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Strong Signals

By Mark Morris

When the pandemic arrived early last year and many companies adjusted to remote work for their staff, it was IT professionals who got everyone up and running from their homes.

Now, as the world begins to move away from the pandemic and companies begin bringing employees back to the office, the demand to hire IT pros is even higher than it was before COVID-19 emerged. And that poses challenges for employers.

In a normal year, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, the company sees about 10% turnover of people leaving and new staff being hired. During the pandemic, there was no turnover, as every one of the 50 Paragus employees stayed in their job.

In the last four months, however, as the economy has improved and COVID restrictions have eased, Bean has seen a “tremendous transition” among the IT labor force.

“Many of those who are leaving are pursuing remote-work opportunities that didn’t exist before the pandemic,” he said. “Most of these companies are not local and would never have interviewed or offered jobs to these workers in the past.”

Bean cited a number of reasons for the high demand for IT talent. During the pandemic, nearly every company increased their use and dependence on technology, which requires more people to keep systems up and running. As the economy improves, companies are pursuing more projects and thus increasing their need for IT talent. The pandemic also made it acceptable to hire people who work only remotely, creating even more opportunities for IT pros.

“With the increased dependence on technology, an improved economy, and the ability to work remotely, we’re seeing employers do things they would not have done before,” he said.

Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT Systems, noted that, unlike others in IT support, his 18-person company does not have high worker turnover. He credits that to attracting IT staff who enjoy working with Northeast’s varied client list, which covers sectors from insurance and healthcare to manufacturing, municipalities, and even cannabis.

“Many of those who are leaving are pursuing remote-work opportunities that didn’t exist before the pandemic. Most of these companies are not local and would never have interviewed or offered jobs to these workers in the past.”

One notable challenge to retaining his workforce involves companies such as banks, manufacturers, and other industries that are looking to bring their IT support in-house, he said. “As a service provider in Western Mass., we’re competing against much larger institutions in the region who can pay IT professionals more.”

As security issues receive prominent news coverage, companies worry more about ransomware attacks and similar threats. Mollison believes this is part of the reason firms are increasingly looking for in-house IT staff.

“The larger the business, the more complex their systems are, and the more they need IT professionals to manage them,” he explained.

Bean agreed that IT security issues have increased the pressure for companies to be proactive in preventing major disruptions, pointing out that much of the job growth is the result of companies expanding their internal IT staff both regionally and on a national level.

Delcie Bean says an IT workforce that was remarkably stable in 2020 has entered a time of “tremendous transition.”

Delcie Bean says an IT workforce that was remarkably stable in 2020 has entered a time of “tremendous transition.”

“All these companies are doing this because the growing economy gives them a little more money and it can be a luxury to have your IT support in-house.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, agrees, but believes that, after companies build up their internal IT staffing, they usually return to outsourcing with an external service provider once they realize that internal IT is less cost-effective.

“Instead of paying full-time employees to show up every day, companies can hire an IT firm that knows all the technical details and address specific problems when they arise,” Beaudry said. “It would be similar to bringing a plumber on staff. Why would you do that?”

In fact, he predicts that the hiring surge for internal IT will shake out to one or two positions to oversee the main systems augmented by an outside IT service provider.

Bean said it’s common for companies to have an internal person handling technology issues as well as an outside IT service company. “Our biggest source of new business right now involves partnering with internal IT departments to round out what they are doing and give them supplemental assistance.”

 

Here and There

Like many industries right now, technology is grappling with a job market that significantly favors job seekers. Bean told the story of an employee who had previously worked in the defense-contracting industry 10 years ago.

“Because this employee’s name was still in the defense system, a contractor called him to make a job offer, sight unseen and without an interview,” he said. “They literally e-mailed him an electronic salary offer without meeting him, and it was for $35,000 more than he was making here.”

A company located in a large metro area interested in hiring remote workers will offer salaries that are competitive in their market. This can often lead to small-market workers getting big-city paydays.

“If you’re at home and take five minutes between tasks to turn around to pet your dog or do the dishes real quick, that time becomes meaningful and helpful in your life.”

“Usually, when someone makes a salary that’s attractive in Boston, it comes with the high cost of living in the metro Boston area,” Bean said. “When someone with a Western Mass. cost of living makes that same amount, they can see a 30% net increase in their salary.”

Indeed, more companies than ever are embracing remote or hybrid workforces (see related story on page 25). That means IT service providers face the same dilemma confronting many of their clients: continue to work from home or go back to the office.

Mollison tells a slightly different story. Before COVID, he said, Northeast IT was outgrowing its space in Westfield, so he suggested that staff work remotely as a short-term solution. He was surprised when almost no one wanted to work from home.

“Nearly everyone wanted to work in the office,” he recalled. “We have a kind of think-tank environment where our staff enjoy working on problems together.”

However, the pandemic forced nearly everyone to work from home for the last 16 months, a situation Mollison called stressful because many felt less connected to their co-workers. He added that a change in venue is coming. “We purchased a building in West Springfield and will be moving in at the end of August. We’ll have plenty of space to bring everyone back with social distancing; our people are really looking forward to returning.”

At Paragus, employees have been ramping up their return to the office by coming in one day a week in June, two days a week in July, and three days a week starting in August. Bean said he won’t require more than three days a week in the office, but felt that some time in the office was important.

“We have intentionally designed our office to promote collaboration,” he said. “We don’t have walls or offices, so people can listen to each other and overhear what’s going on. You can replicate some of that online, but it’s not the same as hearing what’s going on around you.”

At Bloo Solutions, Beaudry has allowed his four full-time and several part-time employees to stay remote except for occasional trips to the office or when visiting a client’s location. Collaborative messaging tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams allow him and his staff to stay in touch with each other and stay on top of client concerns.

Jeremiah Beaudry says even companies that have built up internal IT

Jeremiah Beaudry says even companies that have built up internal IT staffing often come to see the value in outsourcing that work.

“We have channels dedicated to each client so any one of us can jump in and take care of any concerns,” he said. “Because we all have access to these messages, the same information is available to all of us without being next to each other.”

Whenever possible, Beaudry makes working from home an option for his staff.

“If you’re at home and take five minutes between tasks to turn around to pet your dog or do the dishes real quick, that time becomes meaningful and helpful in your life,” he said. “When you are in the office and not near anything you need to do, that same five minutes is wasted.”

Therefore, as long as his staff are productive, he doesn’t care if they work from home or at the office.

Another reason Bean cited for having people in the office at least some of the time is to help with their professional development and to identify when a staff member might need help. He worries that IT professionals who have chosen full-time remote work won’t have the same chance to grow or develop their careers.

“They will probably be fine doing the job they were hired for, but they will be relatively unengaged and potentially stagnant,” he said. “I don’t see how they can grow or develop much in an environment where they never see their co-workers or be around other people.”

Mollison credits his low staff turnover to seeking out people who like variety in their work and have an interest in personal and professional growth.

“Because IT folks tend to be introverts, we try to help them grow personally so they can become more comfortable working with clients and developing relationships with them,” he said.

While finding people in Western Mass. with technical skills isn’t so tough, Beaudry makes his hiring decisions based on a candidate’s emotional intelligence.

“I’ve learned over time that clients would rather feel good about a conversation they had rather than having an expert solve the problem who makes them feel bad about themselves,” he said.

 

Change Can Be Good

Another reason the demand for IT professionals is increasing has to do with the growing economy. Bean said the sales pipeline for new projects has never been fuller. “In terms of new business, we’re booking clients out to October because we only book so much at a time.”

In addition to hiring temporary contract workers, he has found another way to make up worker shortages: acquisitions. Paragus recently acquired one IT-support company in Worcester and is looking at two other acquisitions.

“In the past, the goal of an acquisition was to acquire clients and market,” he said. “Now it’s about acquiring talent.”

Would Bean like to see less disruption in the labor force? Sure. He also understands that this time of transition is part of the bigger picture.

“Everybody is moving around, so we’re on the receiving end of this as well,” he told BusinessWest. “The good news is we haven’t seen a shortage of any new résumés coming in.”

While it’s tempting to dwell on the employees leaving, however, Bean has gained some perspective.

“After some reflection,” he said, “we realized that a lot of the innovation and fresh approaches we get are driven by new people coming in with new ideas.”

Cover Story

Beyond the Firewall

The recent spate of high-profile cyberattacks, many involving paid ransoms featuring six or seven zeroes, has brought an ongoing, and escalating, problem even more to the forefront. Businesses are being advised that the problem needs to be managed — before the worst happens. That means having a detailed plan involving many layers to keep things safe.

 

As he talks about cybersecurity, Charlie Christianson, owner of CMD Technology Group, equates that art and science (mostly science) to an onion.

By that, he means it has layers — many of them — with each one being important to the desired end in this matter: keeping one’s data, business, financial information, and perhaps life and livelihood safe.

“The goal isn’t to have one be-all, end-all product or solution that’s going to protect you — it’s a variety of things,” he explained. “It’s about trying to put as many layers between the threat on the outside and the asset, which is at the core.

“Most people understand the firewall discussion,” he went on. “But what they’re starting to understand is that it’s not just the stuff that protects you — it’s your staff, it’s your people, it’s the training, it’s the education, it’s the policies, and having all that in place.”

Christenson, like everyone else in this business, has been making this onion analogy — or whatever phraseology they use to get their points across — quite often these days. That’s because cybersecurity — mostly in the form of high-profile, as in very high-profile, attacks — has been in the news lately. Again. Or still, to be more accurate.

These attacks have come one after another: the Colonial Pipeline, the steamship service to the islands in Massachusetts, the meat company JBS, and many others.

Collectively, what these hacks have shown that businesses across all sectors are vulnerable, and this isn’t a problem for other people to worry about.

That has always been the case, said those we spoke with, but the recent spate of cyberattacks and the relentless coverage of them have served as a needed wakeup call for business owners of all sizes, most of which — the number varies depending on who you talk to, but it’s at least 50% — are simply not ready to handle or respond to the kind of attacks seen lately.

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson likens cybersecurity to an onion; both have, or should have, many layers.

Which brings Christianson back to his onion, and Phil Bianco to diabetes, or type 2 diabetes, to be exact.

“It’s always easier to prevent diabetes than to treat it after the fact,” said Bianco, chief technical officer with Melillo Consulting, which has three offices in the Northeast, including one in Springfield. “It’s the same thing with security — it’s always easier to manage things prior to the incident and be prepared for that and act appropriately.”

Elaborating, he said there are many elements to the process of managing before something bad happens, everything from having your system assessed so that vulnerabilities can be identified to acting on the recommendations listed in that assessment; from training employees on how spot suspicious e-mails to knowing what to do and whom to call when your system is attacked.

And while Melillo and all other firms in this business sector will do remediation — coming in after the hack and putting things back as they were, to the extent possible — and “stop the bleeding,” as Bianco put it, businesses would find it much better, and cheaper, if they hired the same company to handle preparation and prevention and work to eliminate the cuts that cause the bleeding.

“The goal isn’t to have one be-all, end-all product or solution that’s going to protect you — it’s a variety of things. It’s about trying to put as many layers between the threat on the outside and the asset, which is at the core.”

The high-profile cyberattacks of the past few weeks are an indication of how widespread the problem is, but they are also misleading to some extent, said those we spoke with, because they have involved mostly larger businesses and entities with very deep pockets, as evidenced by the size of the ransoms they paid. The sobering reality is that small businesses are a more attractive target because they are likely to be less prepared for such an attack.

“Cyberattacks are really a numbers game, and small businesses are less likely to invest in the cybersecurity practices, so they’re seen as low-hanging fruit,” said Lauren Ostberg, an attorney with the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson (and a member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2021), who helped spearhead the launch of the firm’s cybersecurity practice.

Lauren Ostberg

Lauren Ostberg says small businesses, many without IT teams or sophisticated cybersecurity systems, are low-hanging fruit for hackers.

“And these attackers also sell each other pre-made malware, so less sophisticated attackers can just send out 100 different phishing e-mails, see what sticks, and then attack there,” she explained. “So nonprofits are at risk, small- to medium-sized businesses are at risk, and, in most cases, they don’t have the insurance to back them up to minimize that risk, and they don’t realize how vulnerable they are.”

Everyone should now understand just how vulnerable they are, said those we spoke with, adding quickly that some remain slow to take action and adjust to what is a troubling new world order. Those who don’t adjust do so at their peril, said these experts, adding that recent events show just how easy it is to be attacked, and how painful, costly, and time-consuming it is to repair the damage that’s been done.

 

What the Hack?

As they talked about those behind all the cyberattacks going on in the world right now, those we spoke with used a wide array of descriptive adjectives to let people know just whom they’re dealing with.

Words like sophisticated, diabolical, persistent, and relentless were used early and quite often, as was another that should get the hair up on every business owner: automated.

“It is only a matter of time before any organization falls victim to one of these attacks,” said Joel Mollison, president of Westfield-based Northeast IT, who said this inevitability shouldn’t prompt paralysis, but instead well-thought-out action to prevent (to the extent possible) such an attack, and then recover as quickly and painlessly as possible if an attack does occur.

“It’s always easier to prevent diabetes than to treat it after the fact. It’s the same thing with security — it’s always easier to manage things prior to the incident and be prepared for that and act appropriately.”

Mollison puts it in clear perspective, if anyone wasn’t already sure.

“Typically, we find that most organizations have basic security measures in place, but rarely understand their level of potential exposure or impact on operations during such an event,” he said. “The ability to recover from one of these events varies widely based on size of the organization, data volume, and locations of data and services. Even in the best-case scenarios, this process can take many days or weeks.

“Business operations are almost always crippled to a marginal capacity while systems are recovered,” he went on. “The financial impact, even without having to pay a ransom, is often devastating, and most cyber liability policies are underfunded, which compounds the problem. There are also compliance, reporting, and legal factors that are part of the recovery process that are often overlooked.”

Stan Bates, director of Business Development for Melillo, agreed. Relating some recent and current cases his firm is handling, he said they effectively communicate how widespread the problem is, what issues and problems are confronting business owners, the costs involved (and there are many of them), and the direction this matter is taking.

Joel Mollison

Given the sophistication and persistence of today’s cybercriminals, Joel Mollison says it’s only a matter of time before any organization falls victim to an attack.

One involves a large nonprofit in the healthcare sector, he said, adding that this client found out the hard way all that can be involved with returning things to the way they were before the attack.

“It got hit really hard, and they called us to help fix the situation,” Bates recalled. “They were hacked, they put their system down, they were out of e-mail, they were out of just about everything you can think of. The sad part was they weren’t prepared to know what to do, and to top it off, their insurance company forced them to use their security group, which had a limited knowledge of their network, and pay for those services, while also paying us to come in and help those guys understand what they had and fix it.

“They’re up and running,” he went on. “But it took about two weeks.”

Another case involves a small machine shop in the Hartford area, he said, adding that this small business has been informed that, if it wants to keep getting contracts from the federal government, it must meet a series of guidelines regarding cyberattacks and being fully prepared for them. “It’s going to run about $4,000 to $5,000 a month for us to monitor and secure his system and hit the score the federal government is telling him to hit.”

 

Something’s Phishy

These anecdotes are just some of many that help tell the story of how cybersecurity is becoming a huge issue for business owners and managers, one they can no longer ignore — not that they could really ignore it before.

Indeed, such sobering messages have been delivered with increasing frequency over the past several weeks as the high-profile attacks — and the ransom payments that include six and sometimes seven zeroes — come with increasing regularity. And they have certainly stimulated some interest within the business community, and also government offices and nonprofits, to be ready, or at least more ready.

“The conversations have changed. In the past, there were certain people you could talk to until you were blue in the face, and it was purely a dollars-and-cents discussion: ‘you want me to spend how much in a firewall, or this piece of software?’ Now, it’s ‘what can we do?’”

“The conversations have changed,” Christianson said. “In the past, there were certain people you could talk to until you were blue in the face, and it was purely a dollars-and-cents discussion: ‘you want me to spend how much in a firewall, or this piece of software?’ Now, it’s ‘what can we do?’”

Ostberg agreed. “People are taking the matter more seriously, and they’re taking me more seriously when I tell them they have to plan for cybersecurity incidents,” she said. “I’ve noticed an increase in concern, especially about ransomware, which can really cripple a business.

“The Massachusetts regulations and the advice I give my clients provide a lot of good ideas about ways to prevent or mitigate some of the risk that would be caused by some of the hacks we’re seeing,” she went on. “And it’s focused on building layers of prevention.”

At or near the top of any list of prevention measures is training, specifically involving the detection of phishing e-mails, which comprise the entry point for most of the hacks that occur today, according to those we spoke with.

Melillo Consulting

Members of the team at Melillo Consulting, from left, Phil Bianco, Doug Morrison, and Stan Bates.

As they talked about these e-mails, they summoned some of those same adjectives as they tried to convey just how sophisticated they have become.

“The phishing is getting more elaborate, and the social engineering that goes behind it is far more advanced than what we’ve seen in the past,” said Doug Morrison, practice director for the Development Operations team at Melillo. “It used to be that the e-mails were intentionally easy to sleuth out, because that way they could weed out the people they didn’t want; they wanted the people who were easily fooled to click on the link. But now, it’s getting very elaborate and very difficult to tell real e-mails from the fake e-mails.”

With this level of sophistication, Bianco said, it really is only a matter of time before someone makes a mistake and opens the door for a cyberattacker. But training and knowing to be on alert and skeptical of everything remotely suspicious are still critical to help minimize such incidents.

“Know who you’re doing business with,” he said. “Trust an e-mail if it’s someone you’ve done business with in the past. And if it isn’t someone you’ve done business with in the past, be skeptical of that; if you’re in question, send it over to your IT team, and let them take a look at it. If they see a bad e-mail, they can tell you immediately, ‘hey, we’ve seen this before, this is not something you should work with — please delete this or quarantine this,’ or, if they haven’t seen it, they can send it on to an anti-spam or anti-virus protection service that they’ve engaged with, and that individual or group can look at it across multiple things that they’ve seen.”

In dealing with suspicious e-mails, Bates cited his own firm as an example of the kind of rigorous training that can and should go on.

“We do quarterly training — each employee has to take a test and pass it,” he explained. “It’s terribly difficult, but it instills in your mind some of the things that are going on out there. Just the other day, we got hit, but everyone in the organization was smart enough, because of their training, to delete before they opened.”

 

Backup Plan

Because of the seeming inevitability that these sophisticated phishing attacks will succeed, businesses of all sizes need to have all the other layers of that onion to fully protect themselves from attacks — the training and the policies, in addition to the hardware and software.

“You have to have all the other layers in place because you simply cannot rely on humans not to click on e-mails at the pace that they’re required to do,” said Morrison, noting, as others did, that subsequent layers include a firewall, backing up all information, and encryption of information.

As noted, there are layers to backing up information, said the experts we spoke with, noting that the best solution is to isolate the backups as much as possible from the main network.

“Most companies do back up, but these malwares that do ransomware are pretty sophisticated,” Bianco explained. “The average time that that individual has compromised your network is typically a month or more. And in that month or more, they can go through and encrypt your backups as well as your production-installed system, your code bases, and things like that.

“Know who you’re doing business with. Trust an e-mail if it’s someone you’ve done business with in the past. And if it isn’t someone you’ve done business with in the past, be skeptical of that.”

“And they have a pretty sophisticated map of what your environment looks like, so we’ve been working with customers to do what’s called air-gabbing backups,” he went on. “Once that infrastructure is backed up, it’s completely separated from your network, so it can’t be encrypted.”

Christianson agreed, and noted that such independent, often off-site backup systems need to not only be in place, but be monitored as well.

“We’ve all heard the stories … people think they’re backing up for a long period of time, only to find out that, when they need it, the backups are not working,” he said. “That’s why people are starting to realize that it’s really important to have these systems monitored in some fashion, and that there are multiple layers.”

As for whether to pay that ransom … most consultants, and lawyers like Ostberg, certainly recommend against that practice, although that hasn’t stopped many of those who have been attacked from paying out millions in Bitcoin.

“One of the things that’s just awful is seeing people pay the ransom,” Christianson said, “because that’s not the answer. You’re just encouraging them to come back — and they will come back, not to mention the fact that they give you the key and you get your data, but you have no idea what they dropped in there and left for a back door.

“Honestly, in some cases, the only way to know is to reformat it, reinstall it all, scan the heck out of the data, and bring it back from the ground up,” he went on. “Or, manage a good disaster-recovery backup plan.”

Which brings him all the way back to that onion he referenced at the top. It should have many, many layers, he said, with more added as they become available and necessary, because what worked and what was enough a few years ago probably isn’t enough now, and certainly won’t be enough a few years and maybe even a few months from now.

That’s how quickly and profoundly the scene is changing when it comes to cybersecurity and protecting a business, nonprofit, school system, government agency, or household from those who would do it harm.

Managing the problem is all-important, said those who spoke with, but what’s most important is managing it before the worst happens — because doing so can often prevent the worst from happening.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Making Connections

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.”

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

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.

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry

“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.”

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

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.

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