The new normal…or perhaps not

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Today, the buzz is all around the “new normal”. Except in reality our lives have yet to be fully defined by the impact of COVID-19 – there is a long road ahead yet. What is normal anyway? In IT I don’t think anything could be defined as normal, in fact, constant change might be a better definition. In my view it’s not a “new normal” – it’s more about a rate of change that has, seemingly overnight, moved up a pace in some areas.

The most obvious change has been remote working. For some it has been no change at all, but for others it became an enforced change. Remote working had already been on the increase, however the change in circumstances that COVID-19 has brought upon employees has been astounding. In April 2020, figures released by the UK's Office for National Statistics showed 49.2% of adults in employment were working from home, as a result of the social distancing measures that had been introduced. That’s more than 16 million people! Prior to this, 1.7 million worked from home, with a further 8.7 million occasionally working from home. So, it seems reasonable to say that a further 5.6 million were working from home due to COVID-19, which is a lot of empty offices and desks.

The effectiveness or otherwise of this move will be a question asked by many organisations, and not to mention understanding what employees think about it. Some will have been delighted in the saving of commuting time, whilst others will have absolutely hated it and the lack of personal interaction. How this all pans out is open to debate, but I’m pretty sure a lot of organisations will be reviewing their estate and questioning what is really needed. However, the wellbeing of employees should be paramount.

IT considerations

From an IT perspective, connectivity becomes an even bigger deal, along with security and the tools employees use. Connectivity used to major on internal buildings and the advantage of ethernet speed connections, but now the home worker finds the speed is limited by the whims of the internet. And as we all know, nothing on a home broadband connection can be guaranteed (despite what suppliers might argue!). So where do you go? The cost of commercial broadband with guaranteed speed and service won’t wash, unless it is subsidised by the removal of fixed office costs. But given the distribution of employee locations, it’s unlikely a high-speed connection will be viable for all. And finally, external switches and servers need to be appropriately sized to cope – this should be part of any business continuity plan, meaning you should have capacity in reserve.

Security is also an issue and most organisations will insist on a VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection using three-factor authentication (3FA). A VPN does bring its challenges; for continuity and load balancing, multiple entry points are advised with spare capacity to allow for failover. It also drops the speed of connection because you get encryption and decryption at either end, which also means additional CPU demand on the host and client.

Alongside connectivity and security, tools are also needed. Most common is provision of a laptop, but can the home worker use a tablet or even a mobile phone? Can they use their home PC? This is where it gets interesting because the ability to do this depends on your business solutions. Are they web enabled thus presenting a thin client to the user so all CPU can be centralised, or do you need personal CPU process power prior to centralised data storage? This also impacts the security considerations, especially if you are dealing with sensitive data. One solution is to provide a complete operating system and software on a USB stick that means the home user is just using their own physical hardware and keeps no data.

Then comes video and audio conferencing. I’m not going to suggest any particular solution, they all have their own quirks. But I am going to highlight the need to teach people how to use it, as well as the etiquette needed for proper use (I get so annoyed about the background noise from users drowning out the person speaking). I’d also recommend using a VoIP phone system meaning that your organisation’s number is portable with your PC.

What has astounded me is how IT has risen to the challenge to get the equipment, get it connected, keep it working, and keep things happening. An astounding achievement, highlighting just how important IT is to any organisation. It clearly makes the case for IT to be seated at board level in every organisation, on a par with all other business functions (which should remember that without IT, they would no longer function).

So change, more change, and even more change…there is no new normal.

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