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Australian firms soldier on amid Covid-19 outbreak

From the largest financial institutions to small companies, Aussie firms have been dialling up their use of technology tools to keep their businesses humming during the coronavirus pandemic

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Asia-Pacific: CW APAC: Trend Watch – business response to coronavirus

The Covid-19 pandemic is having a profound effect on most Australian businesses. Some have been forced to close, while others are working at significantly reduced levels. But what are the IT issues they face?

Computer Weekly spoke to businesses of varying sizes about how technology is helping them get through this difficult period, and what changes were necessary to keep operating.

Media-Wize

At Media-Wize, a media and PR services firm, employees have always worked with a core of cloud-based tools, according to its CEO, Anthony Caruana. These tools include G Suite and Slack, and more recently Asana, because of the need to keep track of the growing list of tasks amid the outbreak.

Although this means Media-Wize can operate normally, not everyone was ready, says Caruana. That included some large companies, as well as overseas clients expecting to conduct face-to-face meetings.

One necessary change was to upgrade from a free Zoom account to Zoom Pro to get around the 40-minute limit.

“The biggest hassle has been everyone else,” says Caruana, adding that his team has had to coach his clients’ employees on the use of Zoom so that Media-Wize can work with them.

Caruana’s home has a broadband connection on a 100Mbps plan. His home network is holding up well, even with him, his wife and their school-aged children all working from home.

But it’s a different story for his co-founder. She lives in an area with poor mobile coverage, and so there are times when the fixed-line phone and broadband services have been congested.

Homely

Homely, a property portal founded by co-CEO Adam Spencer and his brother in 2007, started off as a platform for crowd-sourced ratings and reviews of residential streets. In time, it broadened to connect buyers, sellers, renters and agents.

From the start, the business adopted a nimble, do-it-fast mentality, and during the transition to Homely, it retained its startup mentality, says Spencer.

On the technology side, one of the biggest changes happened about three years ago when Homely, which has more than 40 employees today, switched from email to Slack for internal communication. Spencer says the tool allows open, free-flowing conversations.

We’ve probably been very lucky…because we’re 100% onshore and all development is done in-house. We do our best work in a crisis
Phil Britt, Aussie Broadband

Homely, which equips all employees with laptop computers, also uses other cloud-based applications, such as Gmail. Spencer says that as far as Covid-19 restrictions are concerned, not a lot has changed from an IT standpoint as Homely adopted a policy allowing anyone to work from home about two years ago.

“Developers really love to work from home,” says Spencer, and as all Homely’s servers are hosted on Microsoft Azure, there is no need for his staff to be in the office.

About six months ago, the company decided to build on its metropolitan base by expanding into regional areas. A key part of that strategy was using Zoom to talk to real estate agents, so its staff have been very comfortable with how it works, says Spencer.

The only significant change is that customer support calls are now redirected to an appropriate person’s mobile by the internet telephony system.

The firm’s traditional Friday night drinks have also become a virtual event. While Spencer says the arrangement is not optimal, it has resulted in more people attending, and is particularly helpful for staff members who live alone in small apartments and are now working from home.

Many companies are doing something similar, he says, for example in the form of lunchtime get-togethers. Also, Homely staffers have organised their own online activities, such as pre-work exercise groups.

Running the company on the cloud makes it easy to cope with disruptions such as Covid-19, he says.

While the real estate market is being challenged by measures introduced by governments to stem the spread of the disease, online alternatives to physical events are emerging. Services such as digital inspections and online auctions have been around for years, but this is their moment to shine, says Spencer, so Homely has been building tools to incorporate them on its site.

“We really had to move quickly from a development perspective to accommodate them,” he says.

Another of Homely’s new features supporting the real estate industry is a series of video interviews – conducted via Zoom – in which agents describe how they are coping with the situation. This went from the initial idea to implementation in just three days.

“If the tools weren’t in place and they weren’t mature, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” says Spencer.

Aussie Broadband

Aussie Broadband is a retail service provider offering broadband and phone services to business and residential customers.

According to its managing director, Phil Britt, business continuity plans were developed to cope with one of its three sites being unavailable, rather than issues affecting the entire organisation, so coping with the Covid-19 challenge was “quite interesting” from a technical perspective.

The initial response in mid-March was to ban staff movement between sites, and to start preparing everyone to work from home. That took four days and involved equipping all employees with a softphone and USB headset on their computers. The only additional outlay was for those headsets, says Britt.

Now, 150 of the company’s 350-odd staff across functions and seniorities are working from home. This includes about one-third of the contact centre team who are mostly more experienced staff, allowing the rest to be physically spread out around the office. “We’ve thinned the place right out,” says Britt.

The reason for keeping less-experienced staff on-site is that Aussie Broadband does not use scripts, but instead relies on on-the-job training and extensive handholding to get people up to speed.

The firm was already employing communications tools such as WebEx and Slack, and usage has increased now that staff are dispersed.

The company’s operational software was developed in-house and is web-based. Combined with a generously provisioned VPN (virtual private network) concentrator, this means there is no technical barrier to working off-site.

Aussie Broadband is currently locked out of most of the datacentres that hold its systems, but that doesn’t present a problem because it had already installed out-of-band management tools and remote consoles on everything, enabling technical staff to work from home as if they were in the office, says Britt.

Increasing demand for home broadband due to the lockdown has coincided with a big marketing push by Aussie Broadband. It added 12,700 new subscribers in February, and that leapt to 18,000 in March.

Internet traffic has surged, too. Evening peaks in early April were 20% higher than in early March. Daytime traffic had doubled, but was still lower than in the evening.

“We’ve probably been very lucky. because we’re 100% onshore and all development is done in-house. We do our best work in a crisis,” says Britt.

National Australia Bank (NAB)

NAB, one of Australia’s big four banks, has more than 30,000 staff and nine million customers.

“We’ve all had to adjust to the external environment and increase our support services internally,” says Steve Day, executive general manager of cloud and workplace infrastructure.

As an essential service, NAB has had to make a lot of changes in a short time, but Day says staff have shown enormous adaptability to continue to get their jobs done.

Read more about Covid-19 developments in APAC

“NAB’s business continuity plans are designed to ensure we continue to operate effectively, meet our regulatory obligations and we have in place the necessary measures to serve and support our customers as they need our help,” says Day.

Many teams are still supporting customers at branches and business centres, but 96% – or about 25,000 – of the bank’s office-based employees are now working from home, including call centre staff who are all Australian-based.

“While we have been building the remote working capability for some time, we have ramped up this capability significantly over the past few weeks,” says Day.

Other measures taken by the bank include offering online banking webinars and contacting customers with passbook accounts to explain how they can bank online. Like other large banks, NAB is temporarily closing some branches due to a drop in in-person banking, and is reskilling staff to work digitally with customers.

Key lessons

So, what lessons can we draw from the above companies’ experiences?

Companies using cloud services are well placed to cope with events requiring a large proportion of employees to work from home. Having existing telecommuting policies and practices helps, as staff know what to expect, what to do, and what is expected of them. It also means the technology needed to support working from home is already in place, but the infrastructure needs to be scaled or easily scalable to support a large proportion of remote workers.

In-house, onshore contact centres have the flexibility to deliver something close to normal service under adverse conditions by allowing staff to work from home.

Aussie Broadband’s and NAB’s contact centres are operating almost normally from a customer’s perspective, but in contrast, pay TV operator Foxtel has had its offshore call centres shut down because of Covid-19 restrictions, making it so hard to reach that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has become involved.

The importance of social relationships at work should not be neglected. Videoconferencing and similar tools can play an important part in keeping isolated staff connected with their peers as well as with the business itself. And businesses that make good use of available technologies to stay connected with staff, customers and suppliers are likely to be in a better position when things start returning to normal.

Disclosure: the writer holds NAB shares

Read more on Business continuity planning

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