Workforce flexibility: Raising the productivity bar

It is an inescapable fact that firms must embrace mobility as employees work flexibly and travel more, with the increased need to pick up emails and access the company network remotely, in order to work effectively while on the go. Yet it is the perceived cost, together with complexity and security risks linked to a more flexible workforce, that continues to put off many smaller firms.

No business can afford to ignore flexible working any longer. A new tech-savvy workforce is emerging, keen and able to adopt new, more agile work styles as they look to work effectively through the adoption of more flexible and attractive work styles. This provides a challenge for the business, which believes it has to upset established IT systems and processes in order to enable staff to work remotely. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Businesses no matter how small are switching onto solutions which allow them to embrace remote working without the need for more complex IT infrastructures, with all the risks, costs and frustrations that can bring for the business and individual employees.

As it stands, success for most businesses would be defined as the ability to implement flexible working without compromising productivity. Yet this sets the bar too low, as the best of today’s collaboration tools enable the business to drive up productivity levels, by making it possible to share applications concurrently in a way not previously possible.

‘Sticking plaster’ solutions

Bosses and staff alike want to be equally productive in working with colleagues, suppliers or customers, irrespective of location. Similarly, as the recent floods covering much of the country have demonstrated, an inability to get to the office should not impact on the ability of staff to work as normal from home or elsewhere – assuming of course that the office itself has escaped unscathed. In both cases, the ability to function normally is under greater threat within an SMB than a larger enterprise, as they are less likely to have alternative back-up staff, premises and resources capable of filling the gap in an individual’s absence, ensuring that projects are not put on hold until they return to the office. 

Currently, many SMBs get round this by adopting ‘sticking plaster’ responses, with varying degrees of success. Exchanging Excel files by email, file-sharing solutions and remote access tools all enable staff to work on documents away from the office to some degree, using their laptops, smart phones or tablets. Yet in each case these have their limitations, as applications or documents can only be worked on by one user at a time, rather than concurrently which enables multiple access in real time, enabling faster, more seamless team-working.

Best practice alternative 

For the smaller business, IT is like finance: senior managers typically have little direct expertise in these areas and simply want the best tools to support the operation, so that they can get on with the core business without the headaches of implementation and ongoing maintenance. There are a number of options they could consider here. A business operating from a single office, for example, might consider replacing their in-house IT with a fully cloud-based solution. This will enable ‘anywhere to anything’ access, but externalising all aspects of IT may give rise to concerns over security and loss of control.

If the business is happy with its current IT set-up, an alternative option is to overlay this with a virtual private network (VPN), although this brings with it the need for IT knowledge in terms of both initial set-up and maintenance. Remote access solutions avoid this problem, but are unable to offer the true collaboration the SMEs require. A true collaboration solution, by contrast, allows the business to publish applications to any computer, enabling simultaneous access to the same file by multiple remote users.

Equally, there is no training required for staff, as this can be set up and made accessible within minutes. This enables ‘business as usual’ almost instantly, irrespective of the level of technical expertise of individual users.

In addition to enabling rapid access to individual staff, this type of collaboration-oriented approach enables a small business to open new premises without the usual delays, costs and IT expertise traditionally involved in expanding the existing infrastructure. Again, there is no need to replicate the existing system in the new office. All that is required is to create new user profiles, identify which applications they can work on and the relevant level of access, all of which can be implemented almost immediately, with no change to the way the existing business works.

Productivity and security

All this enables the fast-expanding SMB and its staff to maintain productivity, irrespective of location. However, there is an important additional dimension, in that productivity can actually be improved as a result of simultaneous multi-user access. Across the business, from accounting to CRM to stock management, the central office has applications which do not enable access from remote locations. By implementing a broadly-based collaboration tool, sales people in remote showrooms or on the road, for example, can immediately check stock availability before completing the sale and creating invoices – activities which were not previously possible. 

In all this, security is not compromised. Unlike remote access tools in which external users connect into the central network, the latest internet solutions link from the computer system outwards. This keeps all aspects of the infrastructure behind the existing security system – commonly a wireless/firewall router – with all outgoing connections fully encrypted. 

In the face of almost irresistible pressure to support remote working, this overcomes concerns over complexity, cost and long-term commitment to the new technology. With little upfront commitment or change to the existing infrastructure, it is also ideal for those small businesses that need to grow but are essentially happy with their current IT system. After all, why change a winning formula? 

Talal Choucair is CEO of MyQuickCloud.

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