The outbreak of Covid-19 forced a massive, unprecedented shift to working from home — in most cases, on a faster timetable than any of us would have recommended or signed up for prior to the pandemic.
These were challenging projects that needed to be executed as quickly as possible. For most companies, it was a bumpy road with research showing that only 1 in 5 companies experienced no downtime while 2 in 5 companies experienced downtime of more than two weeks.
But the outcomes have been largely positive. Many companies discovered that with today’s collaboration tools and connectivity, many roles and activities can be performed remotely in a highly effective manner.
While we don’t yet know what the balance will be between onsite versus remote work in the longer term, reflecting on the lessons of our recent experience can help prepare businesses in the event that they have to pivot again.
As an IT support provider looking after more than 50 SME clients and responsible for hundreds of end-users, here are some observations that we made that we think small business owners can learn from.
When stay-at-home orders went into effect in communities around the globe, IT teams had to accelerate projects and find creative solutions to problems that had never been faced before, to keep workforces up and running remotely.
Quickly providing secure access to company data and providing communication and collaboration tools and equipment for team members was critical to the survival of businesses in an unprecedented time.
In the main, the crisis required…
· Ensuring users had suitable equipment that they could use at home
· The rapid deployment of secure site-to-site VPN connections to allow users to access their company documents and business critical applications from anywhere, at any time
· The wholesale deployment of communication and collaboration tools to allow them to be apart but work together
Lesson Learned: People are more versatile than we might have thought
Equipment shortages, specifically, laptops and webcams, was the first problem that needed to be overcome, so we made use of devices that we keep for “loaners” initially and encouraged clients to buy hardware direct, furnishing them with detailed specifications to ensure that what they did procure was entirely suitable for their needs.
We also needed to revise our usual workstation set-up process, asking clients to have the laptops delivered directly to the end-users and then talking the through the process of getting the device online at which point we could utilise our remote-access facilities to finish the set-up process.
Our policy of keeping and maintaining “standard builds” for our clients really paid off allowing us to quickly deploy configurations and install the applications that each client depends on.
The issue of quickly deploying secure VPN connections was handled via our ticketing system. Fortunately, we recommend that all our clients adopt business-class router/firewall solutions and so almost all had site-to-site VPN capability prior to the crisis. We configured a template configuration for each client and then were able to quickly push out agents.
Similarly, most of our clients have already taken us up on our recommendations to adopt the Microsoft 365 platform, replacing their old on-premises “Exchange” email servers or 3rd party hosted email services. At the time it was a decision based largely on saving money but really paid off with the lockdown as it meant that our clients already had vital infrastructure “in the cloud” and access to one of the leading communication and collaboration platforms in Microsoft Teams.
For the few clients that were not 365 users, we found Zoom to be a good alternative, the “free” version sufficed for most and it took very little time to set up an account and install.
Importantly, we were not slowed down at any point by user apathy or resistance. Our client’s users were right there with us, pushing with us toward a common goal. This experience showed that users are willing and able to adopt new ways of working quickly when the chips are down.
Lesson Learned: Pro-Active & Responsive IT support is a must have, not a luxury
We were able to migrate 100% of our client’s staff, that needed to transition to home working, within a week of the lockdown being announced.
We achieved this while simultaneously moving to wholesale homeworking ourselves.
Meanwhile many companies experienced long delays and massive disruption, and costing them both financially and commercially, costs they may never recover from.
We were able to do this because we act pro-actively for our clients, regularly reviewing their IT and making recommendations such as implementing business-class networking and migrating from aging on-premise solutions to hosted platforms for critical functions like email and file storage.
Recommendations like these were driven by other benefits at the time, such as increasing security and reducing costs. But when the lockdown came this forward-looking approach really paid off as our clients were already some way down the path to decentralised infrastructure and were able to quickly travel the remaining distance.
Lesson Learned: Give a little to gain a lot
For those clients that had to implement furloughs, or were temporarily shuttered, we arranged payment breaks and reductions on their monthly support costs, while we continued to maintain their IT infrastructures so they were ready to jump back into action quickly when the restrictions lifted.
This was difficult for us as we were already committed to paying for the services that we usually provide, such as the remote access and monitoring agents that are installed on all client devices and other services that would be potentially unused for a while.
But the goodwill that this brought us will be worth much, much more in the medium and long term and has already translated into referrals and recommendations from happy customers.
Our customer satisfaction scores, already good, hit an all-time high at 99.6% and have averaged 99.5% ever since, proving that customers do not quickly forget a job well done, especially when the consequences were potentially dire.
Want more advice? If you would like advice on IT for your small business or start-up, get in touch.