COVID-19: How to Keep Working When Offices Close

Gary Barton – Analyst, Business Network and IT Services

Summary Bullets:

• Collaboration technologies offer a viable way to support home working during Covid-19 – and potential long-term cost saving and carbon reduction benefits.

• Enterprises should already be trialing collaboration and VPN platforms in anticipation of potential quarantine situations.

As airports come to a standstill and pictures of near-empty train stations dominate news feeds, it is clear that COVID-19 is already impacting the way many people are working. Even before the possibility of mandatory quarantining is considered, many employees are either being asked to work from home, choosing to do so, or are being forced to do so by circumstance (e.g., school closures). So how should businesses respond?

VPNs

Enterprises should ensure that they are already developing a large-scale remote working capability. Indeed, many companies already have in response to a growing preference for flexible working arrangements from their employees. But those enterprises who have not so far looked to adopt flexible working capabilities should look at two key areas: virtual private networks (VPNs) and team collaboration platforms (also sometimes called unified communications).

VPN providers globally are already reporting that they have seen a significant spike in usage, particularly in countries that have so far been worst affected by COVID-19. VPNs allow remote workers to establish secure connections over public internet via PCs, laptops, or mobile devices to corporate intranets/applications/databases. The security aspect is maintained through the use of encryption, thereby helping to maintain data compliance as well meeting broader cyber security concerns.

There are numerous free VPN services available, however the performance, reliability, and security of these services is often questionable – particularly for corporate use. However, many business-oriented ISPs will be able to sell paid VPN services at a non-prohibitive price point.

Collaboration Platforms

VPNs offer access to corporate systems, but they do not necessarily help employees communicate and work together. This is where collaboration platforms offer an effective solution. Platforms offered by vendors such as Microsoft (Teams) Cisco (Webex Teams), Google (Hangouts), Ring Central (Glip), and Slack combine message-based communications with team and project management capabilities. Distinct, and, where necessary, overlapping groups of employees can be created to allow communication with whole teams, whilst private messaging capabilities exist for more focused conversations. Groups can be created for specific projects with task allocation and timeline features available. The applications are cloud-hosted and accessible from most devices.

The collaboration platforms work best when combined with other application suites such as Microsoft Office 365 or Google G Suite, and video/web conferencing platforms. Free versions of many of some of the collaboration platforms are available – but may be time and/or feature limited. Similarly, video/web conferencing platforms often offer free services that have conference number and/or length and/or frequency restrictions. However, the full subscription costs are not high, and in some cases (e.g., for web conferencing platforms) licenses can often be shared.

Fight COVID-19, Go Green, and Keep Millennials Happy!

Enterprises should not see investing in remote/collaborative working solutions as purely COVID-19 related. As noted, the macro trend in businesses has been towards more flexible and remote working practices for some time. COVID-19 will (hopefully!) be a temporary factor, but it is likely to accelerate the trend towards employees spending less time on corporate premises. This offers employees well-being benefits and working practices that will appeal to younger generations as they enter the workplace. Reducing employee travel also reduces costs and provides an effective way for companies to reduce their carbon footprint.

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