How small businesses can meet the IT needs of a hybrid workforce

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The last twelve months have seen small businesses adapting to circumstances so disruptive that they barely qualify as a new normal. Owners and IT leaders have learnt to think differently and become more resilient, realigning their working practices, their market offerings and even operating models to meet abrupt societal, economic and legislative shifts.

As with larger enterprises, the biggest shifts have been in the workforce, as companies moved rapidly to support business continuity through remote working and cloud-based collaboration tools. The annual Harvey Nash/KPMG Survey for 2020 found that that 86 percent of businesses surveyed had moved their workforce to remote working, while 43% expected over half their staff to remain working predominantly from home. This isn’t just a blip. An IDC survey from August 2020 suggested that while 57% of respondents anticipated working primarily from a traditional office in a post-vaccine world, 22% expected to continue working from home. ‘Inevitably these percentages will shift’ the survey concluded, ‘but the reality of a hybrid model of working is that it is here to stay.’

Businesses of every size are stepping up to support this, putting in place the network architecture, cloud platforms and security systems required. IDC’s 2020 FutureScape predictions suggest that the larger enterprises will commit to ‘providing technical parity to a workforce that is hybrid by design rather than by circumstance.’ Meanwhile, fellow analyst firm Gartner has highlighted trends towards a digital first, remote first anywhere operations model, and an ‘intelligent composable business’ that uses IT to continually adapt.

Forward-looking small businesses are embracing this hybrid model too, not just because it enables them to adapt to today’s crisis conditions, but because it offers opportunities to rethink their operations and make their workforce even more productive. It’s no longer just about weathering the storm, but about what you do once it passes.

The new hybrid model requires a new IT approach, starting at the hardware level. Relying on old, outdated hardware was a bad idea even pre-pandemic. An Intel-commissioned 2018 report by J. Gold Associates found that using an old PC could make employees substantially less productive and more likely to fall victim to a cyberattack. 34% of all attacks reported by those surveyed involved devices of more than five years old. Devices less than 1 year old represented just 6%.

However, the hybrid workplace ups the ante, requiring more in terms of security, collaboration and mobility; requirements new PCs and laptops are better equipped to meet.

For instance, teams working between home and the office need modern, thin and light form-factors with the all-day battery life and wireless connectivity to be ready to work wherever their job takes them. Yet they also need the performance to run their core business applications, even new ones using data analytics and artificial intelligence. They need to be able to switch rapidly between these applications and move large amounts of data, without productivity being hampered. Here, laptops based on the latest Intel Core vPro processors can offer desktop-class performance, as well as high-speed storage through Intel Optane memory or SSDs.

What’s more, Dell works closely with Intel technology to build in new features that further enhance productivity. For example, some laptops now incorporate Dell Optimizer – a built-in AI tool that learns how you work and analyses your needs, then optimises different aspects of the hardware to make sure you get the best experience. Meanwhile, Dell’s Intelligent Audio technology delivers clearer audio for video calls and meetings using the laptop’s built-in microphone arrays.

Security also counts. A 2019 survey by the UK’s Federation of Small Businesses found that companies were collectively subject to almost 10,000 cyberattacks per day. New remote working practices have only increased the attack surface. Intel Core vPro processors include features like Intel Hardware Shield, which protects the PC’s firmware and memory from attack, and Intel Threat Detection, which adds new layers of hardware-based protection to harden the PC. On top of these, Dell, working closely with Intel, has added additional layers of security, including Dell SafeID for secure hardware-enhanced authentication, and Dell SafeBIOS, for enhanced firmware protection.

Good security goes hand-in-hand with management, which raises its own challenges within the hybrid workforce. Here, Intel Core vPro hardware and Intel Active Management Technology enable IT managers to do more without going physically hands-on, including pushing OS, application and security updates remotely and using remote desktop access for troubleshooting and support.

Of course, not every worker’s needs are the same, and some end users will need to work across different scenarios. Agility and mobility are crucial in the hybrid workforce, but sometimes all-day comfort and screen real-estate will be more important. Some users still need high-performance desktop systems, while others will require larger, high-resolution external screens and docking solutions to provide a more traditional desktop experience when it’s needed. Sometimes going hybrid means giving key users the best of both worlds.

On the software side, the hybrid workplace thrives on cloud-based collaboration applications, enabling the rapid sharing of information and ideas. From messaging applications like Slack, Twist and Flock to task and project management tools like Asana, Trello and Quire, these provide a connective tissue that links a geographically disparate workforce together, as will more heavyweight, do-it-all options such as Microsoft Team or Google Workplace. Cloud applications can also be a great leveller, offering smaller businesses access to cutting-edge AI, analytics and CRM tools that would normally be beyond their grasp.

This doesn’t mean dumping traditional infrastructure and servers, which can still offer the right mix of control, performance and cost-effective storage for some workloads. But here companies can optimise and reduce operating costs by embracing virtualisation and containerisation, making key applications more scalable, portable and resilient.

However, sometimes shifting to the hybrid model means replacing existing applications – or even the platforms that they run on. This leaves businesses with a dilemma: do they build what they need themselves or buy-in existing solutions? Building ensures you get something specific to your business’s needs, that can evolve with your business as its requirements change; potentially a solution that could give it a competitive edge. However, buying can be faster and more cost-effective, at least in the short term, and will be more within the capabilities of businesses without in-house development skills.

Moving applications to the cloud or making them more accessible outside the on-premise network also puts more pressure on security, but here hardware-enhanced multi-factor authentication and secure VPN connections provides small businesses with a level of assurance. Dell business PCs and laptops featuring Core vPro technology have the hardware-enhanced security required built-in.

Dealing with the skills and budgetary challenges

Rebooting IT for the hybrid workplace isn’t without its challenges. Recent research from IDG for Dell shows that many small businesses are facing multiple pain points with technology and technology support. More than half struggle with a lack of in-house skills and a corresponding knowledge gap, while almost half face issues around budgets and ROI. Over a third have concerns around integration with legacy technology.

These challenges are far from insurmountable, particularly when small businesses work in partnership with technology providers. Dell Technologies Advisors can provide small businesses with free, expert one-on-one guidance and support, along with technology solutions tailored to each business’s individual needs. From servers to storage and laptops to the cloud, they’re equipped to match products and solutions to specific requirements and provide the expertise businesses might lack in-house.

What’s more, Dell’s services go further. Use its PC-as-a-Service (PCaaS) plans and you can equip your team with new PCs, selected and configured to meet their individual needs. PCaaS also does away with large upfront investments in favour of predictable monthly costs, and scale on demand as the business grows. Find out more about PCaaS here. What’s more, Dell’s team takes over much of the burden of management, working with Dell tools and Intel vPro and AMT technologies to manage and pro-actively maintain PCs remotely. Alternatively, Dell financial Services can help businesses support their hybrid workforce within budgetary constraints, through 0% interest financing and deferred payment options.

Adapting to a hybrid working model isn’t easy – and nor is delivering the IT to support it – but with Dell’s expertise and technology behind them, even the smallest businesses can make the shift. Dell Technologies Advisors work with businesses to understand their specific needs and find the right Intel-based PCs, infrastructure and services to modernise and build for growth. To find out more, or to speak to an advisor, please visit: Small Business Solutions

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