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Coronavirus sparks remote working demand

The channel is in a prime position to help customers keep going through the coronavirus crisis by enabling more flexible working methods

If there is a silver lining to the current coronavirus outbreak for those in the channel, it is the spike in demand for products and services that support remote working.

Although the government has not yet rolled out a lockdown that would see offices closed and staff confined to their homes, most businesses have taken steps to enable staff concerned about Covid-19 to work from home.

Comments made by Computacenter CEO Mike Norris in the firm’s full-year results on 12 March revealed that it had seen a surge in demand for hardware that would support such a move.

“In the short term, we are urgently supporting our customers focused on their business continuity plans, which involves the need for a greater degree of remote working. We have seen a surge in demand for laptop computers for this purpose,” he said.

Others in the industry with products that can help with remote working have also seen demand increase.

IGEL offers an operating system (OS) on a small USB that can be plugged into any laptop. Simon Townsend, IGEL’s chief marketing officer (CMO), said that it had seen customers who wanted to use the virtual desktop model turning to the option in more numbers.

“What that gives you immediately is a read-only secure purpose-built environment, which only needs about two gigabyte of RAM to run so doesn’t really matter whether your machine is six months old or six years old,” he said. “You’ve then got this secure browser and access to all these different Windows environments.

“People are coming to us saying, ‘We are going to enable remote working’, and that is something that is now a need, not a nice to have,” he added.

Uptake in SD-WAN and video conference tools

Software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) players have also seen customers turning to them in their hour of need as they look to beef up the resilience in the network.

“Most companies offer some type of remote VPN [virtual private network] solution, but they were never designed for ‘peak capacity’, such as to scale for the present situation when nearly all the employees in a region are working remotely,” said Shashi Kiran, CMO of Aryaka.

“As a result, local VPN servers are getting overloaded with the number of connections and amount of traffic required to support such a large increase in demand, affecting employee productivity.

“Business continuity operations require telecommuters to be productive and served by the best possible application experience,” he added.

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Video conferencing is also getting a lot of interest, with companies looking for tools to ensure they can continue to collaborate and keep staff in touch with each other and their customers.

One player, Lifesize, has taken the step of offering all firms affected by coronavirus the chance to get an unlimited number of free licenses to use the company’s cloud-based video collaboration platform for six months.

“We are in the midst of a massive, permanent shift in how we work, which will have near-term and long-term impact on large organisations, teams and contact centres,” said Craig Malloy, CEO of Lifesize and Serenova.

“Our commitment to keep the world working extends well beyond this moment in time. Helping organisations rethink how they empower globally distributed teams, connect with customers and partners, and continue to get business done during trying times is a core goal for our company.”

The new normal?

That sense of a more permanent shift in the way people work is a view shared by other industry commentators, who expect remote working to remain an issue even after the virus has ebbed away because the genie will be out of the bottle and staff will have enjoyed the flexibility.

That could have an impact on network infrastructure that could start to suffer under the strain of a long-term shift in working patterns.

“The current pandemic is showing us a potential shift in UK flexible working patterns, a trend which has been around forever, but may well now become the norm,” said Andrew Fray, managing director at Interxion UK.

“If working from home for the majority is mandated, the networks and infrastructure behind businesses will become vital. Companies will need options, and quickly.

“One of our new customers who run online storage needs six connectivity options: the public internet, direct fibre, public cloud access, software defined switches, mobile, and (still) physical transport of tape and disk

“So, as the crisis plays out, companies need to build in resilience to transport, store and retrieve data, and connected datacentres will give them the choice they need,” he added.

The potential opportunity for those resellers armed with a remote working solution appears to be significant, with 8x8 recently releasing research indicating that only 41% firms have remote working policies in place.

The firm found that 15% of companies did not offer any remote working, but its research also revealed a state of confusion among a customer base that had never faced something such as Covid-19 before.

William MacDonald, chief strategy officer at StarLeaf, said that the best place for a discussion around remote working to start is around getting the structure right before people start making up their own rules.

“Organisations will first need to establish their remote working policy, outlining what is expected when working outside the office,” he said.

“Depending on your culture, it might go into detail about all aspects of remote work, including expectations of working hours, legal rights, and privacy/security requirements.

“To ensure employees can carry out their jobs to the best of their abilities, the right collaboration tools need to be in place,” he added.

Italian lessons

Italy has entered a state of lockdown, the channel adapting to the increased demand for remote working because of the situation.

Figures from Context showed that demand for tools to enable smart working and homeschooling helped drive a 362% year-on-year (YoY) revenue growth in February for the headset/headphones and microphones category. For the week beginning 24 February, the YoY increase was 49.8%.

Other notable YoY revenue increases in the same week came in notebooks (36.5%), tablets (41.3%), Microsoft Office application software (60.5%), developer tools software (89.3%), and solid-state drives (32%). Security software (38.8%) and ink cartridges (8%) also had significant growth.

As a result, YoY growth for the last two weeks in February stood at 21% and 20% respectively across all categories.

“Despite uncertainties about the economic impact of Covid-19 in Italy, IT vendors and distributors are adapting with an impressive speed to the new business environment to support customer productivity and protect public health,” said Isabel Aranda, Context country manager for Italy.

“Smart working tools are key to helping businesses and education sector organisations cope with these remarkable circumstances,” she added.

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