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Coronavirus: How Covid-19 kick-started a shift to home working

Lockdown has forced people to work from home and turn to the channel for help in supporting the ‘new normal’

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: The surge in home working

Announcing the lockdown of the UK in response to the threat posed by the Covid-19 coronavirus in a televised address at 8.30pm on 23 March 2020, UK prime minister Boris Johnson took just a few minutes to usher in a (hopefully temporary) new way of living – and working – for more than 60 million people.

In that moment, the arguments that many in the IT industry had been making around the potential for home working over the past few years suddenly became indisputable. But despite all the evangelical work undertaken by some, how prepared was the UK for a shift to home working?

“Globally, the UK is one of the least prepared countries to introduce a mass work-from-home strategy,” states Jason Howells, director international at Barracuda MSP. He cites a recent study by Leesman which found 55% of UK respondents “had little or no experience of working from home”. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought that into sharp relief, with more and more businesses forced to rely on home working – or no work at all.

Howells believes resellers “have a real and unique opportunity to help customers make the transition to home working as straightforward as possible”, especially as many of them already monitor and manage customer systems remotely.

Andy Jane, chief technology officer (CTO) at Olive Communications, agrees that a high percentage of UK organisations are unprepared for the move to transition their workforce to the cloud to work from home.

“These organisations face numerous challenges, from having to work on out of date equipment or new equipment unavailable due to extreme high demand, to employees unfamiliar with remote working practices,” he says. “Plus there’s the challenge most businesses currently face with the UK’s national bandwidth at peak capacity.”

“Resellers have a real and unique opportunity to help customers make the transition to home working as straightforward as possible”

Jason Howells, Barracuda MSP

Mark Dumas, vice-president of products at Synergy SKY, says the impact of Covid-19 has been “nothing short of devastating” on the state of businesses worldwide.

“Of the few organisations that have business continuity plans, many will struggle to scale,” he adds. “Others will scramble to put ‘something’ in place but find obstacles to adoption, training and usage.”

He notes that collaboration tools are not difficult, but they are subject to a learning curve to extract all the advertised benefits.

“In addition, few businesses have the company culture to sustain a work from home effort for an extensive period,” he says. “Those better positioned to weather the storm are businesses that have a significant work-from-home contingent or distributed workforce, and have the structure in place to scale for the additional usage an emergency may bring.”

Channel advisors in demand

Kristian Kerr, vice-president for EMEA partner organisations at NetApp, acknowledges there has been “unprecedented demand” on channel partners and vendors to help users scale to keep their workforce productive, almost overnight.

“While most businesses had a working from home policy, no one was expecting such a huge transition,” he says, adding that this has led to “huge pressures on IT environments” with resellers working with vendor partners “to rapidly build and deploy end user computing and virtual desktop infrastructure to support this sudden influx.”

According to Lee Evans, UK and Ireland head of pre-sales at Westcon, the channel has a central role to play in solving the challenges business and society are facing today.

“Organisations of all types are having to rapidly deploy home working,” he says. “For those that have already embraced remote working, the situation requires a gentle pivot, but for others, this is a completely new cultural and technological challenge.”

“While most businesses had a working from home policy, no one was expecting such a huge transition [which puts] huge pressures on IT environments”

Kristian Kerr, NetApp

Evans argues that resellers can use their experience, expertise and capabilities to support and advise customers over team collaboration, security, workplace culture and best practice, helping them to stay safe, connected and secure. For example, many vendors are offering free trials or discounts on their solutions at the moment, and partners are well-placed to “help customers choose the right solution for their needs and leverage the best offers and support on offer from vendors”.

Rufus Grig, chief strategy officer at Maintel, says: “Most businesses have facilities for some of their people to work remotely, and many have business continuity plans that anticipate perhaps one or two days lost due to heavy snow, but very few businesses were able to lift and shift their entire workforce without missing a beat.”

Companies have gone from the initial question of how to answer the phone into supporting full collaboration, and ensuring that data, devices and applications are secure now they are so well distributed.

“Different customers are at different stages of the journey and we are working with all of ours to ensure they get the tools and services they need to keep systems running at this time,” says Grig. “Customers are running at different speeds, but all need support to enable their business continuity efforts.”

Ian Ashworth, EMEA channel director at Netwrix, speaks of partners having to adapt their offering and the way they liaise with customers now that the majority of businesses are working from home.

“A struggle which we’re seeing due to this is less coordination between businesses, partners and their customers,” he says. “We’re also seeing the issue of customers not responding as much as they usually would, due to changes in working environment and routines. In this new and unprecedented timeframe, it is crucial partners are able to assist in using their knowledge and showing best practices of how to operate effectively in the current climate.”

Making connections

Collaboration technology has been thrust into the spotlight as a result of the lockdown and Ashworth praises resellers for doing “an excellent job responding to the tsunami of requests that have overwhelmed all areas of the collaboration industry. It’s also refreshing to see that service providers and manufacturers are proactively addressing issues of scale, capacity and service quality.”

Simon Aldous, global head of channels at Dropbox, says it’s important for resellers to help customers ensure their employees have the right technology set up for home working. “This starts with the basics such as laptop, two-factor authentication and a password manager,” he says. “The added layer on top of this is looking at the overall employee ecosystem.”

“It is crucial partners are able to assist in using their knowledge and showing best practices of how to operate effectively in the current climate”

Ian Ashworth, Netwrix

Aldous stresses that partners still need to ask the right questions and address customer needs as a number one priority. “The current climate shouldn’t change that,” he says. “When engaging with customers, it’s important to dig into the challenges they are facing and what specific needs they want to address.”

There is a broad consensus that unified communications (UC) and collaboration tools are invaluable at times like this, but there are differences over how well these technologies have been promoted and implemented to date.

Olive Communications’ Jane says UC is the most cost-effective way to help customers contact a business during the lockdown. And Stuart Robson-Frisby, director for the EMEA channel at Ivanti, describes video conferencing as “the most valuable tool in all of this”.

Many businesses have turned to the likes of Microsoft Teams, Webex, Slack and Zoom to enable telecommuting and collaboration. Andy Horn, CEO of IntraLAN, believes such tools are invaluable but warns they need to be compatible with existing investments.

“It’s a reseller’s responsibility to share expertise, discuss the pros and cons, and advise on the best fit for the company,” he says, “rather than letting it just follow the herd and potentially waste money on a solution that doesn’t deliver what the customer needs.”

But there is a question mark over the level of expertise partners might have to share.

Shaun Lynn, CEO at Agilitas, remarks that the channel in general has been slow to adopt collaboration and unified communications technology across the broader business.

“Like other industries, ours too has been historically resilient to change,” he says. “Covid-19 has accelerated the need to adopt these collaboration tools and a more flexible culture and mindset, which can ultimately bring long-lasting positive effects. This new approach of collaboration may reach more consumers and bring new opportunities to channel firms.”

Security considerations

Addressing security issues, EMEA senior manager for partners and channels at Alert Logic, Paul Reeves, warns that the sudden spike in remote workers poses some unique cyber security risks. Many organisations were already struggling to deal with the complexity of a hybrid or multicloud environment and maintaining visibility and effective cyber security.

“With companies suddenly asking all employees to work from home, there has been a remarkable surge in the number of users connecting to company networks and accessing sensitive data from home computers,” says Reeves.

Horn adds that partners need to “keep communicating cyber security best practices to customers to avoid an unnecessary breach” and remind them that “they may need enhanced levels of security to incorporate the numerous remote workers, while not forgetting the need to remain compliant with existing corporate policies and GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation].”

Gert-Jan Schenk, international senior vice-president at Lookout, believes it is a good idea to allow employees to work productively from any device and any location, but companies need to keep in mind the shared nature of a mobile device.

“When employees work from personal devices and are accessing corporate data, the health of the device must be taken into account, and it must be assessed for compliance with corporate security and risk policies,” he says.

Virtual engagement

Scott Harrison, channel sales director for Vertiv in Northern Europe, says resellers need to focus on maintaining customer relationships as much as possible during the lockdown.

“Sales teams and their customer relationships are at the heart of success for any channel business,” he says. “But with these customers now based at home, the mechanics for maintaining trust and engagement must evolve.”

“Sales teams and their customer relationships are at the heart of success for any channel business. But with these customers now based at home, the mechanics for maintaining trust and engagement must evolve”

Scott Harrison, Vertiv

He agrees that face-to-face sales meetings or training sessions may no longer be appropriate in many places, so partners will need to adapt. “Virtual meetings via a video call are a good way to enable information sharing, deliver training, or just retain a more personable approach to customer engagement,” adds Harrison.

He thinks channel businesses should be much more flexible in their communications and operations. “For example, this is a prime time for businesses to make full use of the resources provided by partner portals,” says Harrison. “These repositories can become the go-to place for product marketing collateral that can be quickly and easily accessed for calls and meetings.”

Nurture understanding and flexibility

James Pittick, partner channel director at Canon UK, makes an important point over the need for more understanding and flexibility during the pandemic.

“It is important for businesses to be flexible and kind to their employees, where possible, during this unprecedented situation. Mental health is hugely important and businesses need to be sympathetic to how their employees are reacting to this situation,” he says.

“With the closure of schools, many parents are also under additional pressures, so channel businesses need to find schedules and routines that work for all parties. It’s important to remember we are all in this situation together, and by collaborating openly we can all help each other through this.”

Dropbox’s Aldous concurs. “Keep an open mind on time,” he advises. “Some employees’ working hours may differ due to childcare and other responsibilities, including looking after family and vulnerable friends. Demonstrate flexibility in the working day as we say goodbye to the nine-to-five. This is an opportunity to empower your colleagues and show you trust them to continue to deliver during the most testing of times.”

The future looks different

Looking longer term, will the experience of the lockdown have an effect on future working practices?

Maintel’s Grig says it’s unlikely work will ever be the same again. Willingly or not, people have proved what you can achieve without getting in a car, train or bus, whatever your role.

“We’ve got contact centre workers, CEOs, doctors, IT professionals, sales people, accounts receivable, you name it, working productively remotely,” he says. “There will be a real push to make this process as seamless, cost-effective, secure and friction-free as possible.”

Agilitas’s Lynn agrees. “Covid-19 has changed the way we consume technology within the workplace forever, as businesses will need to focus on remote deployment, managing device lifecycles, implementing new security policies and retaining team satisfaction,” he says. “In the channel, we expect to see flexible package offerings, such as ‘workstations as a service’, may be one of the shining lights to come out of these unprecedented times.”

Ivanti’s Robson-Frisby speaks of an unprecedented situation that will result in a fundamental shift in how organisations work moving forward. Although Gartner has already forecast demand for remote working will increase 30% by 2030 as Generation Z joins the workforce, he thinks it likely the demand “will now be considerably higher as organisations realise employees can be just as productive, if not more productive, at home as in the office”.

He says the pandemic could “open customers’ eyes to the world of remote work, leaving them wanting to expand their knowledge of best practices for home working”. If that happens, “resellers need to be ready to promote the right solutions to fit this need”.

Synergy SKY’s Dumas echoes that point. “Although resellers play an important role in guiding organisations through their Covid-19 work-from-home response, their true value will come after the dust settles,” he predicts. “Technology introduced as a reaction to the Covid-19 crisis will usher in a new way of working.”

“Organisations will need to properly integrate the pile of hastily acquired services and assets into their everyday operations,” he says. “Resellers will be indispensable in analysing requirements, understanding workflows and asking the hard questions to make collaboration technology foundational to a company’s way of working.”

Next Steps

Microsoft updates Teams for the hybrid workplace

Slack launches Huddles for impromptu online meetings

Read more on Sales and Customer Management