Analysis: Remote working is business enabler

In February 2009, parts of the UK ground to a halt as the country experienced some of its heaviest snowfall since 1991.

In February 2009, parts of the UK ground to a halt as the country experienced some of its heaviest snowfall since 1991.

Many commentators seized the opportunity to talk up the benefits of remote working and unified communications products to keep businesses trading in the big freeze, and resellers were urged to add such solutions to their portfolio.

But the weather soon improved, and as the industry dealt with more pressing concerns, the remote working message faded slightly, along with the sense of urgency.

Fast forward to this January, and Britain is once again in the grips of a deep freeze, with widespread snow falling to depths unseen in nearly 30 years. As the snow hit, it became clear that getting to work would be tough, so many people simply did not bother.

The IT industry suffered alongside other industries, and although many distributors and resellers gamely worked hard to remain open, the economic damage was unavoidable. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) puts the resulting losses well into the billions.

Too little too late

But weren't organisations meant to have sorted this out last year? The past week has seen a flurry of snow-related marketing messages, but those efforts might have been more useful and had a greater impact had they been circulated months ago.

Mitel EMEA managing director Graham Bevington laments the predictability of crises. "The weather catches us out on an annual basis. If it is not the weather, it is swine flu or strikes. Every event is cast as a one-off, but every few months an issue will arise that means it is smart for businesses to allow home working," he says.

Bruce Simpson, marketing manager at hosted services provider Star, agrees. "The [business continuity] message is quite poignant right now, but once spring comes, we will not remember that because the 'ambulance-chasing' message only works up to a point. The real message should be 'where does IT add value and where can it increase that?'."

Avaya EMEA director of field marketing, Jirina Yates, says, "We are encouraging partners to say 'lightning can strike twice'. They must keep the marketing activity going, otherwise people will forget."

Michael Calvert, general manager at Aastra Telecom, is a remote working advocate. He says people have dismissed the message to some extent. "Larger enterprises will have plans around data and disaster recovery, but those are designed for one-off events, not problems caused by absent staff."

Stephanie Watson, consultant at analyst house MZA, is optimistic for the future, suggesting that although last year's snowfall was seen as a one-off, the recent disruption will lead firms to address the issue.

"Channel players are thinking about how they work as a result. Vendors are saying this will impact their Q1 because resellers are not out there closing deals," she says. "This has heightened awareness of the problem and the cost benefits of remote working."

Get equipped

Sam Routledge, services director at networking and IT integrator Softcat, which is currently installing new comms systems to better enable remote working, says that in the wake of recent events it is important for his peers to take up the technology. "We need to do it to enable our guys on the front line to articulate what we do with it to customers," he says.

Yates at Avaya says vendors must also have a role in kitting out resellers at favourable rates, something Avaya does through its Connect programme. "Positioning a product that you use day-to-day is far easier than positioning it off some slides," she points out.

Mitel is pushing flexible working by stealth, encouraging dealers to throw in a few teleworking licences with larger system sales.

"Once the directors have used it they usually take it up more widely," says Bevington. "If you get the customer to try it, once they have seen what it can do, they buy it."

Unlike in countries where heavy snow is common, there is no logical reason for the UK to invest in extra snowploughs and grit when there is no guarantee they will be used.

It is better for businesses to invest in technology that will not just ease them through a crisis, but also bring benefits throughout the year. This is the message that resellers must take to the market in 2010.

Calvert at Aastra concludes, "Ultimately it is difficult for an organisation not to look seriously at a proposition that safeguards in the bad times and allows more efficient working in the good times."

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