A hat trick of practical pointers for IT in the post-Covid workplace

A man with a subtle smile looking at a computer screen

This is one of our longer blogs. So here’s a summary of key points covered here:

1. What to do if you’re using Skype for Business and have heard the news of its retirement
2. Yes, your backup needs a backup plan
3. Going beyond two-factor authentication for our new ways of working

It is impossible to overstate the professional challenges that IT staff have faced over the past six months.

Although IT work is less emotive than, say, that of healthcare professionals – and understandably so – technology is arguably the backbone of an organisation, helping it move forward in areas as diverse as finance and marketing. And so, when the pandemic took hold, IT professionals had to do all they could to keep that backbone standing upright.

Yet at the same time, they found themselves handling the biggest change to the way that we work in recent history. As a result of the crisis, they were tasked with what is the most profound kind of digital transformation: to remodel the modern workplace. And to do this literally overnight.

Now that the adrenalin has worn off and businesses look to return to some form of normality, IT professionals again face a new catalogue of demands. Some of those challenges are obvious – and there’s already thousands of articles that address them.

A less obvious challenge facing IT professionals right now is the ‘where do I even start?’ question. It’s something that many of our clients ask when faced with an overwhelming to-do list and an equally staggering list of expectations from the business.

If you’re at that point – asking yourself where should you start with IT now your workplace has been changed forever – this blog is for you. We have identified three key areas that will be of great value to your organisation in the post-Covid world. But before we get onto these pointers, it’s worth framing them.

First, we’ve focused on Microsoft. And we’ve done this because while we know you rely on many other vendors – some of whom are likely to be our very own partners – we also know that Microsoft is one of the most prevalent IT suppliers. And so, we’re hoping there’s guidance here that will be useful to you, irrespective of the size or the nature of your business.

Second, this blog is the tip of the iceberg. It’s likely we’ll look at these three areas more closely in the future, through further blogs or webinars. If we do, we’ll share them on LinkedIn, so if you’re not already following us there, do so here.

Third, if you’re asking yourself ‘where do I even start?’, remember that you’re not starting from scratch. You are instead building on years of hard work that’s led your business to where it is now – the past few months have been an acceleration of that. What you do now is an evolution, not a revolution – and that’s not to be confused, Alan Partridge style

Microsoft Teams: what about Skype for Business?

It will come as no surprise to you that from 17 February to 14 June 2020, usage of Microsoft Teams grew by 894 per cent. We suspect that existing business users of Office 365 – now referred to as Microsoft 365 – account for a large part of this growth. And given that Teams has been part of Microsoft 365 since March 2017, it’s likely that many of these businesses had access to Teams long before the pandemic.

And so, our hunch is that when it’s an all-hands-to-the-pump situation, companies can and will embrace new technology and features – and they can do so quickly. The Microsoft figures are a good testament to that – and to the agility of IT teams.

Nevertheless, the catalyst for this change has been most unwelcome, causing many a sleepless night for an IT professional. At the same time, the switch to video conferencing has been so significant that it has tinged everything from office etiquette, to popular culture, to TV advertising. If you’ve not yet seen a schmaltzy commercial featuring a grid of talking heads, then lucky you.  

One related topic that hasn’t attracted nearly as much interest concerns Skype for Business. Many organisations still use this service – and if yours is one of them, chances are you now have a raft of questions that have emerged in this new age of Microsoft Teams. Among them, one question appears to be the most pressing:

“I’ve heard Microsoft Teams is replacing Skype for Business. Do I really need to shift to Microsoft Teams?”

It’s a question that reflects the confusion about Skype we’re seeing in the marketplace. And it may stem from Microsoft’s announcement that Skype for Business Online is to be retired at the end of July next year (2021).

As with so much in the world of IT, this is another occasion where the devil really is in the detail. As you can see from the above blog, Microsoft’s announcement refers specifically to the ‘Online’ version of Skype for Business.

Of course, in the world of technology – where even fridges are connected to the internet – it’s natural to regard all products as being ‘online’. And so, we’ve seen many clients get a whiff of this news and become understandably confused between ‘Skype for Business Online’ with ‘Skype for Business Server’.

Semantics aside, where does this leave you? Let’s set the record straight.

If you use Skype for Business Online – where the system runs in the cloud – then there’s no way to sugarcoat it: you’ll need to make the shift to Teams. And as the Microsoft blog says, you’ll have to do so by 31 July 2021.

If you use Skype for Business Server – where the software runs from hardware in your own premises – there is nothing to do. But, as many of our clients have discovered, you may find Teams is more suitable for your business, it being a platform that unites many business communications tools. It’s also worth mentioning here that if you use even the most basic version of Microsoft 365, then you already have access to Teams.

We’re highlighting Teams because it appears that a lot of businesses will never return to past ways of working. As such, video calls and, more generally, unified communications platforms, are likely to be more critical than ever before.

Whether you have the Online version of Skype For Business, or use the Server version and want to switch to Teams, there’s no quick or one-size-fits-all answer to what you do next. So here’s the part where we ask you to get in touch, so we can objectively guide you towards the right setup for your business. This isn’t a sales pitch, but rather, it’s us being honest about the situation.

Microsoft 365: backup your backups

Those of you who already use Microsoft 365 will have no doubt encountered, or are already using, the cloud storage features of the service. It follows the same principles as Google’s equivalent – G Suite, with Google Drive – and is similar to other cloud storage services, such as Dropbox and Box.

With the emergence of these services over the past few years – and perhaps in the excitement about all things cloud – has come a mindset that cloud is an infallible way to store data, which isn’t strictly true. And it’s a misconception that’s particularly relevant now as remote working, often with personal devices, becomes par for the course.

The experience of IT leaders working through the pandemic is especially relevant here. According to Computer Weekly, 82 per cent of these professionals saw use of cloud ramp up in response to Covid-19. And 60 per cent said use of off-premise technologies continues to grow.

Consider here then, for example, a company leaver. As they wind up their employment, they may innocently decide to ‘tidy up’ their files. Or worse, they may be disgruntled and maliciously remove valuable data. In both instances, the standard cloud backup on Microsoft 365 may only be able to recover items deleted in the past three days. And so, if you discover a data loss that’s older than that, you might find retrieval is impossible.

In pre-pandemic times, these scenarios would be valid causes for concern. But in the post-pandemic world – with looser reins on staff and technology – this becomes an even more troubling possibility.

And so, this is why we are urging you and all of our clients to look into backing up your backups. In fact, Microsoft itself gives this same advice – because, after all, no IT professional wants loss of valuable data added to their already enormous plate – especially now.

To help clients with this concern, we work with a backup specialist called Veeam, which has been positioned ‘highest in execution’ in the 2020 Gartner Magic Quandrant – the fourth year in a row. Get in touch, and we can explain how it could work with your IT setup and benefit your business.

Microsoft Enterprise Mobility Security: go beyond two-factor authentication

As with data backup, the pandemic has exposed businesses to another IT-related risk and again, it relates to the new ways of working. Let’s take a step back to explain this.

As we all know, most of our online accounts and the valuable data within them are accessible through an email address and a password. This is true in both our personal and our professional lives.

There are two inherent problems with this setup.

First, email addresses are easy to harvest. Professional email addresses are often inadvertently leaked into the public domain. Many people have them listed on their LinkedIn profiles. And many companies have a standard format for their email addresses, so if one address is in the public domain, it doesn’t take much detective work to figure out the email addresses of specific employees.

Second, despite our efforts as IT professionals try to encourage our colleagues to use strong passwords, it’s much easier said than done. And so, armed with a genuine email address, a cyber criminal only has to crack a password to crack an IT system.

It’s for these reasons that in recent years, two-factor authentication (2FA) has grown in popularity, with options including one-time passwords, or authenticator apps. Indeed, these are very helpful tools that add a valuable layer of extra protection.

But there are a few catches. Some of them are covered by this very interesting article from Wired, which although dating from 2013 is still very relevant. One of the most notable flaws with 2FA is that it only verifies the user. It doesn’t authenticate the device being used – and again, the world we now work in means we need to think again about the devices accessing our IT systems and data.

The solution? Well, one of them is Microsoft’s Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS). It’s a bit of a mouthful, granted, but it is worth talking and thinking about. It’s built around conditional access – that is, it can vet devices as well as users.

For example, say you wanted to restrict access to your systems by geography. With EMS, you could do this, since it can look at IP addresses and decide whether to grant access to a system. Likewise, if you wanted to ensure all the devices accessing your systems met certain security criteria, EMS would let you do this.

The interesting thing about this level of authentication is what it reveals about your systems, and the devices trying to access it. We’ve a sneaking suspicion that many companies would be surprised about who and what is trying to access their systems, and where those access attempts originate.

As you’ve guessed, we’re highlighting EMS because it is especially relevant in the post-Covid world. And if it’s something you would like to explore, then we can talk you through it.

You can get in touch here.

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We know that right now, you’ll be swamped with advice and how-to guides related to technology in the post-Covid world. So we hope that our pointers here give you some practical tips, along with fresh thinking and useful background and context so you can make your business case internally.

We also hope that if you have any questions, you’ll get in touch – you’ve seen the links above, but you can call us on 0333 4002490 or email enquiries@adept.co.uk. We live for problem solving, we’re friendly, straight-talking and positive.

  • Andy Boylan is a Pre-sales Solutions Consultant for AdEPT Technology Group. He has worked in IT and telecoms for some 35 years, and has an MBA With Distinction in Technology Management. He is interested in the intersection of business technology with people and culture, and ardently believes that the most successful technology projects look beyond technology to address wider business issues.

    You can connect with Andy on LinkedIn here.

Written by Andy Boylan

Solutions Consultant