15th May 2020
by Rufus Grig
Chief Strategy Officer
The advice is set out for both general consumption and advice for employees and employers, and very specific advice covering different sectors. However, one thing is clear from every document published on the COVID-19 portal this week is this – quoting directly, “For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workspace, wherever possible.”
Now this shouldn’t be any great surprise – we know that there is, as yet, neither a cure nor a vaccine. We know that the virus is highly infectious, and that it can survive outside a human host for long periods. Much of our experience of 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 an anathema to effective infection control.
So, working at home it is then, for most of the office or contact-centre based staff. “No big deal”, one might say – “I’ve been doing that for weeks”. However, given that all businesses are going to be need to support a degree of remote working for much longer than many initially thought when the lockdown was originally imposed in March, it is time to think about how we “industrialise” the systems and tools that enable people to be as effective as possible.
There are some basics that all desk-based people and knowledge-workers need 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 many organisations, reacting to the initial lockdown instruction was a scramble and a challenge. Amazing things were achieved by many – I’ve spoken to CIOs who went from 5% of their workforce working from home to 100% in days. But in many cases these platforms have been put together quickly and not necessarily strategically – necessity being the mother of invention, IT teams have done what they had to get by – to survive.
But we are now planning for this being a longer-term issue. The “90-day free trial” of the video-based meetings tool is about to expire. The tools you have been using may have been featuring rather too prominently in the news for reasons that give you concern.
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. The Government’s guidelines on making a workplace “COVID-Secure” make it clear that social distancing will be a key requirement – and for most organisations that will mean offices being staffed at well-below maximum occupation – meaning that many employees will have to continue to work from home even as some return to the office. That creates another challenge – providing communications tools that enable staff to collaborate where some are in a meeting room in the office, and where some are at home.
The “COVID-Secure” guidelines also sensibly point out the needs for protecting equipment that is shared – be that phones, headsets, desks, keyboards – the personal issue of 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 would mean a business traveller spending four weeks in quarantine for every trip take – two in their destination country, and two when they return to the UK.
That is clearly unworkable – so the ability to conduct meetings with external parties – preferably in a business environment – will be key for all. We will see a return to the need for the room-based video meeting platform. So, what does this mean? I’ve put together 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. As is security, cost – and how the tools support the whole meeting process – the scheduling, the document sharing, the action tracking and the dissemination – not just the talking heads during the meeting itself.
(2) Equip 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 work OK for video conferences – but they generally do not work well, particularly for the other participants. The earpieces that came with your mobile may be better than your laptop speakers, but they still pickup and amplify background noise, and are often not comfortable in all-day use. Quality headsets, speakerphones and cameras are cheap, reliable and have a disproportionate impact on the quality 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) Contact Centre – contact centre agents working from home have done a sterling job in the main, but there are many tools that they need to work from home effectively. Obviously a high-quality head-set for those taking calls is vital, but so are tools to enable agents to contact supervisors for help in real-time, to access help and FAQ information as situations change and evolve, and at times of increased demand, tools that enable customers to digitally serve themselves for the more simply cases, enabling agents to focus on the complex and difficult issues are vital. [RW1] During the return to the centre itself, most contact centres 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) Industrialise network access – it is possible to deliver enterprise-grade connectivity and security to the homeworker – and for many in critical roles that is what organisations 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 centre agent, reliable, predictable, secure access to networks and systems is a must.
(5) Embrace the cloud – for many organisations their on-premise PBX has been more of a hinderance than an asset. Uptime and availability become the responsibility of the cloud provider, more flexible internet (or WAN) based access for voice and video communications, eliminating 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 – we have moved tens of thousands of our customer’s people onto our cloud platform – enabling them to take maximum advantage of their existing investments while benefiting from the advantages the cloud provides.
At Maintel, we’re ready to help our customers prepare for the next phase this pandemic. There are several ways you can start to work with us at your pace and focussing on your priority areas.
· Expert-on-demand – we launched this service to enable our top 300 customers to get direct access to our consultants, pre-sales engineers and lead implementation engineers for a 30-minute initial consultation session, free of charge. You can book a session here and start discussion your projects or needs
· Maintel Interactive Webinars – we are launching a series of webinars to help you plan for the next phase of work – starting with Running Effective Remote Meetings and Using Digital Deflection to Protect Services Levels in Extraordinary times. There are more being published each week – please check our events page for more information
· Since the coronavirus started to hit the UK, we have published several blogs on a variety of different subjects to provide hints and tips on using communications technology to manage your business through the crisis
· Your account manager will be able to point you in the right direction – if you don’t know who your account manager is, you can contact us here and we will put you in touch.
At Maintel we help public and private sector organisations across the UK improve their business through transformational communications services. In this crisis we are helping many of the UK’s front-line services from more than 60 NHS Hospital trusts, many local authorities, social housing and social care needs, emergency services and education services. In the private sector we are helping our retail customers manage unprecedented change in their working conditions, helping our financial services customers continue to provide their services from their employees homes in a secure and reliable way, and we’re helping our many utilities customers to keep their mission-critical services going. We would welcome the chance to talk about how we can help your business.