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Fail to plan, plan to fail: How should businesses address the “new normal"

(Image credit: Image Credit: Rawpixel / Pixabay)

In recent weeks there has been a significant easing of lockdown measures across the UK. Customers are beginning to return to highstreets and the hospitality industry readying itself to open-up. However, there is one area where the messaging hasn’t changed on the COVID-19 portal – quoting directly, “For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workspace, wherever possible.”

This shouldn’t come as a great surprise our working life – whether we travel on crowded tube trains, queue to squeeze together in lifts, or simply sit opposite each other in high-density open-plan areas – is clearly not conducive to social distancing. Consequently, all businesses are going to be needed to support a degree of remote working for much longer than many initially thought, it is time to think about how we “industrialize” the systems and tools that enable people to be as effective as possible.

Basic tools for survival – 5 key points to consider

The first step for business should be to get the basics covered. For desk-based jobs and knowledge-workers, there are a handful of must have tools to be effective from home. A reliable computer, sufficient network connectivity, access to telephony, whether that’s via a mobile phone, physical work phone, or app on the computer. Those are all a given. But for really effective working, replicating the experience of co-working in the same place as colleagues, business partners and customers, we also need access to remote meeting tools with video, high quality audio, the ability to share and collaborate on documents and to message other team members.

For almost all organizations, reacting to the initial lockdown instruction was a scramble and a challenge – and IT professionals used whatever tools were at hand. But we are now planning for this being a longer-term situation. The “90-day free trial” of the video-based meetings tool is about to expire. It’s also the case that as we do eventually move back into the workplace, it is going to be at a very gradual rate. While many organizations have reported increases in productivity when all their staff were at home, the hybrid way of working will create yet another challenge – providing communications tools that enable staff to collaborate when some are in a meeting room in the office, and where some are at home.

The guidelines also sensibly point out the needs for protecting equipment that is shared, having personal headsets and other communications tools is going to be key. Finally, international travel is likely to be restricted for some time to come. The quarantine periods currently in place for many countries would mean a business traveler spending four weeks in quarantine for every trip take – two in their destination country, and two when they return to the UK.

Going forward, the ability to conduct meetings with external parties – preferably in a business environment – will be key. So, what does this mean for businesses? Below are 5 points that CIOs and IT professionals need to consider as they look to support remote working in the longer term:

(1)    Select, and double down on your meetings solution – this is probably the most important decision you will make. Effective remote meetings – from the board meeting to sales meetings with customers and 1-to-1s amongst staff – will go a long way towards determining the effectiveness of your business overall. Ease of use is critical – but so is the way the tools integrate with the rest of your communications tools. Integrating with the telephony platform for a joined-up experience, supporting mixed-mode working when some colleagues start returning to the workplace, enabling off-site staff to join once they start travelling for work again – all these considerations are important. And for many organizations, security cannot be compromised – ensuring only the right people attend the right meetings, and that documents that have been shared with participants go no further – is a critical capability meeting solution should have.

(2)    Don’t skimp when equipping your teams – straining to hear what others are saying, listening to your own words coming back at you 2 seconds after you’ve said them, crackles, splutters and hisses, all detract from effective communication. Laptop speakers and microphones may appear to work OK for the user of the laptop mic and speakers – but often create a very poor experience for the other participants. Quality headsets, speakerphones and cameras are a low-cost way to significantly improve the quality of experience for participants in audio and video calls and have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of the call. When issued to employees at home, they can then be used when working in the office during the return to the workplace phase as personal issue equipment, reducing the risk of infection.

(3)    Provide tools to enable contact center agents to work as effectively as possible remotely – contact center agents working from home have done a sterling job in the main, but there are many tools that they need to work from home more effectively. It is vital, agents are able to contact supervisors for help in real-time, to access help and FAQ information as situations change and evolve. Also, at times of increased demand, tools that enable customers to digitally serve themselves for the more simple cases, enable agents to focus on the complex and difficult issues. During the return to the center itself, most contact centers will need to sub-populate – meaning mixed-mode operations. Workforce management tools will help plan shifts – ensuring that for each shift only a safe number of agents are physically in the office, and enabling shifts to “stagger” in time, avoiding congestion in reception areas, lifts and other common areas.

(4)    Industrialize network access – it is possible to deliver enterprise-grade connectivity and security to the homeworker – and for many in critical roles that is what organizations must consider doing. Embedded security protecting important customer data and business networks from malware and data leakage is essential, keeping the hackers that want to do our businesses harm at bay is critical. But also, the cost of downtime must be weighed against the cost of more resilient access. Is the cost of 4G or 5G backup really expensive compared to the cost of not having those key employees online and productive? Whether it’s the CFO or a front-line contact center agent, reliable, predictable, secure access to networks and systems is a must.

(5)    Embrace the cloud – for many organizations their legacy on-premise PBX has been more of a hinderance than an asset. In a cloud model, uptime and availability become the responsibility of the cloud provider, more flexible internet (or WAN) based access for voice and video communications significantly simplify the job of connecting for remote workers and can eliminate network bottlenecks, the ability to flex your infrastructure costs up and down as your business requires it can be a huge advantage in these unpredictable times. Moving to cloud may not be as complex or costly as you may think.

It is clear from the Government guidance published to date that businesses must plan for a slow return to the office. Factoring this into plans and putting in place the correct tools ahead of time will mean businesses can thrive rather than just survive in the ‘new normal’.

Rufus Grig, Maintel