The recent storms and the current global Coronavirus pandemic are forcing businesses to send their staff home, with governments imposing remote working policies in order to delay the spread of the illness.
When responding to this need, businesses appear to have fallen into three camps: those who can quickly adapt and who are geared up for remote working; those who feel unprepared for the change; and many who simply can’t comply or are key workers including care workers, hospital staff and even those that work within data infrastructure who need to be on site as much as possible.
But for everyone, whichever camp they fall into, there is an overarching need: to mitigate any negative business impact and to remain productive and profitable when staff aren’t physically in the building.
For some this means policy changes. The provision of equipment like laptops or smartphones is often needed for employees to work from home, or the ability to use personal devices might be sanctioned. Security policies need to be reviewed too, as workers need to access company information over remote networks.
More fundamentally, the backbone of successful remote working will be the infrastructure that underpins it, and it’s the infrastructure that will be the ultimate make or break of a nation of virtual businesses.
Getting up and running
A surge in remote working means intense pressure on the security, servers, storage and network of any organisation - and the impact of these demands is being felt across the entire technological supply chain. To deal with these requirements, IT departments need to deploy more forward-looking capacity management to be able to proactively meet their needs. Unsurprisingly this has put the data centre strategy front and centre of many CIOs’ minds. There’s a simple truth here - get your data centre strategy right and power a nation able to work seamlessly and flexibly regardless of location, or get it wrong, and be prepared to be hamstrung, with continuity and growth stymied.
Looking at tools and processes, there is a huge increase in the use of communication and collaboration technologies, which ensure that staff are able to stay engaged with their teams. Ensuring employees can get access to their most important work files, documents and applications so they can maintain their productivity is also essential.
Inevitably, all this presents an immediate security concern - and ensuring employees are taking the right precautions to protect enterprise data that is in a remote location is going to be critical to success. This could mean having staff update their passcodes prior to working remotely and urging employees to transfer files to cloud-based systems to avoid overloading VPNs. At an infrastructure level, deploying additional layers of security will also help businesses stay ahead of the game. Encryption and multi-factor authentication are useful technologies in enhancing remote working security - and cloud security systems and virus protection software are fundamental requirements.
The future of work
In the face of a global pandemic, it goes without saying that the first priority in the coming days, weeks and months is for businesses to look after the health of their employees, as well as attempting to simply keep operations running at an incredibly uncertain time.
However, when it comes to remote working, it appears that the current crisis is “forcing the hand” of many organisations, setting them up for more flexible and productive practices which will prove beneficial in the long run as well as in meeting a pressing need.
The immediate need to work from home is helping teams who may have previously believed that remote working simply would not work for them, to see that their roles are more adaptable than they believed. For example, although remote working in the financial industry certainly presents challenges in terms of proprietary financial routines, regulation and security, organisations are being forced to find solutions and overcome these perceived barriers, or risk not being able to do business. The technology industry is adept at finding answers to problems - and tech vendors are making swift progress in terms of security, collaboration, accessibility and storage solutions to help.
Just ten years ago the idea of mass remote working would have been impossible - the underlying infrastructure simply wasn’t in place to support it. But today, the global data centre industry is already powering billions of internet-connected “things” and the vast volumes of data they generate - the backbone is firmly in place to help deal with the demands mass remote working will bring. And this is improving all the time. Increased deployment of High Performance Computing (HPC) provide a compelling way to maximise productivity and efficiency and increase available power density and the “per foot” computing power of the data centre - crucial as we move away from centralised office hubs into thousands of disparate home offices.
Any discussion around data centres inevitably comes hand in hand with environmental concerns - and organisations are already working hard to fuel a power hunger industry with renewable energy. But one of the overarching benefits of remote working is likely to be in the form of serious ecological good, as commuting and business travel are significantly lessened, reducing pollution. There are other benefits too. Whilst there may be increased IT set up costs, the requirement for businesses to have expensive office facilities may become a thing of the past, powering a more nimble and cost effective business environment.
Collaboration needn’t suffer either. Businesses must rethink how they build teams, looking at the tools and processes required to drive social engagement and power productivity remotely, but with commitment from employees and employers to find new ways to engage, there is no reason why business culture can’t continue to flourish and thrive.
As a matter of urgency, CIOs must work with executive teams and IT colleagues to put in place systems and policies to help people work remotely today and in the future - securely and successfully. We clearly need contingency plans for the weeks and, possibly, months ahead.
However, this current crisis is likely to have a knock-on effect for industries that will be pervasive and lasting. If they get it right - concentrating on the IT infrastructure that underpins remote working - the benefits are sizable: strategic decisions to save office space can be taken; hiring teams can attract and retain staff who are unable or unwilling to work in the office - harnessing the talent of an overlooked generation of people who have to juggle child care or care of elderly family members with work and generation z who don’t want to be stuck in an office or work traditional working days and hours; productivity is proven to increase due to less time wasted commuting and improved work / life balance; businesses can expand geographically more easily and quickly; and new business opportunities can be speedily realised.
Helpfully, we can learn from the existing success stories - those early adopters who run virtual businesses, or encourage systemic remote working - who are already reaping the benefits. There are plenty out there who marry the best processes, with the best technology - and who have the best infrastructure and data centre strategy to support it.
Darren Watkins, managing director, VIRTUS Data Centres