Will COVID-19 be a catalyst for the digital transformation of enterprise communications?

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Patrick Joggerst, CMO and EVP Business Development at Ribbon Communications, looks at how the current crisis may transform the way businesses communicate.

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting people and industries around the world at an unprecedented velocity. While this situation is unprecedented and scary, we are seeing touching acts of kindness and a determination to keep going.

This is particularly true in our industry of telecommunications, which is fundamental to keeping society online and informed, as well as ensuring critical aspects of the economy can continue to function. For the majority of us who are currently not sick, maintaining our productivity at work in the face of this adversity is critical. It will support the economy both now and as things recover, and it will also help us to keep morale high during this period of prolonged isolation from our regular day-to-day life.

Countries around the world are now thinking about how to safely restart their economies, and telecommunications has a massive role to play. Businesses which had not been used to having remote employees have suddenly turned to our systems of communication and connectivity. We expect that many gains in comfort with these tools will be made soon, and smart providers are already seeing asking how they can  improve on what exists currently. Achieving this when there is so much uncertainty in the world will not be easy, but we are already seeing changes that will have a tremendous impact both now and in the future.

One obvious change, driven by the huge number of people now working from home or remotely, is an increase in awareness of the crucial role that communications technology can play in keeping employees engaged, customers served, and businesses running. Many businesses are now realising that they already have a solution that enables employees to seamlessly switch on and do their job wherever they have an internet connection. Others are quickly playing catch up. As a result, usage of platforms such as Microsoft Teams has risen rapidly in the effort to get as much the global workforce as possible online.

This shift in attitudes is especially apparent in the events industry – particularly in the tech and telecoms sectors – where there are questions around the future of major tech conferences in light of the cancellation of this year’s Mobile World Congress and many others. The cancellation of mass gatherings and face-to-face meetings is already forcing companies to ask whether we need to practice what we preach – ourselves included – and make significantly better use of the digital technologies that we produce.

We are realising that, at present, too many companies have no function to set up their employees from home, and those that do have too many different tools for communicating internally and with their customers. Be it email, chat or a video conference bridge, presently these tools are rarely connected through one, internet-based platform. The problem with this is that it makes communication clunky and it puts users off when things go wrong, thus preventing them from making the most of the technology at their disposal. With so many different applications being used by employees – which means numerous passwords, or in many cases the same password used many times – this also poses a significant security risk.

This need not be the case. Among the gamut of real-time communications technologies available to business in the 21st century – unified communications and Communications Platform-as-a-Service to name a few – there is the option connect all of the many tools that we currently use for communications and to organise them within one, centralised platform. This facility enables companies to embed real-time contextual communications capabilities, such as voice, video and chat, directly into their applications and websites, meaning a more seamless experience when interacting both internally and externally. This technology ensures that communication and the sharing of information can take place across multiple mediums wherever you are in the world with an internet connection.

This is not new technology, but right now we are seeing a catalysation of uptake in digital transformation of communications across many businesses – largely in the professional services sectors – as they are forced to find workarounds to stay online during the Covid-19 crisis. In ordinary times, these companies may not have invested in such technologies and while the catalyst for this investment is tremendously sad, we do believe that this shift to digital will have a tremendous and lasting benefit to business globally. When we emerge from this crisis, many businesses can and will be better for it, and that is something we can hold onto over the coming weeks.

 

Patrick Joggerst is the Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Vice President of Business Development for Ribbon Communications, a secure real time communications company. Previously, Patrick was EVP of Global Sales & Marketing for GENBAND. He has an accomplished career in communications spanning three decades, having managed sales and marketing organisations for both telecommunications service providers and technology suppliers. Prior to GENBAND, Patrick served as Vice President of Global Sales for BroadSoft. Patrick is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

A look back at the biggest stories this week

Whether it’s important, depressing or just entertaining, the telecoms industry is always one which attracts attention.

Here are the stories we think are worth a second look at this week:


Facebook reignites the fires of its Workplace unit

Facebook has announced its challenge to the video-conferencing segment and a reignition of its venture into the world of collaboration and productivity.

Full story here


Trump needs fodder for the campaign trail, maybe Huawei fits the bill

A thriving economy and low levels of unemployment might have been the focal point of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, pre-pandemic, but fighting the ‘red under the bed’ might have to do now.

Full story here


Will remote working trends endure beyond lockdown?

It is most likely anyone reading this article is doing so from the comfort of their own home, but the question is whether this has become the new norm is a digitally defined economy?

Full story here


ZTE and China Unicom get started on 6G

Chinese kit vendor ZTE has decided now is a good time to announce it has signed a strategic cooperation agreement on 6G with operator China Unicom.

Full story here


ITU says lower prices don’t lead to higher internet penetration

The UN telecoms agency observes that, while global connectivity prices are going down, the relationship with penetration is not as inversely proportion as you might think.

Full story here


Jio carves out space for yet another US investor

It seems the US moneymen have a taste for Indian connectivity as General Atlantic becomes the fourth third-party firm to invest in the money-making machine which is Jio Platforms.

Full story here


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

Can the sharing economy (ride-sharing, short-stay accommodation etc.) survive COVID-19?

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Will remote working trends endure beyond lockdown?

It is most likely anyone reading this article is doing so from the comfort of their own home, but the question is whether this has become the new norm is a digitally defined economy?

With many economies and sectors dependent on a fully functioning telecoms network and a healthy digital ecosystem, perhaps we should be wondering why the idea of remote working is not more common. Many companies would say they are forward-looking and innovative, but the vast majority were forced through a digital transformation programme by the COVID-19 pandemic, not their own choosing.

The issue with coerced evolution is that there is a temptation to return to the ways of old, heading back to stodgy offices as the unambitious, unimaginative and uninspiring crave the familiarity of the known. Managers might say ‘teams work better when we’re together’ or ‘we’re an industry where it doesn’t work’, but this is probably a cover. The fact that many businesses still function during lockdown shows this is not true.

The office will never become extinct and face-to-face meetings will always be a requirement, but not every day; such resistance is simply an admission of inability to adapt to a changing economy or evolving society. Said managers would probably have fit in very well at Blockbusters when Reed Hastings pitched Netflix.

There are of course some jobs where working from home is an impossibility, but the fact that the economy

Today’s working practice is an extreme. But one would hope organisations at least take some of today’s mobility and incorporate into tomorrow’s operations. Some will revert to the analogue era, convinced that ‘hot desking’ is progress, but hopefully the majority will evolve and learn from this period of rapid transformation.

Of course, what is worth noting is that some serious changes will have to be made to ensure operations are in a healthy and sustainable position. Some companies might be managing the strain of remote working well today, but who knows which straw might be the fatal one.

A recent survey from Cato Networks suggested 55% of respondents experienced an increase of 75%-100% in remote access usage, while 28% saw usage shoot up more than 200%. VPN’s might be the most common form of remote access technologies, but products are bought for a purpose; most will not be designed for the surge above normal requirements.

67% of the respondents to the survey said complaints had been lodged from remote users, where connection instability and slow application response are the leading problems. Cato suggests the VPN might be a choke point in operations as it uses public internet to backhaul traffic to a datacentre or up to the cloud. In short, there will have to be a rethink on how money is spent and on what.

“…on the front-end you’d be looking at redundant VPN servers, ideally in each region where remote users operate,” said Dave Greenfield, Technology Evangelist at Cato Networks.

“For security, you’ll need antimalware and URL filtering. For the backend, you’ll need to connect and secure your cloud applications and resources. This says nothing about any of the management or troubleshooting tools that might be needed to support remote users.”

This is a disruption to business operations, and whenever there is a disruption, there are those who prefer the quieter life of the status quo. Every organisation has individuals who would rather this stay the same and this is the risk today; how many organisations will return to the pre-COVID-19 way of working, rendering these enforced digital transformation projects temporary.

Wind River, a software provider for connected systems and another company hoping to benefit from the pandemic transformation, is suggesting COVID-19 has caused 90% of enterprises to undergo some change in business processes, with 90% of respondents suggesting there has been an impact on being able to meet customer demands. Again, this might force companies back to old ways as some people simply don’t like challenges.

Interestingly enough, the Wind River research also suggests that IT spend on cloud-based application development has and will increase by 35% because of the coronavirus-enforced periods of lockdown. This increases to 62% in China. This shift to cloud-based technologies and processes should theoretically enable mobility in the work and flexibility in working practises.

Ultimately, the issue with some of these survey’s is that decision makers are the respondents, many of whom will say the right things because they believe they are the right things to say. This does not mean they are empowered to make changes or even have the staying power to see through any form of evolution. Sometimes it is best to ask the foot soldiers, those who fight in the trenches each day, those who are slightly more immune to the politics of business and may well give a more straight forward answer.

When asking Telecoms.com readers whether they thought the flexible and remote working conditions would stay, the results are quite interesting.

  • 50% said they would have to check into the office once or twice a week but could work from home
  • 33% believed they would be given complete freedom to work as they please
  • 6% stated they would have to go into the office to do their job properly
  • 6% thought the management team is not convinced by the idea of working from home and the company would revert to old business practices
  • And the final 5% said they would have to go into the office, but others in the company would be allowed to work from home

Of course, the adaptability of employees and employers is one on element of the equation, there will have to be the communications infrastructure in place.

What will be encouraging for all involved is the resilience of networks as internet traffic surges. These networks have not been designed with the current working dynamic in mind, but performance has been maintained.

According to data from Netscout, internet traffic jumped between 25-35% on home broadband networks from mid-March, when most lockdown protocols were being enforced. What is worth noting is this is a global average, some markets have experienced much higher peaks, for example Italy and the UK. But most importantly, networks have not failed because of the increased strain.

Interestingly enough, speaking at a Time Higher Education conference this week, Muhammad Imran, a Professor of Communication Systems at the University of Glasgow, suggested the work from home trends could be aided by the embracement of smart cities initiatives.

The ‘Accessible City’ is an idea which can help people work remotely. Imran has questioned why people should have to move to work in some jobs, a factor which could lead to an offer falling through or being turned down. Not everyone can move for a job, and for some low-income families it could be a barrier to entry.

Remote and flexible working is not only an opportunity to increase employee welfare, but it could also democratize some careers, breaking down social barriers and opening up opportunities for those who would have previously been overlooked.

Another element to consider is whether people are actually better at their jobs when they work from home.

Research from Harvard Business School suggested a 4.4% increase in output from those who have been empowered to work from home, while software company Prodoscore has said productivity could go up by as much as 44%. Numerous research papers have pointed to remote working being a plus to employers, as well as a benefit to employees.

Despite this research, which has been around for years, most executives have resisted the temptation to evolve working practices, leaving the idea of remote and flexible working to be cultivated by others, most of the time digitally native organisations. Some companies, and people, are stuck in their ways and they will not be as attractive to potential employees as others.

Some will embrace the coerced digital transformation, and some might revert back the ways of old. It will be interesting to see which business leaders are stuck in a previous generation.


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

Can the sharing economy (ride-sharing, short-stay accommodation etc.) survive COVID-19?

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Return to work messages start to appear as Twitter hands power to employees

One of the questions which has lingered over the last few weeks is whether the COVID-19 enforced digital transformation will persist in the long-term, though the answer is becoming a bit clearer.

Twitter is one of the first of the technology giants to break the silence and make a commitment. Offices will be opened at some point after September, though the decision as to whether to come in or not will be left entirely to the employees.

“We were uniquely positioned to respond quickly and allow folks to work from home given our emphasis on decentralization and supporting a distributed workforce capable of working from anywhere,” said Jennifer Christie, Chief HR Officer at Twitter.

“The past few months have proven we can make that work.

“So if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen. If not, our offices will be their warm and welcoming selves, with some additional precautions, when we feel it’s safe to return.”

Twitter embracing the work-from-home dynamic is hardly surprising. This is a digital native company which attracts the interest of a certain demographic. This is also a company where the necessity to work within an office is very low, as it is a platform business; product design is virtual not physical after all.

On the other end of the scale, there are companies and professions where work-from-home is not an option. There are obvious categories, construction for instance, but also others which are less so. Due to regulatory and compliance issues, those who work in a company’s treasury department or conduct high-profile trades in the financial markets might find it difficult to work from the living room.

Another factor to consider is the creation of products, such as smartphones.

According to Bloomberg, Apple has already begun the process of reintroducing employees to some offices around the world. Senior managers are reaching out to employees to explain who will be working from home and who will have to come back into the office, but those who are creating new products, such as the flagship 5G smartphone to be launched in a few months, will not be able to work from home as it is highly unlikely each of these engineers have a cleanroom at their residences.

Other parts of the Apple business could work from home. Sales and marketing, for instance, or the developers who work from the software and services unit could very feasibly continue. As one of the Silicon Valley fraternity, Apple would presumably embrace the idea of mobility but it does also have to justify the $5 billion which has been spent to construct the new doughnut-shaped headquarters in Cupertino.

These are perfectly understandable answers to the longevity of the work-from-home question, but the most interesting developments will be around the companies who can function remotely, but probably don’t want to.

There are numerous industries which have resisted digital transformation programmes. This is because of a lack of vision, ‘lifers’ in middle-management roles who have no desire to evolve or executive management teams who were brought up in a different era and have no concept of digital. Despite what many would claim, the FTSE 100 and Dow Jones is littered with such organisations.

These are the companies who are spending money on the cloud currently, but only because they have been strong-armed through a digital transformation programme. They are thousands of companies who lack the foresight and imagination to realise the importance of evolution and many of these will revert back to pre-coronavirus operations.

But here is the question; how many of these luddites are there?


Telecoms.com Poll:

Do you think your business will continue the current work from home dynamic once the coronavirus pandemic has passed?

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Taste of remote working whets employee appetites for more – O2

Research from O2’s enterprise business unit suggests the UK’s eyes have been opened to the benefits of working from home and employees want the temporary measures to remain, post-coronavirus.

With the coronavirus pandemic coercing companies through a digital transformation programme to enable remote working and the continuation of business operations, one question which has been asked is how many of these evolutions will be long-term. According to the research, 45% of Brits predict a permanent change to their employers’ approach to flexible working when lockdown lifts.

“With more of us working flexibly than ever before, for most businesses, digital infrastructure has become more important than physical infrastructure,” said Katy Liddell, Director Business Sales & Service at O2. “In the face of this, businesses must continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of their workforce to ensure they continue to attract and retain talent.”

Mobility has been a promised benefit of the digital economy, and while there are some companies embracing the concept, more traditional organisations have resisted. With COVID-19 forcing society into lockdown, these firms are being driven through a transformation programme at rapid speed, but there are notable benefits.

63% of the respondents to the survey would be prepared to live further away from the office should commuting commitments be reduced. The majority would be prepared to live up to an hour away, doubling the amount which currently do so. This is of course a significant benefit to organisations as well as employees, as talent retention might be increased, and it broadens the scope of recruitment to a wider region.

It also means less money would have to be allocated to physical infrastructure, as an office would not need to be as big if only a portion of the workforce will be in at any one time. These savings can be allocated to reinforcing digital infrastructure, but also investing in new projects.

Should flexible working be adopted by urban firms, 41% of city-dwellers would be tempted to move to more rural locations with seaside towns more than doubling their appeal, 16% of respondents.

But what is the potential for COVID-19 working conditions being adopted in the long run?

“It will be difficult to go back to normal ways of working after lockdown, as we’ve now proven that most of us can work from home – despite many companies previously telling employees that it wouldn’t be possible,” said Dr Heejung Chung, Reader in Sociology and Social Policy Director at the University of Kent.

“The UK has a huge challenge with the geographic distribution of wealth, and this exaggerates the problem of overpopulation in cities. If people could work from wherever they want to, without any fear of career penalty, this would create a huge opportunity for everyone.

“Even though the findings highlight that people will be willing to live up to one hour away from work in the future – that’s still constrained by what people feel they currently need to do. If we completely opened this up with consistent flexible working, and we had the right digital infrastructure in place, that time could be significantly increased.”

We suspect that while there will be some return to pre-COVID-19 activities, but for the majority the work from home trend will persist. This does not mean the end of the traditional office, but death to the idea that you have to be sat next to your boss every day. The myth that some industries cannot operate from home at all has now been officially debunked. Interestingly enough, some employees would want a hybrid situation to maintain sanity.

26% miss informal socialising with colleagues, while 30% have admitted working from home can be lonely. The wider social lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic does not help the situation, as a traditional social life does not currently exist. It is also worth noting that digital cannot replace some of the benefits of working face-to-face. We are social beings, albeit some are very miserable, so it would be very immature to suggest the extinction of traditional office spaces.

That said, for numerous digital industries, from cloud computing infrastructure to office virtualisation products and telecoms services, this is a very positive trend.

UK employees working two extra hours daily during self-isolation

Data from NordVPN suggests UK employees are working an extra two hours per day, up to 11 hours, after ditching commutes during this period of self-isolation and social distancing.

While there might still be images circulating of cramped Underground trains in London, NordVPN data suggests there are a huge number of home workers. Analysing the data from VPN logins, the team believes the time being saved from the daily commute is being driven back into work.

“The analysis of our clients indicated that their 10,000s of corporate employees that have started working from home in the past week are typically working 11 hours a day, some of the longest hours in the world at this time,” said Daniel Marcusson, Digital Privacy Expert of NordVPN Teams.

“Typically people homeworking are starting work earlier – but finishing at their usual same time. The lack of a morning commute is currently being used as additional work time, which looks like a win-win for employees and businesses.”

Country VPN hours logged pre-March 11 VPN hours logged post-March 11
UK 9 11
US 8 11
France 8 10
Denmark 9 10
Italy 8 8

Whether this trend would continue beyond the coronavirus outbreak remains to be seen, though it might force a transformation in attitude towards mobility and remote working for some employers.

“In the face of Coronavirus pandemic, people seem to be focused and united more than ever,” said Marcusson. “Therefore, we expect the working hours to remain longer throughout the crisis. When the restrictions are lifted, I expect that many UK businesses will be much more receptive to greater homeworking.”

Although many corporations suggest they are reacting to industry trends and are open to more remote working, the reality is very different. The majority of more traditional organisations and those who have been trading for some time, are seemingly stuck in their ways. Remote working is still not that common, as the office culture persists, though this pandemic has forced a changed in attitude, which might persist.

For the telcos, this should be seen as a silver lining for the future, though the cloud companies will also be keeping an eye on these trends as there will be profits to be made.

As more people work from home, more processes, systems and workloads will have to be migrated to the cloud to ensure employees have all the tools and information available. There are numerous companies who are set to benefit from the pandemic, though cloud, collaboration and productivity companies will certainly be close to the top of that list.

Virgin Media launches easy mobile VPN service

Virgin Media Business reckons it can tap into the growing remote working trend by enabling people to access their work VPNs from their mobile devices.

The new service is called Business Anywhere and is set to launch in the UK in January 2018. The company reckons this is a first, but people have been able to access corporate VPNs remotely for some time so it looks like this is more of an initiative to make it easier.

‘This new system does away with time-consuming and awkward verification processes, replacing user-authentication with automatic SIM card authentication,’ says the press release.  ‘Once activated, the SIM creates a direct link into a company’s IPVPN using part of the existing wired line. Mobile data is routed automatically into this private network, removing the need to log-on or for the user to manually verify the device.’

“We know that businesses want simple, secure IT solutions that just work,” reiterated Rob Orr, Executive Director – Sales, for Virgin Media Business. “Business Anywhere allows remote workers to access everything they need to collaborate while away from the office. It sets a new standard for remote working by allowing people to carry their corporate network with them wherever they go. Our customers will no longer be constrained by the physical footprint of their office, staff will spend less time travelling, improving productivity whilst cutting costs.”

This new service uses the EE network for the VPN connection. It does seem quite handy but it remains to be seen whether the relatively straightforward process of logging into a VPN the old-fashioned way is a sufficient pain-point for companies to go to the extra expense of subscribing to an extra service. Demand for this sort of thing may be restricted to workers that spend pretty much all their time in the field.