How The Cloud Helps Cope With COVID-19

How The Cloud Helps Cope With COVID-19

If there's one thing that sets humans aside from other animals, it's our ability to adapt rapidly. Our capacity for abstract thought helps us innovate our way through problems. COVID-19 is the perfect example of a once-in-a-century problem that has forced us to adapt. The internet is an innovation that will help us prevail. We may even emerge from it wiser and more capable than before.

By the time the UK government enforced a COVID-19 lockdown on March 23 2020, QUANTIQ employees had been working from home for three weeks and had helped our clients to do the same through remote delivery of complex transformational technology projects. We have been using the cloud to streamline the way we work for years. Here's what we've learned about remote working and how it can help you through this crisis too.

With global cases exceeding 1.3m at the time of writing and growing by the day, COVID-19 has put a third of the world's people in various stages of lockdown, including the entire UK. Businesses have searched for ways to keep operating, and remote working has become the norm, rather than the exception.

This has been the norm at QUANTIQ since we formed six years ago. As a technology service provider, we wanted to build a company that used technology to make work easier and more effective for our clients and teammates. That means technology that is available wherever workers happen to be. The cloud is a core component of that.

Crucial benefits in the cloud

As a Microsoft partner, Office 365 was our first port of call for cloud productivity. It not only gives us location independence, but also offers two versions of its software packages. Employees can access locally-installed Microsoft applications on their own devices that communicate with the cloud. They can also use online browser-based versions on other machines.

The cloud offers a crucial benefit that is especially useful during a crisis like COVID-19: fast onboarding. Companies can quickly add new accounts for workers that need to transition quickly to home working. They can also quickly stand up new applications to help with remote workflows. New seats and software are inexpensive, priced on a per-month, per-user basis to keep costs low in a time of crisis.

Remote working using Microsoft's cloud tools was so intuitive that in early 2018 we reached the point where we had no physical need for an office. We still maintain offices in London and Manila but attendance is optional. Before our voluntary COVID-19 home working lockdown, we would see 50-70 of our 220+ UK employees in our London office at any time under our hotdesking arrangement.

Putting our software and data in the cloud built business continuity into our company by design. When we decided to shift everyone to home working at the start of March, it took a quick meeting and a simple message to employees. It was business as usual.

So, what does day-to-day working life look like under lockdown at QUANTIQ? In some ways, our professional services director Andrea Bright likes it a whole lot better. Before the lockdown she'd spend at least some days each week commuting from her Docklands home to our City headquarters. Now, she starts the day with an online virtual coffee where she catches up with colleagues. Work socials bookend the day for many QUANTIQ employees under lockdown, who often spend an hour or so in the evening with colleagues in a virtual pub, comedy or quiz night to wind down (and there's no need to get a cab home!)

Teaming up in a crisis

As the platform that enables employees to socialise this way, Microsoft Teams is the glue that brings working communities together. This tool, which supercedes Skype for Business, not only includes IP telephony but also does what conventional mobile phone calls can't; it offers high-quality video conferencing that supports dozens of people in a single collaborative space.

COVID-19 boosted Teams usage by 775% in virus-stricken Italy during a one-month period. The cloud-based tool now has 44 million daily global users generating over 900 million meeting and calling minutes in a single week. There would be little business being done without it during the crisis.

Teams isn't just for boosting morale, of course. It also enables Andrea and her team to stay in touch via daily huddle meetings where they can quickly thrash out any emerging issues with projects. They often take advantage of Office 365's whiteboard feature, which offers collaborative drawing capabilities. Employees find it easier to sketch collaboratively on their own screens than hovering around a whiteboard in the office.

The Teams platform isn't just for real-time functionality, though. It helps groups of employees, third-party contractors, and clients alike to go beyond live meetings and communicate asynchronously. It organises conversations into user-defined channels for specific topics. Employees can post messages and share files in channels related to specific projects, and colleagues can respond when they're free. Why wait for a meeting next Tuesday when you can post a question and see the answers flow in today?

Teams even helped us respond to the health crisis with a specific COVID-19 channel. We set it up in seconds, and we use it to distribute the latest information and describe how the ongoing situation affects the company.

Microsoft built its Office 365-based applications from the ground up to work in a cloud environment. Applications from Word to OneNote allow multiple people to work on documents together in real time from home, immediately seeing each others' edits. QUANTIQ employees create a single cloud-hosted file in the OneNote note-taking program for every meeting. It lets all attendees (and those that couldn't make it) see what's been discussed and agreed.

We also use Microsoft Planner to provide continuity between meetings by creating projects and assigning tasks. This gives QUANTIQ employees a single place to see their ongoing tasks. There are no more complex email threads to navigate. Planner will even notify employees when tasks are overdue.

Preparing employees

The technical benefits of remote working via the cloud are unquestionable, but while software is easy to configure, people can take a little more work. People not used to remote working regimes may have difficulty adapting. Our years of experience in this area have taught us a few things.

Check that employees have the equipment they need. We don't want a worker's Monday morning work experience to be worse than their Sunday evening one at home. We solved this problem by ensuring that every QUANTIQ employee either gets a brand new laptop suited to remote working, or paying them a technology allowance to supply one, in a bring your own device (BYOD) arrangement.

Historically, employees handling company documents on their own devices would have been a security problem. That isn't an issue in Office 365. We set a policy to store everything in the cloud, not locally, so there's no danger of a lost or stolen laptop endangering our data.

Train meeting facilitators in the nuances of distance working so that they can keep meetings running to order. They must learn to structure meetings differently. An eight-hour workshop might be realistic in a physical setting, but people might need more breaks when participating via a video link.

Train employees to take advantage of the tools, using application sharing functionality to enhance meetings with more on-screen show-and-tell. Beyond the technical tools, educate them in remote working etiquette and discipline. Just because someone is video conferencing from their kitchen doesn't mean they shouldn't wear business attire for the occasion. Neither should they zone out and work on other things while a meeting is happening. People can see if they're not paying attention or their camera is off. They should also present a tidy environment. If they can't find a neat spot at home, then Teams allows them to blur their background on video calls.

Smart companies will run practice sessions using the cloud-based tools to demonstrate these things and enable employees to hit the ground running.

Managing by measuring

Managers have a bigger challenge outside configuring the mechanics of online meetings. Many of them may be used to an office environment and nervous about managing a distributed team. This transition might require a change in thinking.

Mangers must learn to trust their people more than ever before to get the job done. That might entail shifting from a culture of presenteeism and time spent at your desk to focusing on measurable outcomes.

Deciding what those outcomes are and how to measure them will take thoughtful assessment and a conversation with employees. How do they add value to the organisation? How structured and repeatable are the jobs they deliver? An accounts payable clerk's output will differ from that of a software developer or a marketing executive.

Microsoft's cloud-based tools can help manage performance across a distributed workforce. At QUANTIQ, we run a resourcing team that ensures everyone knows what's expected from whom. We use the Dynamics Customer Engagement Field Service application to book our team's time and expertise, publishing those resources via Microsoft's PowerBI business intelligence tool so that everyone can see what the team is working on at a glance via its visual dashboard. This boosts team efficiency by allowing people to quickly pick up new jobs if they finish tasks early.

Employees delivering their work via these cloud-based tools generate performance data that managers can visualise using PowerBI. This can surface potential problems in performance early on, sparking conversations rather than conflict.

A long-term opportunity

Companies who master these tools and techniques can help their clients through the COVID-19 crisis by advising them on best practices. We have been guiding clients on making the transition in the wake of the government-mandated lockdown and in some cases even persuaded them to make the move early.

Some who were used to face-to-face meetings found it challenging. Those working on larger, complex projects were uncomfortable with a different management style. It takes a mature company with excellent communication skills to reassure clients and show that they are managing a distributed team adeptly.

That maturity is an important part of the remote working model. You can transition quickly to a work-from-home regime using Microsoft's cloud productivity tools but thinking about how to streamline your working practices along the way and how to transform your critical workflow management platforms to support those new working practices with technology like Microsoft Dynamics 365 will deliver longer-term benefits.

That self-examination is the difference between short-term crisis management and a new more effective way of working with the potential to materially enhance enterprise ROI. What began as a way to make the best of a bad situation will yield drastic cuts in travel costs and time, increasing morale for employees with families and other personal commitments. You might even enjoy lower long-term rental or site ownership costs from downsized offices, and a more responsive IT department that uses the power of the cloud to deliver new solutions quickly. COVID-19 is a crisis that may also be an opportunity for long-term transformation.

COVID Crisis Support from QUANTIQ

As the world responds to the outbreak of COVID-19, our thoughts are with all those affected. At QUANTIQ we are doing our best to ensure the safety of our teammates, partners and clients whilst providing technology, tips and resources to help keep our entire community keep safe during this unprecedented time. To do our bit to help any organisations we can, we’ve rolled out a number of COVID Crisis Solutions to support your organisation as you adapt your remote-working business models. We’ve also launched new COVID Support services, including HelpDesk999 Support and Rapid Firstline Support. Contact us anytime. We’re here (and happy) to help.