The best time to prepare for remote working was six months ago

The second-best time is now

It can be a bit of burden being right all the time. Just over six months ago, I wrote a column on the urgent need for businesses to prepare for the mass adoption of remote working - and yet, like Cassandra of myth, my warnings went largely unheeded and organisations across the globe are now battling to cope with the strain of virtually all of their employees working from home.

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Admittedly, my original column was based on the idea that a hard Brexit and strict border controls would create a talent crunch for UK businesses that rely on EU staff, rather than a viral pandemic cutting an infectious swathe through the developed world, but I think the point still stands.

Companies have been caught completely off-guard by this change; even those that had pre-existing policies around working remotely were ill-prepared to apply them to the entire workforce, to say nothing of those that had no flexible working policy at all. Many organisations are now frantically having to provision laptops, monitors and other devices for staff, while simultaneously choosing and deploying collaboration, videoconferencing and file-sharing software, which is no easy task even under ideal circumstances.

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It’s fair to say that the current circumstances are far from ideal. But while businesses undoubtedly have much to be concerned about, there is a silver lining here. There’s never been a better time to adopt remote working, or (believe it or not) an easier one. That might sound crazy, but bear with me.

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Adoption is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to getting a collaboration solution off the ground, but given that most people are effectively quarantining themselves, instant messaging and videoconferencing tools make much more sense as a long-term collaboration strategy than phone calls, emails and face-to-face meetings held outside at least two metres apart. Staff and management alike are essentially going to be forced to use these tools for the sake of their own sanity, lest they start getting cabin fever.

It’s good news for CIOs who have been trying to get budget signed off to roll out these platforms, too; it’s no longer a case of whether or not they’d add value to the business, they’re an operational imperative if organisations want to keep trading at maximum effectiveness. Not only that, but many SaaS providers are offering several months of free trials for organisations struggling to adjust to the change. They’re looking to convert them to paying customers when all this blows over, of course, but it’s worth exploring nonetheless.

So what now, then? The advice from Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, is that we’re “in for the long haul” with this, so it’s important that businesses plan to support full-scale remote working for the foreseeable future. In terms of IT, that means focusing on collaboration first, and then using that as a foundation to support the rest of your core business functions. Pick a platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams and deploy it as a matter of urgency. 

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After that, focus on file-sharing and document collaboration, followed by ancillary systems like CRM or ERP. Ideally, you should aim to have the fundamental components of your business running in the cloud by the end of the month. This might sound like a huge upheaval, but it may actually be a blessing in disguise; you’ll likely find that your business runs a lot smoother on these systems once they’re up and running, and those efficiency and productivity gains will carry over once things return to normal. You’ll also be fully set up for remote working, which will make you more flexible and a more attractive employer to new talent.

These are challenging and uncertain times for all of us, but the best thing we can do is help make preventative isolation as easy as possible for all concerned, whilst still providing staff, customers and partners with some semblance of normality – and proper support for remote working is the first step to that

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