Some companies, the lucky ones, went from 10-20% of their employees working from home (WFH) for 1-2 days per week, to 100% of their employees working from home every day. For many others, allowing their employees to work from home was a brand new experience.
The HR and operational challenges associated with this 100% WFH were immense, and IT departments everywhere were forced to pull out all stops to do to make it successful, with many still grappling with this.
OBT Managing Director Shane Muller has had countless conversations with customers, analysts, peers, and media, over the last few months, so we had a chat to unpack his observations and learnings around how the COVID-19 emergency and subsequent “new normal” has affected IT departments nationwide.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. What do you think was the biggest challenge that companies faced from the Coronavirus lockdown?
A: Timeframe and scale. No company was prepared for the suddenness of the lockdown and what that meant for the way they operate. WFH was not officially supported for many companies, or if it was, only for few employees and infrequently.
This is now what we regard as the “First Wave” of the pandemic IT response. Within days companies had to get their workers up and running at home. Remote login, VPN, email, application licenses, were all challenges that companies had to deal with in a hurry.
To help with that that, a few months ago OBT released some simple tips for fast-tracking WFH as well as giving firms resources to help their WFH keep up their cybersecurity awareness, given their network and data is more vulnerable in this WFH climate.
Q: OK, after the company’s employees were successfully working from home- what came next?
A: You need to understand that “up and running” covers a lot of ground. Everything from “marginally functional” using email and basic office productivity software, to fully productive with access to all required software, solutions, and services.
This brings me to the “Second Wave” of the pandemic IT response – which focuses on giving every WFH employee the tools they need to be fully productive.
This can be additional gear like second monitors, headsets and ergonomic office chairs, collaboration software, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Videoconferencing, or more Line-of-Business (LOB) focused software.
People develop some interesting habits when they work from home, but most can sustain the same volume and quality of work that they did working in an office.
Q: What about security and privacy, aren’t they important?
A: You bet, and this is where Enterprise IT gets serious and unfortunately more difficult.
It is one challenge to get your remote workers productive, but it is just as important to keep their work at home as secure and private as they would be inside the office.
This is what I call the “Third Wave” of the pandemic IT response, and one that many firms are grappling at the time of this interview (although I’ve still seen many in the “Second Wave, so this is what will come next for them).
A few weeks ago, OBT put together some Work from Home security tips to help improve security and privacy for remote workers.
Something we have seen that accelerates the progression through the “Third Wave” is to form a specialised team of multi-disciplinary IT experts, I think of it as a Seal Team.
While the rest of your Enterprise IT works on the basic IT requirements of the First and Second Wave, the Seal Team needs to think outside of the box and make WFH IT better — faster, stronger, cheaper and more secure.
For example, the Business as Usual (BAU) Team deals with basic connectivity and authentication issues, whereas the Seal Team will be tuning your VPN and Firewalls to enforce security and keep your company’s sensitive data secure and private.
Q: Why do you need separate teams?
A: There are a couple of reasons. First, the basic job of getting your entire workforce operating remotely and productively is already a full-time task. Likely more than full-time for many companies as their number of remote workers has increased by an order of magnitude in a relatively short time frame.
Another reason is expertise. While it is possible to use a steering committee or task force approach consisting of multiple subject matter experts (SMEs), the downside is the agility and speed at which these operate.
Sometimes a bad decision is better than no decision at all, or in other words, it might be better to “fail fast and fix.”
Q: What happens next?
A: You’ve no doubt heard that overused business quoted a multitude of times “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. And this be will be the genesis of the “Fourth Wave” of pandemic IT Response.
Companies will begin to enhance their monitoring and measurement of everything to see where there are bottlenecks, vulnerabilities and general issues. Is your VPN overwhelmed? Is SSO working? How are your systems performing on-peak and off-peak hours?
While a lot of key enterprise solutions are SaaS and don’t generally bog down you own network infrastructure, there is going to be a lot more data in transit at any given time.
Also on the human side, with many staff working in a physically distanced environment, there are also mental health and well-being indicators that need to be monitored and actioned, to minimise the risk of overwork, burnout, stress, or other mental health issues – and IT becomes a critical part in the implementation of any strategy to that purpose.
Q: That’s very insightful. Any final words of advice?
A: Based on what we have seen the last few months, the four waves of a pandemic IT response are something that each firm is moving through at their own pace.
There’s no “standard” time frame for each stage, and while each organisation has their own unique setup, industry and these are the commonalities we’ve observed, and this gives firms in the first or second wave a chance to get their head around what is most likely to come next.
The other thing to consider is some of these lessons learned have much broader applicability outside of a global pandemic and can be applied to almost any business interruption or emergency.
Right now, I see these as the main things that firms will need to look at in addition to managing their transition through the four waves.
- Documenting learnings from this event and building strategies and plans to deal with similar emergencies in the future.
- As much as possible. ensuring that any new measure implemented are set up correctly from the outset, as the more this can be done the less organisations will have to “undo” any hasty measure or worse, deal with the fall out of a security breach or operational overhaul.
- Considering the implications and approach to formally supporting WFH on an ongoing basis and build more resiliency into its operations.