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When employees at a Japanese multinational firm started telecommuting in early March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, it was a marked shift from how they had previously gone about their daily work.
“It was a huge change for us as we have never seriously considered the idea of working from home, let alone try it out,” says Nigel Lim, a senior IT manager at the firm. “We have also eliminated all non-essential business trips and started using various means of collaboration, which is another first.”
The air of change looms large, even though the company already had business continuity plans (BCP) and has conducted annual simulations of them. It also has alternative office locations, as well as designated core business processes and IT services to support its BCP.
Yet, when it came to the actual execution of those plans, the firm soon found that its virtual private network (VPN) capacity and access licences were lacking. It had to work with its IT supplier, which offered options to increase capacity in flexible contracts.
Likewise, a social enterprise has had to strengthen its IT infrastructure in areas that did not have redundancy. “We drove significant cyber security awareness in the past, but issued new guidelines on security when working from home,” its CIO tells Computer Weekly.
“The technology is there to help people work remotely, but many still find it challenging when the need arises to have group discussions or brainstorming. The digital tools are still not very effective for such tasks.”
In Malaysia, iPay88 is allowing employees in non-IT functions such as finance and operations to work from home. To ensure security is up to par, the payment company has equipped its staff with laptops and additional VPN licences for those who usually work from a desktop.
“Being a payments company, our biggest challenge isn’t the technology,” says Lim Kok Hing, founder and executive director of iPay88. “What we are challenged by is the loss of the sense of being connected to one another in person physically, so we try to stay online and conduct more training to keep up our contact hours with one another.”
Technology companies appear to be a tad better at handling the situation. At Zoho, a supplier of software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications founded in India, enabling more than 8,000 employees to work from home was a seamless exercise, says Gibu Mathew, its Asia-Pacific vice-president and general manager.
“This is because we build and sell software tools that address an organisation’s operational, administrative, HR, sales, marketing and customer relations needs,” he says. “We have been using our tools and this facilitated the quick transition.
“Hence there are not many changes in the way we operate because we’ve been able to sustain our productivity through continuous communication and collaboration with our internal and external stakeholders, using the same tools that we normally use.”
Industry experts generally agree that having a BCP in place and tweaking those plans as circumstances change is crucial to help organisations respond to disruptive incidents.
Guannan Lu, an analyst at Forrester, says companies should sustain product and service quality for high-value customers, encourage remote work to reduce virus transmission and use multiple suppliers in different geographies to improve their resilience.
“Also, they need to keep updated on logistics restrictions faced by suppliers and partners,” he says. “For single-source suppliers, evaluate their BCP and prioritise partners and suppliers so that you can help them immediately as they need.”
At SAP, BCPs have been developed by its business, support and cloud delivery teams to safeguard the health of employees and minimise the impact on the delivery of services to customers, says Richard McLean, its chief financial officer in Asia-Pacific and Japan.
“For most teams, work can be conducted through remote connections, which enable teams to work off-site for most tasks,” he says. “Engineers around the globe are working separately and remotely where possible to mitigate the risk of an entire team becoming infected. In datacentre locations, SAP has also sourced gloves and masks for the protection of on-site technicians where required.”
SAP has also formed a global pandemic task force to ensure it can mount a customised response to the outbreak, but many organisations still don’t have scenario-specific BCPs, according to Forrester. Instead, they create BCPs that address the loss or impact, such as loss of facilities, technology or people.
“Impact-based BCPs are useful because response teams can invoke them regardless of the event, but they are far less helpful when the scenario requires a very customised response – and pandemics require just that,” it says.
Forrester also advises organisations to exercise their pandemic plans, which many still fail to do on a regular basis, going by its data and direct experience with enterprises.
“One large simulation per year is typical, and when they do conduct exercises, they are not selecting a pandemic as the scenario,” says the analyst firm. “Scheduling exercises with enough business involvement and support is difficult, so when organisations do it, they opt for the most probable and high-impact scenarios, and extreme weather and IT failures usually top that list.
“Unfortunately, both the emergence and the spread of pandemics are difficult to predict, so organisations have left them out of the scenarios they cycle through for their exercises.”
In some cases, companies are finding gaps in their BCPs after putting their plans to the test. Zoho, for one, found it had to figure out ways to route calls made to its support phone line to technicians working from home.
“We are talking about thousands of calls,” says Mathew. “These calls had to be routed to people who were physically present in different places. But, thankfully, by being connected to the internet, we were able to pull this off.”
Keys to success
Given the sudden surge of employees working remotely, how enterprises handle this change becomes increasingly important during this period. Bill Zeng, Poly’s chief technology officer for Asia-Pacific, highlights three key things to consider – connectivity, enterprise infrastructure and remote management tools.
First, users need fast and reliable internet access to ensure decent uplink and downlink connections for two-way video and content sharing, he says. Users with limited uplink connectivity might have to turn off their camera to improve voice quality.
As for enterprise infrastructure, Zeng points out the differences in how traffic is routed from users to unified communications (UC) platforms that run on enterprise networks versus the public cloud.
Read more about Covid-19 developments in APAC
- Larger Malaysian enterprises have business continuity plans in place, but SMEs lag behind and will find it harder to weather the Covid-19 storm.
- Singapore’s Government Technology Agency is contributing the source codes of the protocol that powers its contact-tracing app to help stem the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
- China’s tech sector will bear the brunt of the ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak on the back of an expected hit on the world’s second largest economy.
- Australia’s NBN Co and five retail service providers have formed a working group to manage congestion and take steps to address the surge in demand for broadband connectivity amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
“For cloud-based UC platforms, enterprises will just need to ensure they have enough licences to support multiple logins,” he says. “The traffic from users will go directly to the cloud, such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, without having to go through enterprise networks.”
But for on-premise UC systems, users will need to increase their collaboration edge capacity to cater for the greater number of users from outside the office. Enterprise internet gateway capabilities will also need to be increased.
Finally, with more employees working from home, Zeng says it is critical for IT to be able to manage their devices remotely. Management tools will help IT teams upgrade employees’ software, monitor status, troubleshoot issues – and to fully understand how users are working remotely so that enterprises can execute their BCPs successfully.
SAP’s McLean says the company is using its Qualtrics Remote Work Pulse service to obtain information about how employees are coping with the outbreak.
“Employee welfare is crucial at a time like this,” he says. “It’s important for us to know our employees feel safe and supported, understand the resources and information they require for their work, and be able to act quickly to help our employees.”
Additional reporting by Edwin Yapp