Darren Watkins, managing director for VIRTUS Data Centres offers his advice for working remotely and maintaining business continuity, as the UK goes into lockdown with COVID-19.

The UK Government has told the public that they should now be working from home wherever possible, in a bid to contain the ongoing UK coronavirus outbreak. Companies including Google, JP Morgan and Twitter have released COVID-19 contingency plans to UK-based staff that include compulsory working from home, and it’s hoped that keeping employees further apart from each other, it will reduce the chance of group spread as well as suppress the opportunity for the virus to be caught during a commute or in communal office spaces.

Being prepared

When responding to this need, organisations appear to have fallen into three clear camps. There are those who can quickly adapt and who are geared up for remote working; those who feel unprepared for the change; and, of course, many who simply can’t comply, including care workers, hospital staff and those that work in providing crucial data infrastructure, such as data centres, who need to be on site as much as possible.

Whatever camp they fall into, there is an overarching need: to mitigate any negative organisational impact and to remain productive and profitable when staff aren’t physically in the building.

Meeting an immediate need

On the surface, the technology is out there to support both the current need to work from home and to power the broader shift to remote working that we’re seeing in business. Cloud systems, which give users access to a collaborative, scalable and convenient remote virtual work environment, are being deployed by many - together with laptops and mobiles with serious processing power.

Staying in contact and maintaining productivity will be key to the success of setting up remote working, and collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams enable message, voice and online conferencing facilities in a single user interface for internal communications. In addition, technology companies in the workplace such as Zoom, Microsoft, and Google have offered some of their services for free and taken measures to make sure they are able to meet the increasing user demand.

Of course, any use of technology comes alongside security concerns, and organisations are understandably prioritising the security of business applications and the infrastructures which support them. On an infrastructure level, deploying additional layers of security will also help businesses stay ahead of the game. Encryption and multi-factor authentication are useful technologies in enhancing remote working security - and ensuring that your virus protection and cloud security is up to date is paramount.

On a more fundamental level, ensuring employees are taking the right precautions to protect enterprise data that is being used in a remote location is going to be critical. This could mean having staff update their passcodes prior to working remotely and urging employees to transfer files to cloud-based systems to avoid overloading VPN systems.

Checking the infrastructure

A surge in remote working means that intense pressure is put on security, servers, storage and network of any organisation - and the impact of these demands is being felt across the entire technological supply chain. To deal with these new demands, IT departments need to deploy more forward-looking capacity management strategies to be able to proactively meet their needs today and in the future.

Many companies have turned to outside organisations to help them meet these new challenges and the IT industry is constantly designing innovative tools and techniques to keep up with the rapid evolution of technology trends and needs. Tech vendors already offer a multitude of solutions address capacity and complexity issues.

These are the front-end building blocks for successful remote working. However, there’s a more fundamental layer still, even more imperative than purchasing the right hardware and software - and that is ensuring a robust infrastructure is there to support it.

Without the infrastructure that underpins all this technology - the networks that enable connectivity, the compute power that enables the cloud, the cooling that enables the servers, the servers that host the applications - remote working simply wouldn’t be possible. And all these elements combine within the data centre, putting data centre providers at the heart of helping companies to traverse these tricky waters.

Unsurprisingly, when it comes to data centre provision, wholly outsourced or co-located data centres are winning the day. Not only can they support demands for high-bandwidth and reliable connectivity, they also provide physical security, redundant power, expert monitoring and 100% uptime - a great solution for resilience and business continuity.

The future of work

In the face of a global crisis like the coronavirus, the immediate priority for many organisations is to simply keep operations running.

However, when it comes to remote working, it appears that the current crisis is ‘forcing the hand’ of many organisations. Indeed, if they are able to embrace more flexible working practices permanently, then businesses can expect to reap long term benefits. Strategic decisions to save office space can be taken.

Hiring teams can attract and retain staff who are unable to work in the office (potentially harnessing the talent of individuals who have to juggle child care with work, for example). Businesses can expand geographically more easily and quickly, enabling new business opportunities.

Consequently, businesses from all walks of life are able to benefit - as the immediate need to work from home helps teams who may have previously believed that remote working simply could not work for them, to see that their roles are more adaptable than they believed.

For example, although remote working in the financial and legal sectors certainly present challenges in terms of proprietary routines, regulation and security, organisations are being forced to find solutions, or risk not being able to continue with their business. The technology industry is adept at finding answers to problems - and tech vendors are making swift progress in terms of security, collaboration, accessibility and storage solutions to help.

The 21st century workforce

Just ten years ago the idea of mass remote working would have been impossible - the underlying infrastructure simply wasn’t in place to support it. But today, the global data centre industry is already powering billions of internet-connected ‘things’ and the vast volumes of data they generate - and the backbone is firmly in place to help deal with the demands remote working will bring. And this is improving all the time.

Increased deployments of high performance computing (HPC) provide the ability to maximise productivity and efficiency, increasing available power density and the ‘per foot’ computing power of the data centre - crucial as we move away from centralised office hubs into thousands of disparate home offices.

What about the environment?

Any discussion around data centres inevitably comes hand in hand with environmental concerns - and data centre providers are already working hard to fuel a power-hungry industry with renewable energy. But one of the overarching benefits of remote working is likely to be in the form of serious ecological good, as commuting and business travel are significantly lessened.

There are other benefits too. While there may be increased IT set up costs, the requirement for businesses to have expensive office facilities may become a thing of the past, powering a more nimble and cost-effective business environment.

And collaboration needn’t suffer either. Businesses must rethink how they build teams, looking at the tools and processes required to drive social engagement and power productivity remotely, but with commitment from employees and employers to find new ways to engage, there is no reason why business culture can’t continue to flourish and thrive.

Listen, build, implement

As a matter of urgency, CIOs must work with executive teams and their IT colleagues to put in place systems to help people work remotely today and in the future - securely and successfully.

Whether remote working is enforced due to unforeseen circumstances like the coronavirus, other emergencies like natural disasters, or as a result of strategic decisions to save costs on office space or attract more millennials who don’t want to work in an office or during traditional hours, the success of remote working is arguably 100% reliant on the efficacy of the IT infrastructure underpinning it.

It is also crucial that IT leaders work hand in hand with HR departments to craft contingency plans for the weeks and, possibly, months ahead as well as potentially permanent processes and procedures allow for more remote working. As important as the tools and systems in place for remote working will be, the policies and processes which spur the collaboration, teamwork, ideation and culture which makes so many businesses successful.

Looking to the future

We can learn from the existing success stories - those early adopters who run virtual businesses, or encourage systemic remote working, and who are already reaping the benefits. There are plenty out there who marry the best processes, with the best technology - and who vitally have the best data centre strategy to support it.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus will change people’s attitudes and behaviours - potentially forever. This new world approach will be here to stay and remote working will become the new norm. Data centre strategy will become even more critical in ensuring the infrastructure is powerful, safe and reliable for people to work wherever they want, whenever they want.