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Coronavirus: Three tips to maintain remote productivity

As the lockdown continues, businesses are having to make use of remote working technologies. We investigate

As offices close their doors and deploy remote working, there is now a considerable strain on desktop IT to ensure remote workers can continue to do their jobs.

A few weeks ago, Cait O’Riordan, the FT’s chief product and information officer, tweeted a picture showing part of a shipment of 200 screens, which she said were waiting to be delivered to FT journalists, designers and engineers to enable them to continue to work productively at home. She wrote: “Not easy to source. Apparently, we aren’t the only company with a sudden need for screens.”

Tackle equipment demand

PC manufacturer Dell has previously asked its customers to provide information on any orders of five or more PCs. In a letter to its customers, Dell wrote: “Most systems and configurations have been impacted, causing delays on production and fulfilment. To help combat this issue and keep your company operating as efficiently as possible, my ask to you is to please send over a list of any projects that include any datacentre objectives along with any laptops/desktops over a quantity of five, with their respected timeline of implementation.

“This ensures we can work together and make sure that we stick as close as possible to your companies’ go-live date and keep productivity at an all-time high.”

HP has set up a task force within its UK & Ireland team to ensure it is providing its resellers and customers with the information and support they need. The company said it is working to leverage its global supply chains to ensure delivery of inventory for companies setting up their employees for remote working.

HP said: “We would advise businesses to stay close to their IT suppliers and partners, who can help the transition. Through our extensive network of business partners across the UK&I, HP has made available tailored packages of laptops, desktops and home/office printing solutions to support the switch to home working. This includes ensuring after-care services and online support is available to troubleshoot key issues, such as video conferencing, VPN [virtual private network] connectivity and collaboration issues.”

In an article on the Becrypt website, the company’s CEO, Bernard Parsons, discussed the need for businesses to think about how they can overcome the PC supply issues by repurposing hardware. He said: “At a time when organisations need to be creative to explore alternatives to traditional corporate laptops, repurposing existing hardware, converting home PCs into secure endpoints, or simply extending purchasing options to low-specification hardware can make a significant impact on an organisation’s ability to scale.”

For instance, a company called Circular Computing is repurposing business PCs. Its founder, Rod Neale, said the remanufactured machine offers almost identical performance and reliability to a new machine, but at a lower cost and with immediate availability. The company said its Circular Computing 840 G1 undergoes five hours of remanufacturing and a complete external respray, and is supplied with a full three-year warranty.   

“We have capacity of 6,000-8,000 units a months,” said Neale. “The factory will be running at full capacity until August because I am still taking orders from the channel.”

Use browser-based tools

Dale Vile, CEO and research director at Freeform Dynamics, has been providing consulting for small businesses in the New Forest area, to help them set up and run IT during the pandemic.

He said: “When it looked like lockdown was going to happen, I had a lot of conversations with SMEs in the New Forest  area and advised them to ensure they have [Microsoft] Office 365 or [Google] G Suite, to get basics going.”

Beyond cloud-based office productivity tools, Vile said businesses he worked with needed to order laptops. He added: “Most users don’t need high-spec machines. People can generally do most tasks with a browser.”

But as more businesses began buying mid-range enterprise PCs, they experienced supply issues, said Vile. “Local inventory went down very quickly. From my own experience, this happened around three weeks ago [the first week of March]. “Suddenly, people were being rationed.”

This run on enterprise PC orders now appears to have calmed, and Vile believes the supply issues have been sorted out. “I am hearing that orders are starting to come through,” he said.

Consider remote desktop ergonomics

In some situations, businesses can use desktop-as-a-service in the cloud to enable their staff to access a virtual PC, hosted on public cloud infrastructure. If this is not possible because of regulatory compliance restrictions on data movement, in Vile’s experience, it is entirely feasible for an IT manager to set up a Windows Server in a matter of days to run virtual desktop sessions with remote access for home workers.

The IT industry has also responded to the need for businesses to roll out virtual desktops quickly. For instance, HPE has begun offering preconfigured virtual desktop products to support its small, medium and enterprise customers.  Built on either HPE ProLiant or HPE Synergy servers, the setup supports between 80 and over 2,000 remote workers running Citrix and VMware environments virtual desktop environments, said HPE.

If the lockdown situation becomes tighter and is extended, Vile recommended that business owners and IT leaders consider the health and wellbeing of staff, who are potentially spending eight hours a day, or more, crouched in front of a laptop screen. He suggested that organisations should consider buying larger screens for remote workers, cheap headsets, consumer-grade high-definition webcams for video conferencing, as well as assessing the ergonomics of the home working environment.

Once remote working is up and running, Vile said: “The next step is to keep people safe, secure and comfortable. If you work eight hours a day at home, you can end up with horrible problems. Headsets can make a real difference, because they offer good audio communications and webcams provide HD video. They may not be enterprise-grade, but they offer good enough quality.”

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