The Road to Recovery (Part 1): Navigating the technology shifts of COVID-19

Who has been more effective at driving your digital transformation strategy? Your CEO, your CTO, or COVID-19? It’s the viral meme that has hit my social channel numerous times over the past week and continues to bring a wry smile even after all this time.

While the meme undervalues the transformative work done by many, a good joke (and it is a good joke) always includes a little truth.

As I sit here in my makeshift office, carved out between my open plan kitchen and living room, I’m inundated by video calls, Webex meetings, and Teams messages; many from colleagues, customers, and partners who only weeks ago would have never thought to do anything but send me an email. To say that both the technical and cultural change has been dramatic is an understatement.

Amidst the worst pandemic since 1920, technologists are witnessing the emergence of a new cultural epoch. The work-from-home mandate that was thrust upon many of us has brought with it a techno-cultural crisis, and heralded the start of a series of technological challenges that businesses will need to navigate carefully as we work our way back towards some sort of new normal.

Working from home is an operational crisis.

Being forced to work from home was only business as usual for a small number of people. The reality is that most impacted companies are outside their comfort zones and have had to adapt rapidly in light of insufficient business continuity plans.

Amidst the initial chaos, IT professionals have had to take decisive action combating COVID-19. Tactical purchases have been necessary to boost remote working, local laptop supplies have been exhausted, and many teams have resorted to running business application on personal computers that were never chosen to meet the demands of the business. Strategies to use cloud file services such as Microsoft OneDrive have been accelerated, or in some cases designed on the fly. And in the absence of in-person meetings, collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex have been rapidly deployed, prompting a wealth of comic relief as embarrassing videos surface of people grappling with new technology without adequate training. Of course, not everyone has come willingly, with some jumping in headfirst after waiting eagerly for access to the new tools, while others have had to be carefully coaxed by their managers – or even dragged kicking and screaming into the new world.

Beyond the obvious need for laptops and collaboration tools, technical teams have had to address everything from operational processes to endpoint security, and their approach to governance. By most accounts, some items like endpoint security and remote access have been relatively easy to address, while others have been more challenging. The need to scale virtual desktop services created data centre capacity issues and customers rapidly turned to new management tools which could monitor data centre CPU and memory utilisation, and automatically adjust resource allocations to meet soaring demand.

I know many outstanding technical teams have adapted well, a large number that are still adapting, and some that have been tested and found wanting. Unfortunately for everyone, this is only the beginning, and there’s a still a long way to go.

We need to stabilise the business.

Once employees are safe and working from home, workplaces will need to look ahead and adapt approaches to stabilise business operations.

While many (progressive) employees are rejoicing in the rapid adoption of next-gen cloud apps, cloud migrations are usually well planned and carefully executed. The rapid onboarding of new cloud services brings with it serious downstream implications and the risk of creating unmanageable technical debt.

The proliferation of new cloud identities, disconnected from the corporate identities used only days earlier, will create security headaches for onboarding and offboarding staff, visibility and governance issues, and open the door for unquantifiable data loss. Existing on-premises identity services must be extended to cover new cloud services in order to apply consistent security policies across cloud services. Cloud Application Security Brokers (CASB), Single Sign-On (SSO), and Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) will need to be well understood and common-place in a highly distributed environment.

Additionally, the accelerated uptake of tools such as Microsoft O365 (including Microsoft Teams) will radically shift an organisation’s data profile. With documents flooding into cloud collaboration tools, companies need to get on top of their cloud backup strategy. Many soon realise that the cloud is now their primary data store and that on-premises backup solutions will need to be considered to protect their assets.

And those collaboration tools that everyone was so eager to deploy? Caveat emptor… buyer beware. The strategies you use today will either create, or avoid, tomorrow’s technical debt. Many cloud services were activated to get people collaborating, and they worked well. However teams, message, and document sprawl can create chaos as employees struggle to navigate too many different teams to find the file that they’re looking for. Without structure, teams tools can become a wasteland of confusion and lost productivity.

Beyond the cloud services, there are practical obstacles that we’ll need to overcome – many of which haven’t made themselves fully known yet. From the expired passwords which can only be reset from the office, to the contracts that need signatures from people who used to sit only meters away, we’ll hit speedbumps. For many companies, deploying laptops falls into the same category.

The days of shipping laptops to technical support, having them imaged, and then deployed through a white-glove service are behind us. Devices will need to be shipped directly to employee’s homes, plugged into an Internet connection, and configured through a zero-touch process for the neo-luddites among us.

And while on the topic of physical assets: in the initial rush to keep businesses operational, laptops, monitors, and other devices were handed out, often without any record-keeping. These asset allocations, along with any newly acquired equipment, will need to need to be documented to ensure they come back when offices reopen. As for those ‘free’ licences from the software vendors? Well, they were trial licences and will expire all too soon. An asset management strategy will be key to maintaining governance over devices and ensuring that the company isn’t overpaying for licences it doesn’t actually need.

Even telephony will need to be reconsidered. COVID-19 is coinciding with the end of ISDN. For companies reliant upon inbound calls, mobile phones will only go so far but cloud-based telephony services offer mobile-like experience on any device, with the simplified management and security that companies need. Thankfully, many of these cloud telephony services also integrate with the collaboration tools that employees have been so eager to adopt – making it easier for both employees and the teams that support them.

Is it all bad? No. Every cloud has a silver lining, even if it’s small. There is an opportunity here to accelerate some projects which would have impacted normal office activity. We’re in a time where we can even shut entire networks down and perform activities that previously would have had the team working the midnight shift. Thinking about Wi-Fi 6? It’s going to be a lot cheaper to upgrade your access point cabling if it can be done in normal business hours.

To be continued.

We don’t have an end date, but the pandemic will subside. Stay tuned for a follow-up on the challenges we’re going to face (and opportunities we’ll create!) when we try to integrate our new work-from-home reality with the confines of the traditional office space. For assistance managing your technical challenges see our combating COVID-19 solutions.

See The Road to Recovery (Part 2): Navigating the technology shifts of COVID-19 now available.

Tags: Cisco Webex Teams, Cloud, Collaboration, COVID-19, Microsoft, Microsoft Office 365, Microsoft Teams, Mobility, Remote Workers, Security, The Anywhere Workplace