After a chaotic start, the pandemic has proven to be good for business in the IT world, where professionals were deluged with requests from clients to set up remote networks for their employees, not to mention a flood of new clients seeking network services for the first time. More than perhaps anyone, these IT pros have seen first-hand how COVID-19 has changed the way companies are doing business. And some of the changes, they say, may be here for the long term.
By Mark Morris
As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, many businesses that survived are trying to understand what the new landscape will look like.
Right now, many business owners are trying to figure out when and if their employees should return to the office or continue to work from home. Either way, access to technology plays an increasing role in getting the job done.
For example, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, before the pandemic, many businesses were getting by with outdated communication and collaborative tools and depended on e-mail and phones to support their working environment.
“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business. Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”
“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business,” Bean said, noting that, as employees in many industries were sent home to work remotely, local IT firms saw a huge influx of work. “Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”
Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Communications, said the last time businesses experienced this much disruption was October 2011, when a surprise snowstorm knocked out power for thousands across the region. This time, the disruption has had a more profound and lasting impact.
“The pandemic woke up a lot of people and forced them to understand they’ve got to change the way they do business,” Hogan said, explaining that, while the pre-Halloween storm a decade ago encouraged investments in backup generators, the pandemic has shown many the importance of storing data in a remote data center, commonly known as the ‘cloud.’
In Bean’s estimation, the idea of a business keeping a server at its facility to host its network is already a legacy model that was on its way to being phased out in the next five years.
“COVID dumped gasoline on that timetable and made converting to the cloud a much higher priority,” he said. With cloud-based technology, employees can more easily access their company’s network from multiple locations and devices.
Resistance to change comes natural to New England business owners as many prefer to keep their data on a server in their office. Hogan often explains to these reluctant clients that cloud-based data centers have spent millions of dollars to make sure there is a disaster recovery set up, as well as backup systems for power, internet and HVAC.
“The average business owner couldn’t afford to make that type of investment to keep their data safe,” Hogan said. “So when people say they don’t trust the cloud we point out how much more reliable it is compared to their office.”
BusinessWest spoke with a number of local IT providers about what several of them called the ‘roller-coaster year’ we’ve just had and what’s on the horizon. As business owners themselves, they, like their clients, have had to figure out how to keep things running during a pandemic and anticipate what that means in the long term.
“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office. In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”
As an IT-services vendor, Bean believes firms like his should be a little ahead of the curve so they can test new technologies before they recommend them to clients. For example, Paragus employees have been on the cloud and set up to work from anywhere since June 2019.
“So when the pandemic struck, moving our staff remotely was pretty seamless,” Bean said. “About 80% of our people work remotely, and 15% to 20% come into the office on any given day.”
Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, said his employees are working so well from home, it’s not necessary to come into the office. He noted that productivity has not suffered, and employees have less stress.
“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office,” Beaudry said. “In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”
One important thing businesses have learned from the pandemic, according to Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Solutions, is that it’s OK to work from home.
“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office,” he said. “People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”
Change of Scenery
While some of Hogan’s employees have always worked remotely, the percentage has grown, and their efficiency allows them to escape the daily commute. “They don’t need to be behind a windshield for an hour and a half each day just getting to and from work,” he said.
When companies first sent workers home, IT providers spent most of their time helping clients integrate employees into their respective networks. While they suddenly had a huge amount of work, IT professionals did not see much revenue because many clients had contracts to cover this extra work. Increased revenue soon followed, however, as many new clients sought these services.
“We signed more new customers in 2020 than the previous two years combined,” Bean said, adding that much of the new business came from companies that found their dependence on technology had suddenly increased and their IT capabilities couldn’t meet these new demands.
In addition to new clients coming on board, Christianson explained that many of his current clients, who at first only wanted a “down-and-dirty” setup for remote access, were now looking for a more permanent solution for their network.
“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office. People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”
“Those of us in the IT industry are very fortunate,” he said. “We have done well during this time and were not hit hard like so many other industries were.”
With the end of COVID in sight, businesses have begun looking at what comes next. Those we spoke with agree on one thing: it will not be business like it was before or even during the pandemic.
“Most of our clients want some hybrid between those two options, where there is more in-person interaction than during the pandemic, but probably not as much as there was before,” Bean said. Once people started learning videoconferencing and Microsoft 365, he noted, they saw how helpful these tools can be even when everyone is in the office.
As IT providers continue to transition their clients from premise-based servers to the data cloud, they also predict other big shifts on the horizon. For example, with so many companies using smartphones and laptop computers to make calls, the company phone system may soon be a thing of the past.
“A few years from now, the idea of having both a computer and a phone on your desk at work is going to be a very strange concept,” Bean said, especially when companies consider the economics of supporting two systems that make phone calls.
While the demise of the office phone seems inevitable, office space itself could be in for a big reduction, Christianson added. “We’ve seen a lot of instances where people are moving from bigger spaces to smaller ones. They are making the calculation that some people are not coming back.”
Even if it’s in a smaller space, Hogan asserted that an office presence is still vital. “I don’t think we’ll go back to the way it was before, but many people still want to return to their offices, even if only for collaboration and camaraderie.”
Because Zoom and other virtual platforms make it easy to meet with people anywhere, companies have begun to look more closely at their business travel budgets, too. CEO clients have told Beaudry they will not eliminate business travel, but will look to reduce it to only what is necessary.
“One CEO who used to travel 40% of the year said he plans to move most of his meetings to virtual platforms,” he said. “He figures to be 10 times more efficient and save his energy from traveling all over the country.”
As much as Bean would like to see some of the fatigue and expense of travel go away, he also admits that important interactions happen in person that just don’t occur in a virtual setting. He gave an example of logging on to hear a keynote speaker versus attending the event in-person.
“Oftentimes, the person sitting at my table is more valuable to me than the keynote speaker,” he said. “That person might lead to a great networking opportunity where they need my services, or maybe they have a service I need.”
Safe at Home
While working at home can provide many benefits for employees and their companies, IT providers say it comes with a whole new array of challenges. Looking at a business with 30 employees, Beaudry gave an example of how quickly technology issues change when working remotely.
“If half the employees work from home,” he said, “the company has gone from managing one network to dealing with the struggles of 15 home networks.”
Common issues when working at home include internet signal strength and the different types and capacities of home modems. Topping all those concerns, however, is the increased vulnerability to a company network getting hacked.
All it takes is one employee to click an attachment in a suspicious e-mail, and the whole network can be damaged by a cyberattack. When working from home, Beaudry said, employees are less likely to ask the simple questions when they confront something that looks suspect.
“You don’t have someone turning to their co-worker, saying, ‘hey, did you get this e-mail? It looks weird,’” he said, adding that he encourages his clients to call whenever they see anything suspicious. “If you take 30 seconds to call and ask, it can save you a week of losing your computer.”
Christianson said cybersecurity is a never-ending battle. “Hackers are always looking for ways into your network. They only have to be right once; we have to be right all the time.”
That’s where IT service providers come in. While today’s technology tools are better than ever, Bean said IT pros can set up a company’s system to make it work best for its needs and stay current on all the security threats.
Beaudry compares his work to that of a plumber. “People need computers for business just like they need water in their home and business,” he said.
And, just like plumbing, if security on a computer network isn’t handled properly, you can have a real mess on your hands.