Thoughts & Predictions of a Long-Term Mobile & Remote Worker

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COVID has delivered to many companies around the world a knock-out punch which has put them on the mat. They aren’t knocked out; just dazed, as any experienced fighter would be when caught off guard with a hard blow.

One way companies have dealt with the hard blow is in their Work Environment. At the beginning of the pandemic, many businesses simply sent office workers home. Some had corporate guidance and IT support; others simply were told to “make it work”. Post COVID, there will be a New Natural State of Equilibrium in the Work Environment and the business world. In this blog, I will talk more about the Work Environment.  

First let me explain my interest in the subject. I have been a full-time mobile and part-time remote worker for over 13 years with a global technology company. I have designed many mobile office environments throughout Asia, working with business units to understand their needs and to educate them on the changes required and the change management process. For over 10 years I have taught this subject around the world to fellow professionals – across industries – in Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Europe and the USA. I was based in Hong Kong during the 2003 SARS outbreak. These experiences have given me a keen understanding and perspective on what happened in the early days of COVID-19, and insights on what the future could look like for many businesses.

Let’s look at some basic Work Environment facts:

  • It costs a company an average of over US$10,000/year per employee for their physical space.
  • Remote working happened very quickly at the start of COVID-19, almost overnight for some companies and employees.
  • There are many venues available to conduct work from, over the long term: Office, Home, the 3rd Space (coffee shops, etc) and other venues.

I recently read the Harvard Business School (HBS) working paper titled, What Jobs are Being Done at Home During the COVID-19 Crisis? Evidence from Firm Level Surveys. Key findings from the report include:

  • While overall levels of remote work are high, there is considerable variation across industries.
  • Remote work is much more common in industries with better educated and better paid workers.
  • Employers think that there has been less productivity loss from remote working in better educated and higher paid industries.
  • More than one-third of firms that had employees switch to remote work believe that it will remain more common at their company even after the COVID crisis ends.

The Emergence of the Future of Work

Mobile & Remote Work. The cost of housing a worker in an office environment has always been a concern for senior management. The cost quickly adds up, even for a small or medium-sized firm. The physical cost of the office is typically the second largest expense for a company, after employees’ salaries. This is one reason that “densification” has occurred in the office environment over the past 10 years or so. It is also a reason remote working (working outside the office – from home, coffee shop, hotel, airport lounge, etc.) has been attractive to companies. If the office environment is designed with multiple work-type spaces (e.g. collaborative, non-collaborative, quiet, etc.), a permanently designated workspace is not required for a worker. This type of Work Environment is known as a mobile environment. Both of these Work Environments – remote and mobile – have been the trend for many companies (especially technology and financial firms).  

Co-working. Beginning a few years ago, another Work Environment emerged: Co-working. One of the early market leaders was WeWork. Co-working is very similar to the mobile environment. It has the added benefit of not requiring any capital cost for the fit-out (tenant improvements). The company or individual rents a desk or space in a co-working environment and just pays the monthly fee. There is no delay to find the space, sign the lease, design, or construct the space, and no capital required for the construction cost. It is a “plug and play” space.

Blended Model. Given the selection, worker typology, and flexibility of space, all these alternatives will be used in some capacity in the Future of Work (FoW). The Work Environment will be a blend of these environments. Some have predicted the death of the office building. Ecosystm research finds that only 16% of organisations are looking to reduce their commercial office space, going into 2021. People are social creatures and need interaction with others, either for effective work collaboration or just to socialise.

The Future of the Work Environment

 Figure 1 shows a compilation of the various type of Work Environments which office workers use and how they came about.

Corporate Real-Estate- The New Ecosystem

Each company, especially post-COVID, will have to look at their business strategy and determine how they will best solution their Work Environment to get the maximum benefits. These are the main questions each company has to ask and answer at a strategic level:

  • What is the best workspace solution for my company and employees?
  • Do employees want the corporate leased space? Does it help make them more productive?
  • How is the marketplace (landlords) responding to this demand if a company is leasing space?

Role-dependent Remote Workers. Returning to the larger topic of the Work Environment, the HBS paper states there are different rates of remoteness across industries. I would assert that in addition there are different rates of remoteness among the types of workers. A salesperson needs to interact differently with fellow company employees compared to an accountant or an administrative person. Workers in the Banking industry interact differently compared to workers in the Technology industry. The article also points out that a better educated and better paid worker – or a knowledge worker – can more easily be a remote worker. For those of us who have been working in the mobile/remote Work Environment for many years, we know and understand this. Knowledge workers are not employed for their physical skills. For example, an assembly line worker in an auto factory cannot be remote.

Determining Work Typology. The paper also states that remote working will be more common in the companies that have not experienced a dramatic decrease in productivity from remote working. This has been asserted and demonstrated by us, the professionals in the corporate Real Estate industry. The industry has been experiencing increased productivity for many years. We have also conducted in-house studies of the various business groups that have experienced remote working. We have even gone so far as to provide work typologies for the various types of workers. Each typology uses the office Work Environment differently and has varying levels of remote abilities.

Need for Change Management. A critical component of remote work effectiveness is the mindset shift by both the employee and the manager. The managers have to modify their style to more of a “management by performance”, versus just walking around and checking whether people are busy. Similarly, employees have to understand they are being trusted to work unsupervised but will have to accomplish the required work and be held responsible. The manager and employee relationship will require new performance measures to hold people accountable and determine whether they are being effective and productive in their remote environment. All of this requires a change management program to educate both without compromising the corporate culture.

When the pendulum finally comes to rest in the near future at what will be the New Normal, the Work Environment will be modified. But, more importantly, the mindset of employees and managers will have to be adjusted. This new mindset will be required so each company can be more agile to meet the new challenges that will be awaiting every company and industry throughout the world. This will enable a company to not only survive but thrive in the next wave of quantum shifts. And yes, there will be another wave of quantum shifts in the future, lest we forget the examples of the past (eg. the 2007 Global Financial Crisis, 2003 SARS, etc.).

This article has focused on the Work Environment. The Work Environment is one of the four components of the 360o Future of Work practice at Ecosystm. The other three components are: People, Technology, and Business. All four are required to be in balance to enable companies to meet future challenges, competitors, and unknown black swans.  


Ecosystm Principal Advisors; Tim Sheedy (Technology), Ravi Bhogaraju (People & Organisations), and Mike Zamora (Infrastructure & Offices) provided holistic view of what the Future of Work will look like.
Ecosystm Engage Future of Work

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Industry Spotlight for August – Future of Work

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The Future of Work is here, now. Organisations were faced with unprecedented challenges of coping with the work-from-home model, when COVID-19 hit earlier this year. Many organisations managed the pivot very successfully, but all organisations were impacted in some way. Various trends have emerged over the last few months, that are likely to persist long after the immediate COVID-19 measures are removed by countries. In the Ecosystm Digital Priorities in the New Normal study, we find that organisations will continue to cater for remote employees (Figure 1) and keep a firm eye on employee experience (EX).

Organisations will continue to Enable Remote working 2020-21

August has seen these clear trends in the Future of Work

#1 Tech companies leading from the front in embracing the Future of Work

As the pandemic continued to spread across the globe, various companies adopted the work from home model at a scale never seen before. While it is still unclear how the work model will look like, many companies continue to extend their remote working policies for the remaining year, and some are even thinking of making it a permanent move.

Tech companies appear to be the most proactive in extending remote working. Google, Microsoft, and AWS have all extended their work from home model till the end of the year or till the middle of next year.  Earlier in the month Facebook extended its work from home program until mid-2021 and are also giving employees USD 1,000 to equip their home offices. This appears to be a long-term policy, with the company announcing in May that in the next 5-10 years, they expect 50% of their employees to be remote. Similarly, Salesforce and Uber also announced that they would be extending remote working till the mid-next year, and are providing funding for employees to set up the right work environment.

In Australia, Atlassian has made work from home a permanent option for their employees. They will continue to operate their physical offices but have given employees the option to choose where they want to work from.

Some organisations have gone beyond announcing these measures. Slack has talked about how they are evolving their corporate culture. For example, they have evolved their hiring policies and most new roles are open to remote candidates. Going forward, they are evaluating a more asynchronous work environment where employees can work the hours that make sense for them. In their communique, they are open about the fluid nature of the work environment and the challenges that employees and organisations might face as their shift their work models.

Organisations will have to evaluate multiple factors before coming up with the right model that suits their corporate culture and nature of work, but it appears that tech companies are showing the industry how it can be done.

#2 Tech companies evolve their capabilities to enable the Future of Work

Right from the start of the crisis, we have seen organisations make technology-led pivots. Technology providers are responding – and fast – to the changing environment and are evolving their capabilities to help their customers embrace the digital Future of Work.

Many of these responses have included strengthening their ecosystems and collaborating with other technology providers. Wipro and Intel announced a collaboration between Wipro’s LIVE Workspace digital workspace solution and the Intel vPro platform to enable remote IT support and solution. The solution provides enhanced protection and security against firmware-level attacks. Slack and Atlassian strengthened their alliance with app integrations and an account ‘passport’ in a joint go-to-market move, to reduce the time spent logging into separate services and products. This will enable both vendors to focus on their strengths in remote working tools and provide seamless services to their customers.

Tech companies have also announced product enhancements and new capabilities. CBTS has evolved their cloud-based unified communications, collaboration and networking solutions, with an AI-powered Secure Remote Collaboration solution, powered by Cisco Webex. With seamless integration of Cisco Webex software, Cisco Security software, and endpoints that combine high-definition cameras, microphones, and speakers, with automatic noise reduction, the solution now offers features such real-time transcription, closed captioning, and recording for post-meeting transcripts. 

Communication and Collaboration tools have been in the limelight since the start of the crisis with providers such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack introducing new features throughout. In August Microsoft enhanced the capabilities of Teams and introduced a range of new features to the Teams Business Communications System. It now offers the option to host calls of up to 20,000 participants with a limit to 1,000 for interactive meetings, after which the call automatically shifts to a “view only” mode.  With the possibility of remote working becoming a reality even after the crisis is over, Microsoft is looking to make Teams relevant for a range of meeting needs – from one-on-one meetings up to large events and conferences. In the near future, the solution will also allow organisations to add corporate branding, starting with branded meeting lobbies, followed by branded meeting experiences.

While many of these solutions are aimed at large enterprises, tech providers are also aware that they are now receiving a lot of business from small and medium enterprises (SMEs), struggling to make changes to their technology environment with limited resources. Juniper has expanded their WiFi 6 access points to include 4 new access points aimed at outdoor environments, SMEs, retail sites, K-12 schools, medical clinics and even the individual remote worker. While WiFi 6 is designed for high-density public or private environments, it is also designed for IoT deployments and in workplaces that use videoconferencing and other applications that require high bandwidth.

#3 The Future of Work is driving up hardware sales

Ecosystm research shows that at the start of the crisis, 76% of organisations increased investments in hardware – including PCs, devices, headsets, and conferencing units – and 67% of organisations expect their hardware spending to go up in 2020-21. Remote working remains a reality across enterprises. Despite the huge increase in demand, it became difficult for hardware providers to fulfil orders initially, with a disrupted supply chain, store closures and a rapid shift to eCommerce channels. This quarter has seen a steady rise in hardware sales, as providers overcome some of their initial challenges.

Apart from enterprise sales, there has been a surge in the consumer demand for PCs and devices. While remote working is a key contributor, online education and entertainment are mostly prompting homebound people to invest more in hardware. Even accessories such as joysticks are in short supply – a trend that seems to have been accelerated by the Microsoft Flight Simulator launch earlier this month.

The demand for both iPad and Mac saw double-digit growth in this quarter. Around half of the customers purchasing these devices were new to the product. Apple sees the rise in demand from remote workers and students. Lenovo reported a 31% increase in Q1 net profits with demand surges in China, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

 #4 The impact on Real Estate is beginning to show

The demand for prime real estate has been hit by remote working and organisations not renewing leases or downsizing – both because most employees are working remotely and because of operational cost optimisation during the crisis. This is going to have a longer-term impact on the market, as organisations re-evaluate their need for physical office space. Some organisations will reduce office space, and many will re-design their offices to cater to virtual interactions (Figure 1). While now, Ecosystm research shows that only 16% of enterprises are expecting a reduction of commercial space, this might well change over the months to come. Organisations might even feel the need to have multiple offices in suburbs to make it convenient for their hybrid workers to commute to work on the days they have to. Amazon is offering employees additional choices for smaller offices outside the city of Seattle.

But the Future of Work and the rise of a distributed workforce is beginning to show an initial impact on the real estate industry. Last week saw Pinterest cancel a large office lease at a building to be constructed near its headquarters in San Francisco. The company felt that it might not be the right time to go ahead with the deal, as they are re-evaluating where employees would like to work from in the future. Even the termination fees of USD 89.5 million did not discourage them. They will continue to maintain their existing work premises but do not see feel that it is the right time to make additional real estate investments, as they re-evaluate where employees would like to work from in the future.  

There is a need for organisations to prepare themselves for the Future of Work – now! Ecosystm has launched a new 360o Future of Work practice, leveraging real-time market data from our platform combined with insights from our industry practitioners and experienced analysts, to guide organisations as they shift and define their new workplace strategies.   


Ecosystm Principal Advisors; Tim Sheedy (Technology), Ravi Bhogaraju (People & Organisations), and Mike Zamora (Infrastructure & Offices) provided holistic view of what the Future of Work will look like.
Ecosystm Engage Future of Work

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A New State of Equilibrium: Thoughts on Post-COVID Predictions

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I recently came across an article which makes 7 predictions for a post COVID world. Upon reflection, I agree with the predictions to varying degrees and decided to comment further.

First, let me share a couple of general observations. Currently, we are still in the eye of the storm. Many are unable to see any light at the end of the tunnel. There is quite a bit of negative sentiments, and some fail to see that the situation will ever improve. I am sure similar thoughts occurred during other crises: the 1918 Pandemic (Spanish Flu); the Great Depression of the 1930s; the Dot.com bust of 2001; SARS in 2003; and the Global Financial Crisis/Great US Recession of 2007. During each of these events, a sense of impending Armageddon came over much of the population. Certainly, in each instance, people did experience some personal and social permanent changes, with which they learned to adapt and cope. But, inevitably, the world did go on and Armageddon did not occur.

One of the basic truths I believe, is that humans require and crave interaction with other humans. Think about the videoconferencing applications. The use of these apps grew exponentially as the main communication channel. Instead of just audio, it was audio and video. These mediums greatly assisted society in coping and adapting. Mankind, and the Natural World, will always find a way.

Here are the predictions from the article:

  • Companies that traffic in digital services and e-commerce will make immediate and lasting gains
  • Remote work will become the default
  • Many jobs will be automated, and the rest will be made remote-capable
  • Telemedicine will become the new normal, signaling an explosion in med-tech innovation
  • The nationwide student debt crisis will finally abate as higher education begins to move online
  • Goods and people will move less often and less freely across national and regional borders
  • After an initial wave of isolationism, multilateral cooperation may flourish

I very much agree with the author’s first prediction. This one is fairly obvious, as it has proven true throughout the crisis with providers such as Amazon, Zoom and others. It is expected to continue into the post COVID world. This is also evident from the findings of the Ecosystm research on the impacts of COVID-19. Organisations intend to continue to use digital technologies, even after the immediate crisis is over (Figure 1).

Top Measures to be retained by organisations Post COVID-19

A Natural State of Equilibrium will Emerge

I believe for each of the areas described in the predictions, there will be various levels of long-term modification. None of them will return to their pre COVID-19 state, as we have all experienced going down the rabbit hole. During the pandemic, due largely to the lockdowns, the pendulum swung significantly towards one side. Many times, when people predict a new view, the current state is considered the New Normal. For me, the relevant question is: Will things stay as they are now, or will there be a new natural state of equilibrium? If so, what will it look like, in each of these areas? I don’t believe there is one answer, or one New Normal for all the dimensions being discussed. I believe a new normal state will potentially be different for each individual, each company/entity and each condition. In a post COVID-19 world there could be 50 shades of grey in each of these areas. 

One of the predictions states that remote work will become the default. It must be remembered that part of work is a collaborative effort. While video conferencing has enabled collaborative efforts, the importance of the accidental interaction at the break room, printer, etc. can’t be under-estimated. It is these unscheduled interactions that enable accidental collaboration which can lead to great solutions. Thus, there will be many shades to the Future of Work – there will not be one absolute. 

A similar example is a prediction for higher education. Part of the learning process a university offers is interacting with people who are not similar to your background or beliefs. That is one of the benefits of a diverse university. Similar to the corporate environment, many different types of learning environments will enable a person to gain great experiences from the time at university.

The advantage of all these alternatives will be the additional options and benefits to people post COVID compared to the pre COVID-19 world. It will present many great opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators, as well as end-users and consumers. It will create new and iterative ‘middle spaces’. It will be possible for a David to emerge and challenge a Goliath(s).

The two Chinese characters for the word ‘crisis’ are “danger” and “opportunity”. Just as we are in a dangerous time now, it has also presented new and different opportunities. Those opportunities will continue to exist even when the danger has passed. I am also reminded of the old expression “May you live in interesting times”. It very much applies to all of us now and in the future. I wish the same for all of you.

Stay Safe. Stay Healthy. Stay Mentally Positive.


More insights on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and technology areas that will see transformation post COVID, as organisations get into the recovery phase, can be found in the Ecosystm Digital Priorities in the New Normal Study
Ecosystm COVID-19 Research Data

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Negotiating the New Normal: Lessons from Tech Leaders

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5/5 (2) As organisations come to terms with the “new normal”, technology companies are presenting unique offerings to help them tide over the situation and lead them towards economic and social recovery. These companies are also leading from the front and demonstrating how to transform with agility and pace – evolving their business and delivery models.

Organisations are dependent on digital technologies more than ever before. In 2020, we have already seen unprecedented and rapid adoption of technologies such as audio and video conferencing, collaboration tools to engage with employees and clients, contactless services, and AI/automation. This will have a wider impact on the technology industry, community, and redefining the workplace of the future.

Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Tim Sheedy hosted a virtual roundtable with business leaders from some of the world’s largest technology service providers to discuss how they managed the challenges during the pandemic; and the measures they implemented to support not only their business operations and working environment, but also to help their customers negotiate these difficult times.

The Role of Technology During the COVID-19 Crisis

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, IT teams found themselves largely unprepared. Ecosystm research finds that only 9% of organisations considered their IT fully prepared for the changes that had to be implemented (Figure 1). More than a third did not have the right technology solutions and 41% were unprepared for the scale of the changes required and the capacity to extend the existing technology to meet client and employee needs.  Impact of COVID-19 on IT

While 27% of organisations felt that they needed more support from their IT provider, further questioning reveals that only 4% switched technology providers for better support during these difficult times. Organisations are looking to their technology partners for guidance, as they negotiate the new normal.

Here are some of the discussion points that emerged in the conversation with the technology providers.

Business Continuity Planning is Still Evolving

One of the early impacts on businesses was due to their dependence on outsourced services and offshore models. Several concerns emerged – how could their provider continue to operate offsite; would they be able to access the network remotely; how should fully remote teams be managed and so on. In addition to this, there were other challenges such as supply chain disruptions and a sudden change in business. Even technology providers felt that they were navigating uncharted territory.

“Remote project delivery is not new, it’s been going on for a few years; but I think that there’s been a lot of non-believers out there. This experience has moved a lot of those non-believers to the believer category. A lot of our delivery can be done from home – think of the savings of time and money that can be realised through this.” – Andrew Campbell, Partner Asia Pacific for Talent and Transformation, IBM

Moreover, the rising workload and client expectation has led businesses to move towards exploring automation and AI.

“The thing that is changing now is, when we approach a new opportunity or an existing customer with a new requirement, we look at using automation. Typically, when you go in to design a solution you always think of the human aspect. We’re working very hard to move our thinking to automation first and then supplementing it with the human side as a backup.” – Michael Horton, Executive VP, ANZ, HCL Technologies

Data has become paramount in this time of crisis. The right use of data is helping organisations fulfil customer requirements, enhance their experience, and optimise services and products.

“Those organisations that have a good understanding of the data within their business, and how that data can be used to understand the impact on their business, are starting to have much better clarity on future requirements.” – Peter Lawther, Oceania Regional Technology Officer, Fujitsu

Organisations should take the learnings from managing this situation to keep evolving their business continuity plans – keeping in mind individual business needs and growth and business strategies.

Having the Right Infrastructure Means Employees are Productive

The lockdown and social distancing measures forced organisations to focus on the infrastructure that can support their remote and hybrid work environment.

“Before the pandemic around 20-30% of our staff logged on to a VPN, but with remote working, all of a sudden, we were at 90%.” – Lawther

The adoption of digital tools and online infrastructure led businesses to re-think how they were delivering their services. While some organisations had the tools, governance and the protocols in place, there is still a long way to go for organisations to solve their infrastructure and networking challenges.

“It gets down to the quality of the equipment that the staff use – which ranges from decent laptops, phones, and network connections. If you don’t have that now, people cannot work effectively.” – Horton

Several of these organisations, focused on ergonomics as well, when evaluating their employees’ infrastructural needs when working from home. This extra focus on infrastructural needs – with the employees firmly on their mind –  ensured that there was minimal impact on delivery.

Caring for Your People is More Important than Ever

The pandemic has changed the way people work, socialise, and interact. While this appears to have become the new norm, adjusting to it can create emotional stress. Simultaneously, as organisations focus on survival and recovery, workloads have increased. Employees are working extended hours, without taking adequate hours. There is an immediate need to involve organisations’ HR practices in evaluating the emotional well-being of employees and finding better ways to engage with remote staff, to reduce stress.

A key aspect of handling the crisis has been empathy, transparency and engagement with employees. In a business environment, we have all sorts of teams, cultures, clients, and so on. The common thread in this model is that everyone’s just become a lot friendlier, more empathic, more transparent.” – Sumit Nurpuri, COO, SE Asia Hong Kong and Taiwan, Capgemini

Organisations will have to be innovative in the way they manage these people challenges. For example, a common problem that has emerged is employees attending meetings, with interruptions from family, especially children.

“One of the things that we did as a part of our team meetings is that we assigned tasks to children at the beginning of the call and in the last few minutes, the children presented back to the teams on what they’ve been up to. It was a mechanism for us to make sure that we were involving our staff and understanding their current situation – and trying to make it as easy for them to work, as possible.” – Lawther

Taking the Opportunity to Drive Positive Outcomes

The other aspect businesses are trying to overcome is meeting the rising expectations of clients. This has led them to focus on skills training, mostly delivered through e-learning platforms. Organisations find that this has translated into increased employee performance and a future-ready workforce.

The crisis disrupted economies and societies across the globe, with business and industry coming to a standstill in most countries. Unexpected business benefits emerged from the necessity to comply with country regulations. By and large, employees have been more productive. Also, many organisations re-evaluated their commercial property requirements and many were able to reduce expenses on office rentals (for many this will not be immediate, but there is a future potentiality). Similarly, there were other areas where businesses saw reduced expenses – operational costs such as equipment maintenance and travel expenses.

“When you start global projects and global implementations, you typically do some kind of global design work and maybe fly in people from all over the world, typically to a centralised location. This has changed to virtual meetings and collaborative interactions on online global design. The amount of time and money that was saved – that would typically be spent on people traveling to manage these global design workshops – was great” – Campbell

 

Most organisations, across industries, will have to make considerable changes to their IT environment. The Ecosystm Digital Priorities in the New Normal study finds that 70% expect considerable to significant changes to their IT environment, going forward. Technology providers will remain a significant partner in organisations’ journey to transformation, recovery and success.

 


Watch the replay of Ecosystm ‘Digital Leaders Roundtable on the Future of Work’ and hear from global technology leaders as we transition to the hybrid workplace.
Digital Leaders Roundtable on the Future of Work


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Vodafone NZ Launches AWS-Powered Vodafone Connect

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This week, Vodafone New Zealand  launched a contact centre solution known as Vodafone Connect that runs on AWS cloud infrastructure. The solution is designed for contact centres and customer service providers to reduce their operating cost and deliver an improved customer experience (CX).

The move comes as many businesses and governments are witnessing a spike in inbound contact centre volumes since the outbreak of the pandemic. The telecom company aims to help the contact centre industry through its on-demand contact centre suite of solutions that can be scaled up or down according to the organisations’ requirements. It can be combined with existing CRM platforms in a single dashboard for better access to data and resolution support.

Vodafone Connect is built on the AWS Connect cloud contact centre solution and uses data analytics and machine learning tools to automate customer interactions across multiple channels – email, messaging and social media – to support the contact centre agents with real-time information.

COVID-19 has accelerated the move to the cloud

The recent pandemic has seen many organisations make a leap almost overnight to cloud contact centre technologies. Many organisations that previously had concerns around data privacy, and securing customer data – and were thus hesitant about deploying cloud contact centre solutions – have moved to the cloud model. The cloud model helped get agents that were forced to work from home up and running in a short duration. The immediate urgency was primarily due to a massive spike in voice calls and non-voice activity such as emails. During the COVID-19 crisis, many organisations used Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections to their legacy on-premises phone system to enable the remote agents. However, there have been challenges reported by many organisations with that approach such as increases to IT budget, difficulty in scaling easily, and the requirement for more IT support that could have been avoided.

Ecosystm research finds that only 30% of organisations have fully migrated their cloud contact centre solutions on the cloud.   Adoption of Cloud Contact Centres

This indicates a market opportunity for vendors in the cloud contact centre space. The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely triggered a strong move towards the cloud model. It has become imperative for vendors and solutions providers to strengthen their cloud capabilities.

Driving an Omni-Channel Experience has become increasingly difficult

Ecosystm research also finds that organisations find siloed organisational data as one of the biggest challenges in driving consistent customer experience.Customer Experience Challenges

This has been further exacerbated by the high volume of interactions that organisations have been having with their customers, and the need to accommodate work-from-home policies for their customer care agents. At the same time, nearly 60% of organisations want to drive an omni-channel experience to improve CX. This provides a huge opportunity for contact centre vendors and partners to offer consulting services to help organisations bridge the gaps in achieving an omni-channel experience. For many organisations there has been a greater push to integrate CRM, the voice of the customer/surveys, customer journey analytics to the contact centre technologies and this is not an easy task as it involves different stakeholders with different sets of KPIs. Having a single platform that can manage this omni-channel experience will be a huge benefit for many organisations.

New Players in the Competitive Landscape

AWS is a relatively new player in the contact centre market, but it is starting to disrupt the existing players, with a global installed base. However, it is worth noting that Avaya, Cisco and Genesys have a higher installed base and they continue to win new deals. The move to the cloud is witnessing more service providers, telecom providers and other contact centre partners push more cloud-based solutions in the market. Apart from AWS, other important players include NICEinContact, 8×8, Talkdesk, Twillio, Five9, and UJet. The competitive battleground is heating up and there are a lot of options for customers to choose from. It will all come down to working with a vendor that can help them achieve their desired CX outcomes.

There are other important elements in CX that are growing in importance and these include conversational AI, voice biometrics, knowledge management systems, machine learning and CX management solutions. Contact centre solution providers are having discussions around these areas with tech buyers. This will mean that we can expect deeper partnerships and acquisitions in the short to medium term. Security has also emerged as an important issue to be resolved, especially with agents working from home. This is from a compliance perspective and pertaining to how agents are viewing and handling customer data. These new trends indicate that customers will need to work with different vendors to solve the variety of issues they are facing.

The Vodafone Connect solution on AWS Connect is one of the many examples of how more partners of contact centre solutions are gearing up for the rapid move to the cloud. Globally, Vodafone also sells contact centre solutions from Cisco and Genesys. The next 3 years will see a great movement in the market and this will include vendors from North America that will set up operations to push their offerings across Europe and the Asia Pacific.


Click below to access insights from the Ecosystm Contact Centre Study on visibility into organisations’ priorities when running a Contact Centre (both in-house and outsourced models) and the technologies implemented and being evaluated

Contact Centre Best Practices


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The Cybercrime Pandemic

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5/5 (2) Organisations across the globe, are facing disruption on a scale never seen before, and are urgently seeking ways of remaining viable. Predictably, cybersecurity is a secondary concern and is often handled reactively. To make matters worse, a chronic cybersecurity skills shortage is being made much more severe by the crisis.

Remote working has reached unprecedented levels as organisations try hard to keep going. This is massively expanding the attack surface for cyber criminals, weakening security and leading to a cybercrime pandemic. Hacking activity and phishing, inspired by the COVID-19 crisis, are growing rapidly. Containing and suppressing this cybercrime pandemic is proving to be almost impossible.

Remote working intensifies known threats posed by phishing and ransomware. More alarming are the distinctive cybersecurity vulnerabilities associated with home working including reliance on home Wi-Fi, increased use of unpatched VPNs and devices, and the exponential growth of network access points. These vulnerabilities increase the likelihood of a breach enormously.

Corporate IT is in a very challenging position. It needs to ensure that organisations can operate in a way that they have never operated before, while ensuring that their assets are secure – a very difficult, if not an impossible task for which there is no precedent.

Some important cybersecurity considerations, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic include:

Re-enforce Basic Cyber Hygiene

As massive numbers of people work from home, basic cyber hygiene becomes more critical than ever before. Organisations must maintain awareness of security threats among employees, ensure security policies are being followed and be certain that corporate software is being updated and patched on time. With a dispersed workforce, these basic practices are more challenging, and training becomes more critical. Phishing attacks are often the primary attack vector for malicious actors, so employees must be able to identify these attacks. They increasingly exploit shortages of goods such as protective equipment and sometimes claim to offer official information relating to COVID-19.

Remote employees often access sensitive business data through home Wi-Fi networks that will not have the same security controls – such as firewalls – that are used in offices. There is more connectivity from remote locations, which requires greater focus on data privacy, and hunting for intrusions from a much larger number of entry points.

Place More Focus on Endpoint Security

The unprecedented switch to remote working is radically increasing the number of vulnerable endpoints. Given that endpoints are located at a distance from corporate premises, it is frequently difficult for IT departments to configure endpoint systems and install necessary security software.

It is vital to assess the security posture of all endpoints connecting to the corporate network. This practice enables an organisation to determine whether or not an endpoint requesting to access internal resources meets security policy requirements. It requires the ability to monitor and enforce policy across all devices, while making onboarding and offboarding seamless.

It is essential that endpoint solutions can be rapidly deployed for remote workers, as needed on both personal and corporate devices. Devices used for remote work need much more than the basic antivirus and antispyware protection. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) and on-board endpoint detection and response (EDR) capabilities are crucial.

Be More Selective About How and When Video Conferencing and Collaboration Platforms are Used

Since lockdowns spread around the world, the use of video conferencing and collaboration tools has grown beyond the wildest expectations of suppliers of these tools. The extraordinary growth of Zoom has made it a target for attackers. Many security vulnerabilities have been discovered with Zoom such as, a vulnerability to UNC path injection in the client chat feature, which allows hackers to steal Windows credentials, keeping decryption keys in the cloud which can potentially be accessed by hackers and gives the ability for trolls to ‘Zoombomb’ open and unprotected meetings. Zoom has so far managed to augment its security features in part by its recent acquisition of Keybase, a secure messaging service.

Switching to an alternative video conferencing platform will not necessarily offer greater levels of security as privacy is typically not a strength of any collaboration platform. Collaboration platforms tend to tread a fine line between a great experience and security. Too much security can cause performance and usability to be impacted negatively. Too little security, as we have seen, allows hackers to find vulnerabilities. If data privacy is critical for a meeting, then perhaps collaboration platforms should not be used, or organisations should not share critical information on them.

Protect all Cloud Workloads

In today’s remote working paradigm, cloud computing is being used more than ever. This frequently exposes organisations to risks that are not adequately mitigated.

Organisations typically need to manage a mix of on-premises technology together with multiple clouds, which are often poorly integrated.  These complexities are compounded by the increasing risk from cyberattacks associated with cloud migration and hybrid cloud implementations. In cloud environments, the leading cybersecurity risks include insecure interfaces and APIs, data breaches and data loss, unauthorised access, DDoS attacks, and a lack of a unified view of assets.

Protection requirements for securing hybrid multicloud environments are evolving rapidly. In addition to tightening up endpoint security, organisations must also place greater emphasis on cloud workload protection. Cloud security solutions need to offer a unified and consistent view across all physical machines, virtual machines, serverless workloads and containers, used by an organisation.

Amend Incident Response Plans

It is the containment of breaches that often determines the success of security policies and procedures. Basic cyber hygiene as well as changes to IT architecture, such as micro segmentation, play an essential role in breach containment. But incident response plans also need to be made relevant to the current pandemic scenario.

Employees and IT teams are now working in a completely different environment than envisaged by most incident response plans. Existing plans may now be obsolete. At the very least, they will need to be modified. Usually, incident response plans are designed to respond to threats when most employees are operating in a corporate environment. This clearly needs to change. Employees need to be trained in the updated plan and know how to reach support if they believe that a security breach has occurred in their remote location.

Critically, new alert and warning systems need to be established, which can be used by employees to warn of threats as well as to receive information on threats and best practices.

 

Organisations are struggling to keep the lights on. In this battle to remain operational, cybersecurity has been taking a back seat. This cannot last for long as the deluge of new vulnerabilities is creating easy pickings for attackers. Cyber hygiene, endpoint security, cloud security, security policies and incident response plans must be continually reviewed.


This blog is based on Andrew Milroy’s recent report titled “Cybersecurity in the COVID-19 Era”.
Click here to download the full report ?

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Survive to Thrive: How the Right Technologies can keep you Engaged with your Employees

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5/5 (2) As we get into the second month of Circuit Breaker here in Singapore and most people are working from home, we are hearing a lot more about the difficulties that organisations and individuals have faced when it comes to operating as a remote workforce – or what is commonly called working from home or “WFH”.

As the CEO of technology research and advisory platform, I am lucky to have some of the global experts and thought-leaders in remote working as part of our team. While it is not an easy ask of staff, and some find it harder than others, remote working is going to be an increasingly important component of our work lives in the future, and something we need to get right in order to “Survive to Thrive”.

People and Engagement

​Let’s face it – we are in a humanitarian crisis, foremost and the economic crisis is just a fallout of it. So impact on People has to be the number one consideration. Working from home can be a real culture shock. Gone is the ability to quickly speak to the colleague next to you, meet someone for lunch or even just have a discussion in the pantry. Taking away these social interactions can impact employee morale and therefore productivity. Putting an effort into team-building – as hard as it is to do remotely – is very important.

Groups on social messaging apps (outside of the work-related ones) can help rebuild that camaraderie and strengthen social bonds. Plan team-building exercises such as quizzes, virtual drinks, or even networking lunches that can be done remotely. Remember, the wellness of your teams is directly proportionate to the well-being of the business.

Process and Practice​

Working from home requires a different mindset to being in the office, and it is easy to get dragged into an endless cycle of emails and conference calls. This often means that the act of planning and discussing replaces the act of doing!

This is where good-practice from the pre-COVID-19 era becomes an essential practice right now. Note-taking, summarising discussions, and recapping roles and responsibilities for project execution becomes paramount. Documenting and tracking progress will have a positive impact on productivity and ensure that teams are focused on their collective and individual responsibilities.

While there are many applications that you may consider to manage and monitor projects, you may also want to explore appointing dedicated people whose role is to identify how processes have been affected by remote working, and how bottlenecks can be cleared with more effective use of collaboration software.

Technology to get Digital Ready

Teams need the applications to communicate and carry out their responsibilities diligently. Luckily, in the age of cloud computing, most organisations were able to quite easily transition to a work from home environment. Those that struggled were the companies that had not embraced digital and were not using any cloud-based software (for email, collaboration, bookkeeping, HR or CRM); or those that are mandated by strict compliance and cybersecurity measures that cannot be enforced in employees’ homes.

While many organisations were already using a variety of communication & collaboration solutions, in the new work from home setups, you may want to consider additional solutions to help you get through your current challenges. The good news is that many technology providers have made their offerings available for free trials during this period, so the financial outlay may be minimal or non-existent.

You should also not overlook the importance of cybersecurity at this time. Regulations around data privacy are still applicable, and home-networks are not as secure as enterprise networks. At the same time, social-engineering and phishing attacks are also on the rise. So be sure to provide regular updates to your teams with guidance on how they can help maintain the security of your data and networks.

 

In conclusion, as we come to terms with the current normal, and get a glimpse of what the future normal may look like; we continue to see the old adage that it’s people, process and technology – in that order – which will guide us through the current situation and set us up for continued success. While no one has a crystal ball, it is actions – how you interact with your colleagues and the processes you put in place – and not technology that will ultimately best position your organisation to thrive in the future.

 

As published in the tabla! (An SPH Publication)

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Zscaler Augments Data Protection Capabilities with Cloudneeti Acquisition

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5/5 (1) There has been a widespread adoption of hybrid and multi-cloud architectures in the recent past and this trend is only expected to go up in the near future. A hybrid cloud adoption has its challenges though; including the need for organisations to baseline their security practices across so many different environments. Organisations that are aware of the cybersecurity risks associated are increasingly looking for external specialised help in managing their cloud security measures, especially with an aim to automate the processes.

Zscaler Acquires CloudNeeti

In a recent announcement, Zscaler announced its intentions to acquire Cloudneeti, a niche Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) start-up based in Redmond, Washington. This is set to expand Zscaler’s Cloud Security Platform capabilities to include data protection. With this acquisition, Zscaler will be able to complement its own offerings to provide:

  • A complete Data Protection and Exposure Prevention suite, that works across locations, users and applications and ensures better compliance with regulations
  • A Unified Compliance Assurance platform that provides compliance visibility and breach mitigation across the multiple SaaS applications an organisation uses
  • Risk Reduction through automated remediations following both industry compliance laws and organisations’ own risk management program guidelines

Ecosystm research finds that organisations are struggling with their cybersecurity implementations, especially as the solutions get increasingly complicated to combat the complex and evolving threat environment (Figure 1). Integration with existing cybersecurity measures, and a lack of sufficiently skilled IT staff to handle the myriad needs of the multiple systems and applications, builds a strong case for automation in cybersecurity practices.

Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Alex Woerndle says, “Automation is critical in cybersecurity, given the volume of data, alerts and incidents that are being dealt with on a daily basis, globally. Automating recurrent and high-volume tasks is a critical step in getting on top of this challenge.”

Importance of Automating Cybersecurity Processes

Woerndle sees a growing role for CSPM providers for multiple reasons. “Firstly, a lot of companies are finding that they cannot be ‘fully cloud’ and as such, end up with a complex architecture spanning on-premise, private cloud environments and multiple public cloud tenancies. Secondly, due to poorly planned cloud migrations, changing priorities, differences in service requirements, cost differences and also personal preferences across multiple teams, a lot of companies end up consuming different services across multiple public cloud providers (Azure, AWS, GCP, and so on).  IT teams are struggling to be experts in all aspects of the shared responsibility model and with the capabilities to secure the various services. Finally, there is a constant stream of upgrades and addition of new services team members, given the easy accessibility public cloud environments provide. CSPM solutions provide the ability to establish baselines, enforce security controls and run regular checks to ensure compliance. Doing this manually is time consuming, expensive and always three steps behind.”

Woerndle also sees further complications because of the COVID-19 crisis. “COVID-19 has shifted the world to remote working overnight. Once workers are outside of the trusted corporate network and have access to cloud resources from their home networks, additional complexity to the corporate security posture is highlighted. Depending on how organisations have prepared for this, they either maintain control of all services and applications, and the access into each, or if not prepared, open direct access to a lot of unsecured applications from potentially very unsecured networks.” In fact Zscaler has seen its stock prices rising in the aftermath of the global crisis.

However, Woerndle warns, “While the conversation certainly supports the use of CSPMs, there is a lot more to it in terms of securing home networks, identity and access management, and so on.”

 

Zscaler’s acquisition of CloudNeeti certainly appears to be a timely move, in the current environment when organisations are struggling with a lack of resources with the extensive knowledge to understand all private and public cloud environments. There are controls required to secure each application, resource and system within an organisation – along with the time and effort required to implement, monitor, audit and improve cybersecurity measures over time.

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Building a Business Continuity Plan in the Contact Centre Industry

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5/5 (3) Agents are the most valuable assets in a contact centre. In the current environment, the biggest threat is agents getting infected, causing the closure of contact centres for weeks or possibly even longer. We are already seeing the impact of that with offices being shut, students not going to school and industry gatherings and events being put on hold or cancelled. So having a business continuity plan (BCP) is critical. The BCP should include ways to continue to engage with customers.

The contact centre manages live interactions. Every second there are voice calls coming in, emails received and self-service tools being accessed. It is important to have multiple backup plans – both from a people and a technology perspective – to keep operations running effectively, without calls being put on hold too long or with other channels going unanswered. Contact centres battle with these challenges every day and the situation will get far more serious with the ongoing changes we are witnessing.

Some important considerations include:

Having a backup plan allowing agents working from home

More contact centres today are gearing up to agents working from home, but the process is not an easy one. To begin with, the initial set up includes having the right connectivity and a reliable network. Ensuring that the agent has the right working environment with minimal distraction is crucial. A good quality headset can help. A poor-quality headset will only create unwanted problems with understanding customer issues and handling them. Other concerns include security, tracking how data is being handled, agent under-performance and safety of the agents from an operational and health perspective. Measures such as listening to call recordings and storing them centrally are growing in importance. Multi-factor authentication and analytics using agent logs are some measures that can be put in place.

While there are lots of tools and technologies to monitor and check on agents, the key for home-based agents will be trust. Some outsourced contact centre providers that have been using home-based agents for years have stated that having trust and not micromanaging the agents, is essential for the model to work. Some contact centres have also deployed a BYOD policy for home-based agents assuming the right security, device management, application management and authentication measures are in place.

Organisations should also consider actively recruiting additional home-based agents. These agents could be retirees, currently unemployed or people with mobility issues who prefer to work from home.

Given the difference in the working environment, the metrics used to measure agent performance needs to be modified to be more realistic and fair to both agents and organisations.

Employing home-based agents will drive employment amidst challenges in the economy. Ecosystm research finds that more than a third of organisations do not have provisions for agents working remotely (Figure 1).

For a long time, the industry has talked about the rise of home-based agents and while it has received positive momentum, it has never really taken off in a big way. This time it will.

Managing spikes in voice and non-voice calls

In industries such as healthcare and airlines, call volumes are exceeding normal volumes. Having the ability to deflect the calls to other non-voice channels will be important. It might need the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) scripts to be changed from time to time to manage the flow of the calls. This is when cloud architecture becomes important. The cloud model can be used to make changes to call workflows easily. The sudden peaks will also require changing the channels easily and without intervention from IT. This is where the agility of cloud comes in as it allows changes and additions – for example when 500 agents need to be added or moved to work on other areas – to be made more easily. Ecosystm research finds that currently, only a third of organisations have their contact centre solutions fully on a cloud, with another 66% with partial cloud solutions. This is set to change with the rise in the number of home-based agents.

There should be thought and planning on how to deflect voice calls to other self-service channels. In the current environment, some organisations deploy a call back option when there is an overflow calls. Similarly looking at deflecting voice calls to self-service channels to ease the load on agents should be evaluated.

Managing back up locations (onshore and offshore)

Contact centre operators are looking at ways to isolate agents and keep them safe. Apart from very strict hygiene measures, organisations are also restricting agents to their specific floor. Some are looking at having agents split into different centres, to contain the risk of mass infection.

Several contact centre operators are building contingency plans to route calls to outside the onshore location in case the situation in a site or a cluster worsens.

For back-end contact centre activities and non-voice calls, taking the load off from the current onshore setup and pushing them offshore, can be an option. The best place to start would be by evaluating each client contract and SLAs especially on security, regulation and privacy issues regarding customer data-handling.

There will be a lot to be considered too should the country go into the full lock-down mode as we are starting to see with a few countries. This makes the case for employing home-based agents stronger.

Using messaging apps, the website and FAQs for daily notifications

Many contact centres are informing citizens and customers about the changes in business operations, services offered, refunds, where to go for help, what do to in an emergency and other essential information through the website, app or the updated FAQ. This will help reduce unnecessary voice and non-voice enquiries to the contact centre. During an emergency, it is normal that phone queries will rise and developing a detailed FAQ is critical to counter that. The more detailed the FAQ giving essential information, the more agents will be able to focus on the more essential day to day activities. Several companies are now sending pop-ups within apps about daily changes to avoid an overflow of inbound enquiries.

Virtual Assistants and Conversational AI can help to ease the load

The more intelligent the virtual assistant and conversational AI platform, the more a customer will be able to get the right response. The challenge has been that many platforms are poorly designed and customers get frustrated because they are unable to get the basic information they need. In times of high inbound activity, if answers to simpler queries can be provided through a chatbot, it can help ease the load on agents. It is good to start planning for this as it will take some time to get the virtual assistant platform up and running and even longer for the algorithms to learn from historical patterns to work well. While it may not be the perfect solution now, planning for a Conversational AI can bring some sort of balance back to the contact centre. Having a solid knowledge management system at the back-end cannot be compromised. Without a good knowledge management system, the virtual assistant solution will force customers to leave the self-service platform and place a call to the contact centre, defeating its very purpose.

The challenging situation we are in is undoubtedly putting pressure on contact centres. It is not uncommon now for customers to be put on hold – for more than two hours and in some extreme cases more than 7 hours! In times like this, understanding data and the patterns around data from each customer touchpoint will help plan the next steps on how best to navigate the situation. Testing and pre-testing the channels and the changes made before they go live must be done rigorously.

Whilst these are very challenging times for the economy, the good news is that contact centres are successfully piloting or have already implemented some or all of the above discussed here. Outsourced contact centre providers are running pilots across various locations and applying technology to deal with the challenges they are witnessing daily. Technology has also come a long way in the contact centre space, and by the application of the right technologies, scale, and business continuity measures, resilience can be achieved.

This blog was created with input from CX leaders across the entire Asia Pacific region. The author wishes to thank everyone for their valuable input.


Click below to access insights from the Ecosystm Contact Centre Study on visibility into organisations’ priorities when running a Contact Centre (both in-house and outsourced models) and the technologies implemented and being evaluated

Contact Centre Best Practices


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