Weathering the coronavirus crisis through remote working

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Guy Little
Mar 13, 2020
Weathering the coronavirus crisis through remote working

How prepared is your IT department to implement remote working at scale to protect employees from COVID-19? In this article, we discuss how you can build on your existing Microsoft infrastructure to get started immediately…

Feel as though your office is turning more and more into a cleaning supply closet? The smell of antibacterial wipes, disinfectant and hand sanitizer lingering? You’re not alone.

As the world rushes to manage the coronavirus outbreak that has infected tens of thousands in China, and thousands more around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared a ‘global pandemic’ is underway. This means that a “period of global spread” and “community transmission” is ongoing and that a significant percentage of the world’s population will be affected.

A real threat for businesses globally

In the UK, the government has suggested that the majority of the population—or 60%—needs to contract the flu-like illness known as COVID-19 for “herd immunity” from future outbreaks and that it is highly likely the disease will return “year-on-year”. They’ve also said that businesses must prepare for the “mildly sick to stay home” while WHO also declared it will get “worse before it gets better”.

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now warned that “community spread” in the US is ongoing and could last until 2021. The Federal Government has urged Americans to gear up for “significant disruption” through “social distancing measures that increase the physical space between people”. This could mean mandated “workplace social distancing measures” such as “replacing in-person meetings with teleworking,” the US health authorities added.

Following the CDC’s announcement, a slew of high-profile companies including Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Apple asked employees to work from home to help deal with the threat of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has already dealt a huge blow to businesses across geographies sending the “financial markets reeling” as well as bringing economic activity to a standstill in the world’s second largest economy, and epicenter of the outbreak, China. Now businesses need to ensure continuity and respond to the possibility of mandated social distancing that could quickly become a reality for them in the form of remote working en masse.

Remote working gone viral—or has it?

For all the promise of innovations that can make it possible for us to work from anywhere, only about 29% of US employees worked remotely as of 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And despite all the buzz around remote working and the stats showing an increase in companies offering it, half (44%) of the world’s companies actually don’t support it.

But remote working is good for business: 85% of businesses confirm that productivity has increased because of greater flexibility and 77% say allowing employees to work remotely leads to much lower operating costs.

Remote working is key for better employee experiences

Remote working is good for the employee experience, too. 90% of employees say allowing for more flexible work arrangements and schedules increase employee morale, and 80% of remote workers experience less job-related stress.

While it is clear remote working is a huge part of the overall employee experience (EX), employee experience is a huge part of the overall competitiveness and performance of a business.

According to HBR, companies that invest in employee experience outperform those that don’t, generating four times more profit per employee and three times more revenue per employee. But here’s the caveat: only 7% of enterprises have implemented digital workplaces, and the transition to one is taking twice as long as expected.

A big part of delivering great employee experience is the ability to enable and empower a remote workforce, which sits firmly within IT’s remit. So how can 93% of companies that are yet to implement digital workplace practices respond to an outbreak that dictates prolonged remote working?

Remote working and business continuity

While the COVID-19 problem is immediate for businesses as they gear up for remote working at scale, the solution needs to be long-term. The immediate need driven by the outbreak means the answer isn’t in ripping and replacing—and the long-term solution means properly preparing for the future of work.

The way forward for businesses is to build on their existing Microsoft tooling to enhance their ability to support remote working in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

So, how can you maintain business-as-usual and support remote workers by delivering a secure, productive, disruption-free and office-like experience?

1. Establish remote access for users and remote management for IT

Many users will be able to get most of their work done using web-based and local applications with just an internet connection, but they will need access to systems and resources on the corporate network at some point. IT teams will also need to manage these endpoints while users are working from home. So, it’s essential that all devices are correctly configured to connect to your corporate VPN. Connectivity issues with VPNs rank highly among common help desk incidents, so it’s important to have management tools that can remediate issues over the internet when the VPN is not available.

Cloud-attaching your Configuration Manager (CM) environment is the quickest way to extend most of your current CM management capabilities to internet-based clients and is much easier to implement than it once was. You should also consider tools that enable real-time remediation over the internet to help IT to address issues directly on endpoints without having to rely on remote desktop or screen-sharing over Skype, Teams or whatever communication tools you use.

2. Power-up the IT help desk with proactive visibility into endpoints and automated remediation

With more people working remotely, there’s likely to be more calls to the IT help desk. Your help desk agents must be ready to quickly and remotely remediate issues—not just log and move tickets higher up.

With holistic visibility into endpoint health, help desk agents can proactively find and remediate issues on single devices and set policies to apply and automate the same fix across an entire endpoint estate without the user ever having to raise a ticket.

Think about empowering level 1 engineers so they can diagnose problems across devices interactively and remediate issues without escalating to higher levels of IT support. This improves first-time resolution rates and mean time to remediation (MTTR) as well as satisfaction levels for the end-user.

3. Don’t compromise on compliance and drift control

Unpatched devices are a huge security vulnerability, so whether your employees are in the office or at home, it’s critical to be able to manage compliance and drift control. If you’re able to gain deep visibility across the endpoint estate, you can better manage risks. Make sure that even the most complex baselines can be easily created and applied so they react in real-time (without the need to wait for polling cycles) and stop issues before they become serious problems.

Through this, you can also be sure to have more reliable and secure devices, lowering IT burden and operating costs through event-based configuration management for both security and operations compliance.

This also improves the end-user experience because the devices are more stable and cause fewer disruptions (increased failures, support costs and vulnerabilities due to configuration drift on the endpoints can significantly impact the employee experience). IT teams should be sure they can patch from anywhere with confidence and protect the network through bandwidth management, especially considering you can expect to see a lot more traffic going through your VPN.

4. Provide a self-service IT experience

Empowering end-users is a big part of the employee experience—they don’t want to come to IT for every little issue. End-users want to feel as though they’re in control of their devices—so put them in the driving seat through:

  • Self-service application management that gives employees an app store experience to manage software on their own terms. With a remote workforce, software requests could quickly spiral out of control without well-defined application management. Remote workers can’t wait days for new software through raising requests, waiting for approval, and then installation. Imagine the downtime and diminished productivity due to that? Giving remote workers the ability to self-serve applications can keep your remote workers satisfied and productive, but also reduce the IT burden through automated approval workflows and rapid deployment to meet remote workers’ needs as well as manage software sprawl and license costs.
  • Chatbots that offer guided remediation for commonly occurring issues to deflect help desk tickets. With a large remote workforce, enabling automated remediation of common issues wherever the employee is located is critical. Using virtual agents and chatbots to communicate intelligently with remote employees, they’ll be empowered to immediately fix issues themselves.

5. Maintain business-as-usual through automated Windows servicing and endpoint replacement

Given the grip COVID-19 has on the world, remote working isn’t likely to be a short-term fix for most organizations. A long-term plan to prepare for any eventuality is critical for business continuity and to maintain business-as-usual operations.

For example, the timing of the outbreak means that the next major Windows update will likely fall right in the middle of quarantine, self-isolation and home working periods. This means you’ll need to start thinking about how to remotely deliver Windows updates and servicing—and potentially in the longer term, break/fix rebuilds and endpoint replacements.

While we don’t know how long the pandemic is going to last, companies—and employees—forced into remote working policies might think it’s not so bad after all and COVID-19 could be the catalyst for more remote working in the future. You can start planning for prolonged home working through:

  • Automated Windows servicing to reduce end-user disruption and IT burden. By automating Windows servicing, you can ensure your remote workers have control over which updates they take—and when. This reduces disruption and ensures productivity levels remain high. Applications can be automatically upgraded, and employees have the latest versions compatible with the upgraded operating system.
  • User-driven rebuild and replacement of endpoints. Looking to the future, if critical issues with endpoints arise, end-users won’t be able to return to the office to bring their machine in for investigation or rebuild. Empowering employees to replace or rebuild machines remotely and at their own convenience will be a critical component in your remote working and business continuity plan.

Through these action points, you can ensure remote workers are empowered to work from anywhere, and still have a great, office-like experience.

If you’re struggling to enable your remote workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic, please speak to us. We can help you build on your existing infrastructure to quickly get your employees working remotely.

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