More than 15,000 cases or more of Covid-19 by the end of the month and a further rise in cases in the weeks thereafter. This is the stark warning delivered by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as part of his St Patrick's Day speech to the nation.
As companies scramble to comply with social distancing by readying their staff for remote working, there is a realisation that an en masse work-from-home deployment is not part of the business continuity plan because no one had factored in a global pandemic.
Some SMEs, however, can weather the storm because remote working was already part of their day-to-day workflow.
"We're all working from home at the moment: one colleague is pregnant and another has asthma so it's an easy decision. Another of my colleagues moved to Germany for family reasons last year and she still works for us, so we're well used to teleworking," says Ralph Smith, managing director of online accountancy service DoMyBooks.ie.
“We’re almost 100 per cent cloud-based and paperless, so it’s having no effect on productivity. Clients email their documents in or snap photos of their expenses via the relevant apps so the flow of information won’t be stopped.”
Ciara Crossan, founder and chief executive of WeddingDates.ie, says video-conferencing platform Zoom is a good all-rounder. The company uses it for video meetings and screen sharing with clients, sales prospects and internal meetings with UK staff. Collaboration tools such as Teamwork's Projects and Chat, as well as Google Docs and Sheets, are also used daily by her staff.
“And all the software we use – OnePageCRM, Intercom – is in the cloud and therefore available anywhere from any machine. As an online business that uses a lot of team collaboration tools already it would be fairly easy for us all to do our jobs remotely if required,” says Crossan.
“This is an opportunity for small businesses to think creatively about how they can facilitate alternative ways of working,” she adds.
For larger companies, the remote working experience is different. It is usually delivered through Citrix, VMware or a similar desktop virtualisation client that gives workers access to the corporate environment outside of the office. This also requires appropriate security measures, which usually boils down to kitting each employee out with a work laptop that the IT department has vetted and locked down to prevent data breaches or remote hacking.
Now imagine doing this for hundreds or thousands of workers. Brendan Kiely, managing director and co-founder of ThinScale Technologies, explains how their technology makes it possible for those who have suddenly found themselves being asked to work from home to use their own personal laptop to securely log on to their work environment.
“Rather than sending out a piece of hardware, an IT person can push our software to a person’s personal machine or, for want of a better phrase, an ‘unclean machine’. First, our validation tool remotely checks for firewalls, what antivirus software is installed, the last OS update, etc. This tool essentially validates the end point and then it allows the end user to download our Secure Remote Worker software.”
Once the end user logs into this application, it completely locks them out of their personal machine. They are now securely inside the corporate environment, which means they can access only IT administrator-approved applications, cannot save anything to their hard drive, or even copy and paste. When they log off, full control of their laptop is returned after a ‘flush’ is carried out to erase any system changes from the corporate side of things.
“The upshot of this is that if you have virtualised infrastructure, a way of remotely delivering apps, you now no longer have to buy your employee a piece of hardware to access the corporate environment. We provide that,” says Kiely.
ThinScale also covers compliance with the various data-protection laws for companies dealing with sensitive and personal data. ThinScale’s clients include many business processing outsourcers – the kinds of companies that provide large-scale third-party services such as payroll and finance, IT support, telemarketing and health insurance. The biggest risk to companies using these outsourcers is a data breach because many of them employ remote workers.
"There are three main compliance standards. PCI DSS [Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard] is required if you're taking credit card details, HIPAA covers health insurance records in the United States, and, of course, GDPR covers data protection and privacy within the EU.
“If you want to have a belt-and-braces approach, it means that, as a company data controller, you don’t want people being able to take data that identifies individuals in any way outside of a controlled environment. And we provide that controlled environment,” adds Kiely.
With security taken care of, now all anyone needs to worry about is making sure they don't go viral like BBC Dad, aka Prof Robert Kelly, whose live television interview was hilariously interrupted when his children ran/crawled into the room. Perhaps it is time to try something new for an immersive work-from-home experience?
Dr Lukasz Porwol, researcher with the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at NUI Galway, recommends virtual reality as an alternative to Zoom or Skype: "VR has the advantage of immersion. When you're using teleconference software and you have 10 or more people, everybody knows how easy it is to get distracted. What happens is you have two people chatting, other people checking their email or browsing the web. And then someone asks a question and you have to ask them to repeat it. We just fade away a bit because it's so hard to stay focused."
Porwol explains that the screen barrier effect kicks in. We feel less connected to others and find it more difficult to keep our attention on them. With a VR headset we are cut off from our immediate surroundings and totally immersed in our virtual meeting room.
“When you are in a VR meeting you see where people are looking – whether their gaze is on the speaker or whether they are looking around or looking away. So you know someone is talking to you specifically because their gaze is on you. Also, a lot of real-world physics is preserved in VR. For instance, if you are close to that person you can hear them better and they become quieter as you move away from them. You feel more present,” he says.
The problem right now is that virtual reality is primarily thought of as a gadget for gamers or just another form of entertainment. It’s highly unlikely that many Irish companies were doling out Oculus Go headsets as part of their work-from-home strategy. But this may change in the next few years. There are several companies testing these virtual environments as places to hold meetings, seminars, training events and even conferences.
Porwol has been training others to use reference management software Mendeley for nine years now and recently he began running sessions in AltspaceVR, a Microsoft-owned virtual-reality platform for hosting social events. Some executives at Mendeley came along. They were so impressed that they invited him to Mendeley headquarters in London.
“The feedback was that it was very positive. They were happy that it replicated most elements of a real-world training workshop like giving a presentation, showing slides or having a conversation. But they also thought it could do more than simply substitute an in-the-flesh workshop: it could create three dimensional objects to spatially represent Mendeley features.
“So, say you’re talking about a pipeline: you can visualise the pipeline as a set of elements that you can walk around and actually label. Then people can better visualise it because it is suddenly spatial. It’s not just about recreating reality, it’s about bringing people even deeper into the learning experience,” says Porwol.
To get started with AltspaceVR, end users need a decent standalone VR headset such as the Oculus Go, which sells for about €159. The installation of a small app and a half-hour tutorial and they can eschew Skype or Zoom in favour of a fully immersive work meeting. Although, keep in mind that the avatars are slightly cartoonish (think Nintendo Wii avatars). There are lots of ready-made virtual worlds including lakesides, libraries and serene woodlands but you can recreate the corporate boardroom if that's your preference.
Porwol has big plans for AltspaceVR. As secretary of the Digital Government Society he is planning more virtual-reality sessions to adapt to continued social distancing and travel restrictions in the face of the coronavirus.
"We have a conference organised for South Korea in June. Now, of course, for obvious reasons the organiser is considering a cancellation but we figured that we can do it digitally and virtually. I have put forward a proposal to do VR sessions to co-ordinate with sessions organised simultaneously on Discord or GoToMeeting. So we will have a combination of the traditional teleconferencing tools and VR."
As part of his research in e-government Porwol has also given VR training sessions to several Irish senators. If this pandemic persists, perhaps Leo Varadkar’s next big speech will be in AltspaceVR. See you there.