#ExplainIT – Adapting to COVID-19
Welcome to the first episode of ExplainIT! Join Steve, Matt and Glen as they discuss productivity, security and privacy for small & medium businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are the top 3 things you need to know:
- Businesses need to be flexible with the way that they and their staff are working during this time. Focus on outcomes over input, support people who may have other things going on right now, and stay connected with your team.
- Stay vigilant. Cyber threats have gone through the roof and the bad guys are aware that people are working from home and that their systems have changed, so talk to your IT provider to ensure your business and your staff are safe. Small businesses are an easier target than larger ones, so make sure you haven’t left any doors unlocked.
- Review costs such as software licenses and service packages to see if these are being fully utilised and where you can cut these back, and review processes such as document handling to create some extra efficiencies.
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Harley: I’m joined today by the big boss Steve, Technical Accounts Manager Matt Boardman, and all the way in Tasmania, Senior Engineer Glen Sawtell, How are we fellas?
Glen: Good thanks
Steve: Yeah very good thanks
Matt: Yeah, going well.
Harley: Beautiful sunny day today but it’s starting to get a bit chilly over here in the West, how is it down there in Tassie?
Glen: Pretty cold here at the moment, we’ve got a cold front coming through, so I’m sitting here with the heater on at the moment.
Harley: I don’t think we understand that sort of cold up here! So let’s jump straight into it. You know business has fundamentally changed in Australia, we’re now all working from home, this is our new office, we always could get together and see each other and there were productivity measures and security measures in an IT sense, but how have you guys seen business change from your perspective? We’ll start with Steve.
Steve: Yeah thanks Harley. It’s a pretty good question and there’s been a obviously a lot of shift whether it’s with the workforce you know mobilizing so its at home and the challenges, that kind of presents a lot of shift in mentality that a lot of our clients and their staff have had to undertake. I think mainly over here in WA we’ve done a pretty good job at managing that, from the government level and across the business community. Not so much over in the East Coast where there’s a bit more kind of stress and pressure going on. I think overall the Australian business community has done a pretty good job at changing and adapting accordingly.
Harley: How about yourselves Glen and Matt, you guys are at the coalface with the IT work that you do with activIT systems, so what have you seen that at the coalface there?
Glen: Well I think what we’ve seen is obviously there was the big push to get everyone to work from home in a short space of time, I think a lot of people have adapted to that quite well. I think it’s required businesses to become a little bit more flexible with how they’re operating and around their expectations of how staff are going to be able to function working from home with all the other pressures that they’ve got in life I think.
Matt: Absolutely when you’re working from home you know you are dealing with you know kids being home schooled, you’re dealing with all the distractions, and there’s a lot of really good tools out there in order to improve your work from home productivity, but from an IT point of view there are a lot of things that can be implemented and that’s one of the things we’ve helped our clients with it’s just what can we do to help their staff be productive during this time.
Harley: Definitely, it’s a really hard thing to kind of adapt to this as a business owner. Myself as a business owner of a social agency what I found is that there was an anguish period, there was a period where we didn’t know what was going on, and it was actually quite unsettling. I found it like going into the unknown like walking through a forest, almost like no clue where I was going. So you guys are on the front line, you talk to these guys who kind of feel these pressures, how have you found the mood and what have you seen from your roles?
Steve: I’ve come across some clients who have gone through a similar kind of anguish period I guess, where they really don’t know if their business is going to be around in a couple of months’ time and we’ve had to help them kind of navigate that what they can do with their technology to basically, you know keep running, get those people working from home or other methods to keep them productive. And then on the flip side there’s been some which have just really kind of pushed through and they’ve you know retained a fair amount of their confidence and they’ve just been “let’s get the job done”. Different industries of course, the office based workers are more likely to work from home, whereas we’ve got some in manufacturing where you can’t send a team of 30 people home to build things. So we’ve had to deal with it from many different angles and each of them are fairly unique.
Glen: I think that’s spot-on. We’ve seen obviously like I mentioned we’ve seen quite a bit of a change in the way that people are working, and we’ve had to help clients not only with the technical sort of things, but also with the business processes as well, how they go about achieving certain goals within the business, I’m trying to basically bring in solutions that can help them to do that so there’s been quite a lot of consultation with the clients and things around that as well. I think it’s been quite surprising how resilient a lot of the clients have been, it’s been quite good.
Harley: I’ll bring it to you Matt, have you found that the good news here in WA and generally in Australia as well has kind of helped people just kind of keep trucking on?
Matt: Yeah I think overall in Australia because we are so isolated, measures been adopted reasonably well across the country and particularly well here in WA as well, we’ve definitely not been affected as badly as a lot of other countries and that has been a confidence boost for Australians in general as a nation. One of the big things that we’ve seen is that clients who have been very proactive with their IT in the past who have got a lot of these more modern systems, especially cloud-based systems in place, it’s a lot easier to have adapted to this kind of situation. These systems are just inherently more flexible than older-style on-premises systems, and you know we’ve seen a pretty significant uptake in a lot of these kind of modern solutions to working from home that have been implemented very easily.
Harley: Absolutely, I’d like to jump on that point too. You’ve seen as you mentioned, the cloud-based systems have been quite a not an easy, but an easier transition for those businesses. Have you worked with any businesses that had a more rigid system, have you adapted them over, or how have you worked with them if they haven’t flicked over?
Glen: We’ve been able to transition a lot of clients quite easily where we’ve already sort of forecast in the past you know this functionality might be needed, and there’s been edge cases where staff have needed it, so we’ve been able to effectively just scale that up which has made the transition a lot easier. Some clients are already operating on cloud only platforms so it’s very simple for them but all in all it’s been pretty smooth to be able to transition your more traditional infrastructure to support working from home so it’s been pretty good overall. And obviously our concern also has been doing that, from not only enabling the functionality that they need, but doing it in a method that is also secure because that’s our big concern as well, making sure that these systems are going to stay secure and we’re not opening up a new risk to the business.
Harley: Yeah definitely and we head into this new era now, where you know we’ve gone from quite a rigid structure in business we come in 9 to 5 every day for a lot of businesses and then they go out, but now we’ve got this flexible kind of timeline where we’ve got people who wake up at 8, get ready for work and ready by 8:30 at home and then their day is full of distractions. So how do businesses manage this new flexibility? Before we could measure input, when you came in, how hard you worked, you work hard, you look like you’re working at your desk and then basically have a look at your output at the end. Is that model gone, or are we looking at a stage where we’ve got new ways of doing it given we’re all working from home.
Steve: Yeah I’ll let Matt answer a good part of that one, but I’d like to come back from a managerial perspective at the end.
Matt: So one of the things that we’ve definitely seen is that because working from home, yes these environments are distracting, you know one of the most important things is to go through that kind of process and separate your work home environment from your recreational home environment. Set aside as much time as you can to do all of those regular household chores and things that you would be doing, but of course, businesses need to meet their staff halfway. You need to be flexible and thankfully when people are working from home their office hours potentially are a little different. You don’t need to alert your security team if you want to be in the office past 7pm because they’re gonna get triggers from when the alarms come on and that kind of thing. If your staff are able to put in a couple of extra hours after dinner in order to compensate for the fact that they need to look after their kids in the morning, then that’s fine, as long as your business is set up to be able to work around those expectations and requirements on your staff.
Steve: Yeah spot-on there. I think one of the advantages we have in working in IT is we’re very familiar with kind of working from anywhere already, so it hasn’t been so much of a technological shift that we’ve had to do, but more so I suppose mindset and morale? Obviously there’s a lot of bad stuff that’s going on around the place, and that’s got a big mental health toll that can show up. So really basic things, like in the office you’d normally have a chat to someone while you’re making a coffee in the morning when you get into work, but you can’t do that when everyone’s at different houses and scattered around the place. So some real basic stuff that we’ve been doing, a lot of other businesses as well, you know your morning kind of stand-ups and huddles, video conferencing, what we’re doing now.
Not only can you hear what everyone else is up, to you can also pick up on the tones that people have. You can pick up whether they’re flat, you can pick up whether they’re feeling really good or excited about something, and where they’re feeling maybe be a bit flat you can get them on the phone or have a one-to-one you know video with them after to see how they’re going, just do a check-in, and because everyone’s got these different kind of scenarios that are going on with work and life, like a family member might be high risks with corona virus, they might know someone that’s been affected and all these things kind of play into it and it doesn’t make for the same kind of productivity in the workplace that now we have to translate it to home.
From an employer’s perspective you know, looking after the staff is really like the number one thing to do, you’ve got to be flexible, people are going to be working weird hours, you just have to adapt to it. It’s less about input, it’s more about outcomes. I suppose at the bottom line of it there’s a technical issue that can pop up with cybersecurity with people working at weird hours, which I suppose Glen could cover off a bit more with VPNs and so on and people doing things at strange hours as well though.
Harley: Yeah I definitely wanted to jump into that next, and you know we’re all in this fragile kind of lifestyle now where it’s kind of we’ve just changed our working lifestyle and how we log in every day and come on board, and the reason I use the word fragile because things are different, things have changed, and people try different things. That obviously makes risks appear, and there are certain things obviously in the IT world. According to phishing sites count on Google that has gone through the roof since COVID-19 has started. So what are your biggest IT concerns for clients right now; from a security, a privacy, and a reliability perspective?
Glen: Yeah well I think those are definitely our sort of primary concerns with all the shift to work from home. We need to primarily think of other solutions that we’re implementing – going to be secure, is there any introduced risk because of introducing these systems, and these additional ways of working. We are seeing like you mentioned, the bad guys know this is a huge opportunity for them. They are really, you know, obviously they’re thinking “well great, all these companies are now opening up their systems to allow access from outside, access from home, this is a great opportunity” so they’ve really ramped up their efforts. So we’ve got to be extremely diligent and make sure that the solutions that we’re implementing are done in a very controlled manner, they’re going to be reliable, they’re going to be secure, and they’re not going to introduce additional risk wherever possible.
One of the other things that we have to do is obviously be very concerned about where there are situations like people using their personal computers from home to do their work, there’s extra things that we need to do to make sure that those scenarios are handled in the right way and that we’re not introducing any risks through that. So there’s a lot of things to consider but I think overall, it’s just a matter of managing that.
Matt: One of the is that we’ve seen as well is that through this period, you know because everyone is so distracted and because of all these changes that are happening around the world, the hackers are really doubling down on their efforts. We’ve seen phishing attacks go up several hundred percent, we’ve seen that there have been SMS’s supposedly from myGov that are from hackers trying to get people to visit, you know copied versions impostor versions of the myGov website. The new COVID-Safe app is already being kind of substituted by hackers for you know these scam sites and these malware apps that are going to try and steal your credentials and ransom off you and your company. It’s really important that people remain diligent through this phase, you know keep their critical thinking caps on, make sure that when they’re checking links and emails that they are looking at the domains, and making sure that they’re not just going to random sites and opening emails from random people that just claim to be from their company. There’s a lot of tools that IT professionals can put in place in order to make these easier, safer, across the board.
Harley: Absolutely, I’d like to jump in here and ask Steve. So you used the term ‘doors left unlocked’ in cybersecurity. How does a business ‘lock these doors’ so to speak?
Steve: That is a great question. The biggest hurdle which we’ve come across I suppose in the last probably 12 to 18 months, maybe even longer, is that a lot of small and medium businesses aren’t taking cybersecurity seriously enough. I try and use the analogy that if you’re in a big business and you know you’ve got a thousand staff or five thousand staff, you’re going to have a team of cyber security dedicated people proactively preventing things from occurring. Their job is to only do cyber security. There’s a budget for cyber security. There’s line items within that budget for individual things within cybersecurity. Scale that down to a small business of like 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 staff, you don’t have a dedicated cybersecurity team or a budget. Who are the hackers gonna think are the easier target here? It’s going to be the small business because nothing is actively being done, and that’s been the biggest hurdle to overcome in the mindset and mentality of business owners and managers who think that “I’m running a small business, I’m not a target” when it’s completely the opposite way around. It’s heaps easier to hack 10 small businesses than one large one.
When we’re thinking about doors that are left unlocked, in relation to the COVID-19 situation, a lot of businesses had to mobilize very very fast you know towards the start and the middle of March to set up systems to work from home. These are going to be quite often done in a very hasty manner, they can have the potential to be set up insecurely, so I encourage anyone that’s watching this to have a chat to your IT provider and get them to confirm that they’ve done it in a secure and safe manner. It’s very easy to very quickly implement something, get people working with it, and then move on to something else. So in our line of work March was our busiest period that we’ve ever had, absolutely slammed with jobs. Part of our process that we implemented to mobilize our clients to work from home. Security first and foremost: we’re not going to implement a system that is inherently insecure, we’re not going to cut corners with it, we’re not going to “leave the door open”.
Now that the infection rate has flattened, you know the curve has flattened so to speak, you don’t want these open doors to be left around and then have all the cyber security risks that associated with it now thatthe company’s attention is elsewhere, maybe the IT provider’s attention is elsewhere but they’ve got these doors unlocked. So that’s a real big concern. I think we’ve done a pretty good job on it, obviously I’m a little bit biased, but I’m proud of the process that we’ve put in place to make sure that security and reliability were pretty much the first and second items that we looked at.
Harley: Yeah and that’s a fantastic way to approach it. Obviously you talk about the good guys and the bad guys, so what does that make you guys if the good guys are the business, are you guys Superman, Batman, The Avengers?
Harley: I love it, I absolutely love it. Now just to go to obviously how businesses are going, the good guys are going, is some of us have been hit financially just naturally working with different groups that may have been affected completely. If you’re in a service business that maybe took care of gems or hospitality, and others might have just seen a small drop in business. But that financial struggle has created problems for business and they need to find cost efficiencies. So how, with your technology as a business, can you find cost efficiencies?
Steve: There’s a couple of really really simple ones and it’s really to do with like, software licensing is a huge one, so especially in a business where you may have had to let go of staff or go into a hibernation mode, you might not need half of the software licenses that you otherwise had. Especially if you’re on like a cloud system or subscription-based kind of model for that software. So you can do a real quick kind of reconciliation and say ok we had 10 licenses of this but only one person actually needs it now. So all of a sudden you’ve saved 90% of those licensing costs for that particular bit of software, multiply that across maybe five or six different applications you’re using, then you’ve got some pretty good savings very fast. Also have a chat to your IT provider, if you have had to let go of staff, keep them in the loop absolutely. Firstly from a security perspective, you don’t “extra doors left unlocked”, but they may be able to you know adjust their service packages and things like that to account for the actual number of people that are still working. That’s probably from the easiest way to tackle it from that level and get some really fast efficiencies. Glen and Matt have probably got some extra info about I suppose a business process that we’ve been able to help some clients with, to save time and inherently some costs behind the scenes as well.
Glen: Yeah I think there’s been quite a few times where clients have come through and we’ve been able to assist them to transition. It might be a process where for example, they were previously using hard copies for maybe documentation chain or something like that, being able to transition those to the digital documents and digital signing and those kind of things which speeds up handling and just streamlines everything and obviously saves the costs and time spent handling the hard copies. There’s a lot of opportunities like that to eke out little efficiencies and make things a bit simpler using your technology that you’ve got at hand.
Matt: And one of the big things as well that happens in situations like this is that because businesses and staff are going into an unfamiliar kind of environment, is that they aren’t as efficient as they were when they were in the office. So bringing a lot of these communication tools to the forefront, changing over to the more modern systems, is a really good way to make sure that your staff remain as productive as possible. Sometimes you know you just need a helping hand to not only implement these systems but also bring your staff up to speed, to really go through some initial training, just the very beginnings of you know “this is what it is, how it works, how we’re going to start doing things from now on” and you can really start to implement those new business processes. It’ll help keep those efficiencies up as much as possible through this difficult time.
Steve: Yeah I would 100% agree with that Matt, where some clients have had to make changes very very fast to the way that they do things, they’re going to be able to continue with those things there on after as well. They’ve had to make this very fast change, they’ve got the immediate impact, but then they’ve got this long-term kind of impact as well, you know the long-term benefit from that quick change. So definitely have a chat to your IT providers about those types of things.
Harley: And that links in perfectly to my next question, which is, have clients loved their new online processes, or is it like they’re a bit like a fish out of water, or they’re kind of feeling very happy like wow this is a burning platform, I’ve changed some things for my business forever?
Steve: Love-hate I think is the general consensus, depending on how adverse to change people are I guess.
Harley: Definitely. Just finally just to cap off with everyone, are people content generally? Have you found are you seeing anguish still, are you seeing people really panicky, or have people kind of adapted and become content?
Steve: From my side talking to business managers and owners over here in WA there’s generally a fair bit of confidence that’s coming back in? Projects which were kind of put on hold towards the tail end of February they’re starting to go ahead, so I think there’s a bit of a shift in that sense. I can’t really speak for the situation down in Tassie, in northwest Tas it’s not as fantastic, I think it’s been the restrictions are being released or relaxed a bit. Glen any news on that?
Glen: Yeah we have been subject to, here in Northwest Tasmania, probably I believe the strictest restrictions in the country. To the point where all non-essential retail was shut down, Kmart, Bunnings etc, so it’s definitely been difficult I think for businesses to get through that, and obviously there’s a lot of tourism providers and things like that here. But I think we’re seeing overall, there was a lot of initial anguish I think, which is a natural response, but I think that has definitely settled down, people have adapted, and things have sort of gone to a new normal I would say? And people are just getting on with the job.
Harley: It’s very much been like that I think. Just to finalize, the final question of today’s panel is what’s your one quick piece of advice to a business that is currently going through the COVID-19 era from an IT perspective? We’ll start with you Matt.
Matt: So biggest piece of advice I can give is that computers are there to make your life easier. And if your computers are being a roadblock, if they’re causing more harm, you know making more problems than they’re solving, then they’re probably not right for you and they’re not set up correctly. So talk to your IT provider, if you’re a really small business you know talk to that IT nephew that you’ve got in the family, anything you can do. Get some of those systems in place, just have someone get a second set of eyes on them and help make some changes, because it’s meant to make your life easier.
Glen: I think I would add, I mean Matt’s summed it up pretty well there, but I think as well don’t be afraid to make those changes at this time. You’ll often find that while they’ve seemed like something scary to implement, when you get past that hurdle, it’s something that is quite beneficial, and as Steve reiterated before it’s something that will have long-term benefits long after this as well.
Steve: I suppose I’ll follow on from the guys, where my biggest concern in IT in general is cybersecurity at the moment, I think it’s probably the biggest threat to business other than global pandemics of viruses. Viruses of another nature that are potentially going to give us grief. Having said that it is extremely manageable, as long as managers understand that they are a target, and there’s things that can be done about it that don’t cost a million bucks, that are very straightforward.
Half of the battle with cyber security is awareness, getting people aware. The rest is technology and process. So don’t be afraid of change, do be afraid of hackers, but we can deal with them pretty much.
Harley: Perfect, that’s what the Avengers do! Well that concludes today’s discussion. A big thank you to our panel, thanks to Steve, Matt, and Glen down in Tassie, we’ll be back with ExplainIT once again so just remember: stay productive, don’t get hacked and we’ll be back again. Thanks everyone.