In the last few weeks we have seen numerous clients and other organizations move to having their workers work from home. For some of these organizations this has been a smooth and seamless transition. For others not so much. As we’ve described on our blog in my own firm HMS, the move from working on premise to working remotely has been very easy but this is because we had already put a plan in place for mitigating disasters. To be fair, we had envisaged a disaster with our building such as a fire or earthquake but the plan turned out to be just as effective for a global pandemic.
How is it then that some organizations have had more trouble than others?
Let’s start with dividing up different kinds of challenges:
Distinguishing who is impacted
Direct effect of shutdowns
For organizations that provide services that were directly affected by shutdowns, being able to work from home is not very helpful. So, if you were working in the travel industry, the restaurant business, taxi services, etc. this probably doesn’t apply to you.
Organizations where the work can’t be done at home
There are numerous industries where the work can’t be done at home. Many of these have been deemed essential such as keeping the oil moving and running the cargo systems. So, aside from the minority of workers who work in the office or the knowledge workers, this can’t apply to them.
Knowledge Workers and Office-based workers
This is who we’ll be thinking about in this article. These people may be used to working in a co-located setting with their colleagues or perhaps travelling from time to time to see clients or vendors but for the most part, these people have a desk. So, these people should be all set already, right? Not always.
In thinking of just the third category, how is it that some of these organizations were able to adapt more easily to remote work than others?
To answer this question we must first think of how remote work is possible in the first place.
Remote Work Technology
The ability to work from home is based on several technologies including the ability to do video webcasts over the Internet, Voice over IP (VOIP) and the expanding performance of the Internet itself. All of these came to a head at the turn of this century.
In the 80s, 90s and early 2000’s it was expected that someone in the software industry like I was would put a laptop (sometimes a big laptop) over one shoulder, a projector over another and then go and visit clients in person. The client contacts would all be in one building or close enough to be able to gather in one building and the presentation would occur in a conference room or classroom.
Then a few things changed.
In 1999, overcoming the impending Y2K change in many IT organizations meant looking further afield for difficult to find programmers and IT workers. The notion of outsourcing became more popular. The idea that everyone on an IT project had to be located in the same building, became less prevalent.
The Anthrax Attacks
In 2001 a series of attacks occurred in the United States where letters containing anthrax spores were sent to politicians and media outlets. The attacks would ultimately kill 5 people and infect 17 others. This bioweapons attack was very public, very scary and served to change the behaviours of many organizations in North America and beyond. Suddenly, being able to walk right into most organizations became a bit more difficult.
In 2002-2003 a respiratory illness which became known by its acronym SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) became known around the world. The response was coordinate by the World Health Organization. A worldwide total of 8096 cases and 774 deaths were the result. But, as the virus expanded at the time, there was a rapid restriction of movement and visitors into businesses. For us at HMS, we were suddenly being told to find a way to present software remotely as we would not be permitted to show up in person.
These factors made it more and more important for companies to be able to work remotely whether that was with co-workers on the other side of the world or vendors nearby. The incentive for technology to step into this demand was acute. And, as often happens when there is demand, innovation to create the supply occurred.
The first enabling technology was the Internet itself. In the mid 90s, common access speed to the Internet was 56kb. Just to do the math, that’s 56 thousands bits per second. If a business needed something faster, they would have to use dedicated phone lines. (Anyone remember a T1?.) Today, it’s quite common to get 100 Gigabits (that’s billions of bits per second) for commercial or residential use. Broadband started to become available in the mid- to late-90s. This impact of faster Internet empowered all kinds of technology.
Voice over IP and Skype
Skype, now owned by Microsoft, appeared in 2003 and revolutionized voice communications. Suddenly you could speak to someone almost anywhere in the world for free. This served to disrupt what had been a lucrative long distance calling industry for the big phone companies and made it easier for almost anyone to do at-home phoning without any or any major costs. The concept of communications over IP continues to be very influential in our lives. With companies who have fully embraced this technology, the physical location of a telephone handset has become less important. Logging into the phone service from wherever you are, gives you access to your voicemail, incoming calls, your contact list and more.
WebEx, GoToMeeting and many others
WebEx started in 1995 and GoTo meeting got its start in 1997 (known as Expertcity then, it was acquired by Citrix). There were many other competitors but the service was the same: Enable voice and video over the Internet. With the Internet moving to broadband in the late 90s and the other incentives of the early 2000s, these services took off in a big way. Being able to show your own PCs screen to one or many others while speaking over the phone was almost as good as being there and in some cases much better. The audience didn’t have to get together first and could tune in from wherever they were. More recent competitors include Zoom which got started in 2011. And Microsoft Teams which, while a relative newcomer in 2017, has the backing of one of the largest possible software service firms. The availability of these products has been largely responsible for people being able to work from home.
Remote access software
Products like LogMeIn (that is one that HMS uses) and Virtual Private Network (VPN) processes allow remote workers access to their at-office computers or computers set up for this purpose to make the at-home computer experience look and feel like being at the office.
Software as a Service
The last piece of the puzzle is the movement towards Software as a Service (SaaS). The Y2K experience of trying to make major software changes and upgrades under incredible pressure left many in the IT industry shaking their heads and looking to see how to avoid such a situation in the future. The movement to subscribing to software as a service started in the mid 2000’s and hasn’t slowed down. At HMS we started offering TimeControl as a service in 2011 and its popularity has now eclipsed clients who wish to purchase licenses for an on-premise deployment. Software as a Service puts the challenge of maintaining, protecting, developing, enhancing and upgrading the software in the hands of the vendor. The client needs only use the service. Because these services are typically subscribed to from the Internet (In-the-Cloud), they can be accessed from anywhere the Internet reaches and for practical purposes, that’s everywhere.
Back to our question then – Why did some organizations have an easier time moving to remote work in response to Covid-19?
The short answer to this is that those organizations who had adopted some of these enabling technologies in advance have had an easier time than those who are trying to enable them in a hurry under pressure. At HMS we have seen a big uptick in clients asking if they could move their on-premise TimeControl system to our In-the-Cloud subscription service, TimeControl Online. The answer to that is, of course, yes. We’re happy to help clients migrate in this way and to take over responsibility for making sure the timesheet and project progress software we offer is always on as a service for the client.
For many companies, some functions of the organization have been able to adapt quickly when they were using technologies that were already used as a service. Email is a good example. It’s very common for many organizations to have their email accessible from anywhere and that is a big element of communication in today’s business world. Getting remote access to your at-office computer may be a much bigger challenge if this wasn’t set up in advance. For some organizations ensuring that at-home workers have a computer that is capable of accessing the office network can be the start of the challenge. Then ensuring that this computer has essential software to connect is the next hurdle.
At the central office, we know that IT specialists in many organizations have been scrambling to increase access to networks that weren’t originally designed to be accessed this way and this can be a tough thing to deliver on short notice.
Yet more challenges are still in flux. For organizations who have spent the last 2, 3 or 4 weeks opening their network up in a hurry for remote access, so the company can keep operations going, there is going to be a wave of security concerns to ensure that no vulnerabilities have been created as a result.
If this isn’t enough. We all know that some of these requirements will be short term. We don’t know how short, but some of this work will be reversed for some users in the coming months.
The changes we’ve seen in the past weeks thanks to coronavirus will have impacts for the foreseeable future. Anyone who has ever had a disaster to recover from at their organization knows that once the crisis has passed, there are many questions on how to protect yourself from the effects the next time. I predict an even greater adoption of Voice over IP, Software as a Service and Document Management as a Service in the next couple of years.