Several months into the global COVID-19 shutdown, many businesses are wondering what the future will look like. Some countries and U.S. states are gradually re-opening for business, and while some business owners are eager for this; others are wondering whether doing so is safe. And, will customers and employees feel comfortable returning to their businesses and office buildings?
The current pandemic has been an unusual sort of disaster for businesses and the MSPs that help support their IT operations. Things happened very quickly, yet, somehow, in a highly organized and almost quiet fashion. Well-organized operations invest in planning for disaster preparedness, business continuity, and recovery. But, those plans are usually focused on singular, dramatic events like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and fires.
Those are the types of disasters that can destroy your IT infrastructure. What’s happening now is the inverse of one of those events. All of the infrastructure is still in place, but the employees have been swept out of the building. That makes this as good a time as any to revisit those business continuity plans with your customers, measure just how prepared they were for this particular problem, and make updates where necessary.
A New Type of Disruption
The good news is that if you already had a plan in place with your clients, the transition to work from home during the pandemic should have gone even more smoothly than expected. The computers, networks, servers and data centers all still exist. The central challenge is making sure everyone can access them remotely in a secure and reliable fashion.
What is different with this crisis is the length and scale of the disruption. Your clients’ businesses haven’t just been disrupted; every vendor and customer they work with is in the same boat, regardless of their geographic location, and it’s not clear how long that disruption will last.
One takeaway from this unusual event is that most business continuity plans are inadequate when it comes to maintaining operations when things are open-ended. This is why it’s necessary to develop a plan to transition employees to a remote-work scenario with sufficient hardware resources, remote software licenses, and connectivity options that are not cobbled-together after the fact.
Many SMB owners were not open to remote work prior to the pandemic. Now, many have changed their minds and certain clients may even make remote-work permanent. MSPs should work with clients to determine their remote-access needs and help get their infrastructure ready to support this. They may need to invest in a VPN or SD-WAN (software-defined wide area network). They also may need to reconsider leveraging cloud resources or cloud-based applications, and their hardware may need to be upgraded.
Additionally, employees should be trained for long-term remote work protocols. That can include everything from safe use of email and video conferencing systems to file sharing and customer support expectations.
The updated plan should also accommodate limited employee availability. While everyone is working from home, they may be juggling childcare or eldercare responsibilities, while also sharing computing resources with spouses and children. Be prepared for employees to work limited or irregular hours, and make sure there’s redundancy built in for times they’re not available. MSPs should also keep in mind that not all of their customers will be able to fully operate remotely. This includes restaurants, hotels and hospitals and medical care facilities, and plans will need to be made to accommodate this as well.
When it’s time to return to the office, there should be a transition plan for a pandemic scenario. Can hours be staggered? Which employees should return first? Can the business handle requirements like social distancing, mask distribution, and municipal or state regulations that are being imposed? Are resources in place to properly sanitize the building?
Be sure to review and test the plan. Like fire drills, you should ensure you can respond to different scenarios to help identify flaws in the plan. See how quickly you can move employees out of the building and ramp-up a work-from-home environment for the entire organization. Review and test your infrastructure to ensure you have adequate bandwidth for widespread remote access.
Encourage clients to communicate their plans with key vendors and customers and ensure that they’re still able to collaborate remotely.
MSPs and their customers are in uncharted territory, and there aren’t a lot of good models to follow in this situation. Existing disaster plans can help, but there’s an opportunity to carefully document what’s working right now and what isn’t, and use that to help everyone prepare for the next major disruption, no matter how long it lasts.