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Craig Atkins: From temporary to permanent – how tech is powering the future of hybrid working

Craig Atkins, Managing Director, 1-Fix Limited, considers how tech is the solution for many of the challenges brought by a new world of work in 2020

What started as a temporary shift to remote working from home back in March 2020 has rapidly evolved into a more permanent transition for many businesses. In part this transition – in the UK at least – has been driven by the uncertainty around the second lockdown and the unknowns around the lead time and efficacy of a vaccine.

Having had their hands forced to provide remote working back in March, many firms have realised there are a lot of positives (and a few negatives) that come off the back of remote working. The biggest positive, for those due to renegotiate leases or working in flexible office spaces, is the cost reduction realised by downsizing the physical office itself.

Many of the clients we work with have either already started this process or have indicated their desire to do so as soon as they are able.

For the majority, their plan is to keep a level of office footprint – for meetings, huddles and co-operative work, along with space for drop-in working/hotdesking. For their staff, the future of work will be a combination of home working and office working, with no requirement for a permanent desk for most people.

To facilitate this flexi-working set-up, companies need to adapt their IT and systems to allow their staff to work seamlessly wherever they are based. Utilising a proportion of the savings from office overheads to enhance the remote working environment is a sensible move where possible, and regardless of whether you are just starting out on your remote working improvement journey or you are a digital transformation expert I have some pointers below of things you should consider for your set-up.

 

Cloud, cloud, cloud!

Clearly the obvious first item in the list is to get as much of your data and business systems into the cloud as possible.

Whilst remote access to your corporate data in the office is possible and perfectly work-able, having your data outside of the office environment removes the bottleneck of your office connectivity and improves the resilience and accessibility for all of your staff.

Not only that, but there are some benefits that are less obvious at first glance. The biggest ‘hidden’ benefit is that once your systems and data are not on-premises, you are not incurring the downtime and cost associated with an IT move should you wish to downsize or move to a new office location. You are also able to reduce bandwidth or connectivity at your office site if there are less staff working, plus you will benefit from the reduction of costs in cooling and power that were dedicated to running your equipment.

Utilising software as a service (SaaS) applications rather than traditionally licenced software should be a key consideration moving forwards, as you can typically flex your licensing up and down along with your workforce numbers, and the software is usually accessible from anywhere – as is the data that is hosted within the application.

If your business hasn’t made the transition from in-house hosted e-mail services to a public cloud provider such as Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace then now is the time to bite the bullet and engage a specialist to help you migrate your data.

 

Connectivity

“My broadband is down – sorry I can’t work at the moment!”
Will this phrase become the equivalent of the duvet day, or sickie, from 2020 onwards?

The movement of connectivity from the office to the home has made troubleshooting connection and productivity issues a lot trickier for in-house IT teams and outsourced Managed Service Providers.

Rather than troubleshooting a single office internet connection, technicians are faced with troubleshooting their staff or client’s home computer, Wi-Fi, and internet.

For businesses who are realising a large saving in overheads by moving to remote working, I would encourage you to consider providing your staff with a dedicated business grade internet connection at their home address. Many providers will now work on a 30-day rolling contract basis for fixed line communications – or alternatively you can provide a 4G router and SIM card on this same rolling term.

Bringing your connectivity under one roof enables your tech team to have a single point of contact to troubleshoot issues, plus a known configuration at each home.

It also brings both a security benefit – your company device is not connected to the home network which could be far less secure than you would like – and a performance benefit as the internet connection is not shared with gaming devices and streaming television services.

 

Telecoms

The mass shift to video communication via Zoom, Teams, et. al. has been a remarkable benefit of the remote working revolution and everyone has their platform of choice – and it works pretty well on the whole.

However, as more and more staff move off-site there is a growing issue around the traditional telecoms and how best to provide phones for home working staff.

Businesses who are already using VoIP technology for their phone systems are in a good position here, as most VoIP providers will have a softphone offering. A softphone is a telephone client application that will run on a computer (or smartphone) and provides the same functionality as a traditional desk phone.

If your VoIP provider cannot offer a softphone option, I suggest you look at alternative providers!

For firms who are using a more traditional PABX – a fixed “in office” phone system – now is the time to look to transition your phones to the cloud.
If you have Microsoft 365 licences, you can now add-on Microsoft 365 Business Voice which provides a Teams Voice licence to convert your Microsoft Teams software into a softphone. This will provide your user with their own DDI number, the ability to have a dial-in number on their Teams meetings (Audio Conferencing) and a pool of minutes for UK landline and mobile calling.

It is very quick to deploy, and for companies already using Teams it is a logical candidate to replace the traditional phone system.

 

Training

One drawback of majority remote working is the loss of knowledge sharing and transfer between staff, alongside the wider social interaction and natural team building. The often derided ‘water cooler’ chat is a great example of relationship building and knowledge transfer.

When our own staff returned to the office for a period back in July 2020 I asked them what they had missed most about being at home and the top answer was the social interaction and knowledge sharing they get from being within a team environment in the office.

Replicating this via video chat is very tricky, as the quick question you would have asked over a desk divider now involves a dedicated call, and typically takes longer and is more disruptive to the working flow.

However, it is crucial to ensure that your staff have a method of training available for them to continue their professional development.

Video and e-learning platforms are the most accessible way to deliver high quality training to your staff wherever they are based. If you do not currently have a platform in place, evaluate whether you can find an industry specific provider that has content relevant for most or all of your staff. If you cannot, or the training available is too narrow, consider utilising multiple providers to obtain the required content mix.

After making this investment, ensure you report or set KPIs on the training engagement as this is often lower when left up to remote staff to enrol or action themselves.

Finally, consider setting up a Teams or Zoom room for staff to drop in/out of when they are taking a break, to virtually replicate the water cooler!