The way we conduct business in the UK is destined for significant change as COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed, and it’s likely that many of the changes will become permanent features of the new work culture. Work premises will be redesigned to help minimise a second wave of infection, however, a deeper societal change is likely to emerge. Our colleague, Nigel Morris from BDO’s Technology Advisory Services (TAS) team offers advice to the non-technical board member responsible for IT on what has been learned from the evolving business landscape, and how to prepare their IT strategy and workforce for an increasingly dispersed and tech-dependent world.
An IT blueprint for business success
The good news is that many employees, across a growing number of companies, have now taken that first click. They are comfortable with collaborating remotely, participating in video conferences and conducting online meetings. The technology that has been available for some time, yet underutilised, is being pushed into the foreground as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. This is likely to endure, with the need for employee flexibility, increased separation in the office, and a greater degree of remote working becoming the norm.
As a result, your IT environment needs to be flexible, resilient and secure, and you should review key elements of your IT strategy including your software applications, data networks, user devices, voice networks, information security and IT support.
It’s likely that you will have considered these aspects of your business as COVID-19 began to take hold. If you have, now is the time to drill down into the detail and prepare for the future. If you haven’t, there’s still time to begin the evaluation and implementation process, but you will need to act quickly.
Software application next steps
The days of SME and mid-market businesses hosting their software applications on premise are disappearing and application delivery as Software as a Service (SaaS) is a natural next step. The benefits of SaaS - easier remote working, reduction in IT time on maintaining applications and paying only for what's used - ensures employees always have access to core productivity and collaboration tools.
With regular monthly costs that allow you more budgetary control, no upfront investment, and your service provider managing the data centre, providing security and support, and implementing software updates, SaaS provides a sturdy platform from which to launch your future business strategy.
Building a strong data communications backbone
Your business is only as robust as your data network. Even after the removal of all COVID-19-related social distancing restrictions, a substantial proportion of your workforce is likely to be operating remotely, and accessing software applications in the Cloud. Your prospects, clients and suppliers will also be more inclined to favour online video conferencing and collaboration tools.
- Ensure you have sufficient bandwidth to support multiple remote network connections - your business will also need to rely on a mix of public and private data connectivity. This can lead to security management issues, increased bandwidth consumption, high latency (long data delay times) and a lack of traffic control.
- A managed data network service provider can offer a fully managed, secure and resilient virtual network across multiple forms of data connectivity, e.g. private circuits, the Internet, 4G/5G mobile data.
User devices that are fit for the task
Your workforce will be more likely to carry out their duties from beyond the office. If they are currently working on desktop PCs, then they may need alternative long-term user device solutions.
- Carry out a hardware audit to evaluate the costs and benefits of transitioning from fixed desktop workstations to laptops and other mobile devices.
- Upfront costs of investing in standard issue laptops can be offset by savings on expensive office space, ease of support and increased productivity delivered by a flexible workforce. Laptop hardware can be augmented by external monitors, keyboards and mice, easily matching the capabilities of a traditional desktop PC.
A flexible phone system in the cloud
Many companies, regardless of their size, are just not equipped to make and receive calls remotely. This has been a huge challenge throughout the rise of COVID-19, particularly for call centres and support staff.
- You can address any phone-related problems in your business by using a cloud-based PBX.
- Residing in the cloud meaning no hardware system to install or maintain in the office
- All the functionality you would expect of an on premise system
- Easily adapting to the needs of your business - adding or removing lines and extensions through a web-based portal.
It works by transporting voice data over the internet with VoIP technology. You may use a handset, or a softphone or app installed on their device, be it a laptop or smartphone, to make and receive calls as if they were located in a traditional office or call centre environment, using their regular corporate landline phone number.
Information Security remains key
Remote working increases the attack surface area for hackers. Put simply, hackers have a greater number of opportunities to cause disruption and steal data. Therefore, implementing effective data security is paramount and you should be sure you continue to address critical aspects of IT security.
- Implement a finite set of proven, well supported and tested applications
- Do not allow staff to choose alternatives according to their preference
- Ensure all software and firmware is updated to the latest release
- Make sure all data in transit and at rest is encrypted
- Consider implementing Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) to verify a users’ access credentials
- Provide all staff with regular cyber security training, to heighten awareness and enable them to recognise and avoid IT security pitfalls.
The changing role of IT support
With a greater emphasis on remote working and a heightened need for resilient and secure networks, your IT support team, be they internal or provided by a 3rd party, will be faced with a new raft of challenges. They will need to be more responsive, proactive and mobile than ever before.
Ensure you and your 3rd party suppliers;
- have conducted a full risk assessment of potential pinch points that may arise from previously unforeseen circumstances such as COVID-19
- Put solutions in place to mitigate effect including;
- Tools and training
- Remote troubleshooting
- Supply and replacement of devices to off-site locations
- Managing remote infrastructure
IT planning for the future
It’s likely that many of the adapted processes will be here to stay and that IT is the key enabler to facilitate business continuity and future planning.
A prudent SME or mid-market business should be assessing how well it has adapted to the COVID-19 restrictions, and be planning its IT strategy around enabling future employee flexibility and remote working, not only to adapt to any future workforce restrictions, but to improve business processes, control costs, and enhance employee satisfaction, developing a robust plan for future business success.