whole area in society in general. I think a lot of professional services and knowledge workers are very lucky in that they can continue to work remotely,” said Martin.
“Until we have a sense of comfort around the idea of returning to the office, it’s not going to happen. We’re here for the foreseeable future, and companies need to be able to adapt to that reality. This isn’t a short-term thing.”
“If employees don’t have a suitable broadband connection and they need a faster one, I’d recommend companies just swallow the expense and provide it. If you’re expecting people to work from home for an extended period of time then do you really want them depending on infrastructure that might let you as a company down?”
Office space will remain important
Before the lockdown, Michele Neylon of Blacknight spent “six figures” on an office upgrade. To say this was less than ideal would be an understatement, but Neylon knows that the future for Blacknight and its staff is almost certainly a hybrid mix of remote and office work.
“I think that’s going to become very commonplace. It will be increasingly normal to work some of the week at home and some in the office, and I don’t think offices will shrink massively as a result. I think people will want the space for meeting rooms and socially distanced desks,” he said.
“Government advice is still not to use public transport if you can avoid it, for example, so for the foreseeable future, that’s a real issue. How are you meant to get across Dublin to get to work without public transport?”
Companies are attempting to ‘square the circle’ of being able to have only a certain number of people in the office at any given time, but also needing a certain number of people working to keep things going. The solution is going hybrid.
“We’re going to be saying to staff soon that offices are ready, so if you feel ready and you’d like to come back, let your manager know. But we certainly won’t be forcing anyone to do anything,” said Neylon.
“We have some staff who really want to get out of their house because they don’t have the space to work comfortably or maybe they just want time away from their house each day. Getting into the office even for a few days a week will give them headspace.”
“But as an employer, you can’t really turn around and require your staff to take risks. We all have employees who are immuno-compromised or who have serious issues around childcare, and they just can’t come back in. And that’s going to be the reality for the foreseeable future, so we adapt and overcome.”