Richard Reiffer and his staff at Grand Rapids-based Fusion IT LLC tend to take a proactive approach when it comes to advising clients on digital strategies.
So when COVID-19 transitioned into a full-blown pandemic in early March, the team was already telling the mid-size companies it works with to start facilitating effective remote work.
Fusion IT, which works with businesses on an ongoing basis as a managed service provider (MSP), even developed white papers to serve as a reference for effective work from home strategies.
“We started warning our clients early and most of them acted on it to get equipment if they didn’t already have equipment capable of running their remote work,” said Reiffer, the company’s vice president of strategic initiatives. “For a while there, the backlog to get laptops was about six months.”
The ongoing pandemic has ushered in a tidal wave of remote working for companies that were either forced to send workers home or did it out of precaution. Many of these companies’ MSPs have become the brain trust for work-from-home setups and strategies.
With remote work a growing trend before the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies already had a rough infrastructure in place to make the transition smoother, Reiffer said.
Still, some businesses had to swiftly make up ground while some of it was dictated by their respective industries.
“For manufacturing environments, typically all the work is done in the shop and even for the office staff it’s done locally because they interact with the shop floor,” Reiffer said. “When it came to that, some of that had to still push out to remote. There were quite a few (clients) that were caught flat (footed) and had some work to do.”
Chad Paalman, CEO of NuWave Technology Partners LLC, specializes in working specifically with manufacturers in addition to professional service organizations like CPAs and legal firms. NuWave operates from locations in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Lansing and also provides local support for businesses in Traverse City, St. Joseph, Jackson and Southfield.
Paalman’s firm also noticed a blend of clients that were able to seamlessly transition to work from home while others — loaded down with desktop computers, on-site file servers and other components that weren’t conducive to effective remote work — required more heavy lifting.
“Prior to COVID, we had been moving clients from traditional file server environments to Microsoft Office 365 and Azure,” he said. “The companies that made that move already were somewhat seamless in moving out of their traditional office. Conversely, the ones that had onsite file servers and desktops, they were the toughest.”
A little panic
The American Board of Emergency Medicine (ABEM) is a prime example of an organization that did not have remote work woven into its company culture until the pandemic pushed it in that direction.
The Lansing-based organization certifies emergency physicians, develops and administers tests and provides other resources that allow physicians to maintain certification.
With a 42-person staff, ABEM went from no remote work to 100 percent remote — all while trying to provide a seamless experience for physicians.
ABEM Associate Executive Director of Systems and Technology Michele Miller said the pandemic came with a little panic, but ultimately she knew the staff had the necessary equipment and leaned on NuWave to properly harness it.
“We had enough lead time, especially because we had emergency physicians in New York and California that started to see things happening,” Miller said. “We just came up with a plan. We have enough devices that we can assign one to every person if we had to go remote and we worked with NuWave on how to do it and if we had to enact it.”
That included email migration and one area that was crucial to the organization’s operations: the phone system.
The company had to be available by phone for physicians with questions or needs. Instead of deploying physical phones, or relying on the personal cell phones of employees, NuWave installed what are known as soft phones to employee online workstations. Calls would ring right to a person’s computer instead of a traditional phone.
In fact, Paalman found phone systems to be a crucial — and often forgotten — aspect of remote work.
“All of our clients that didn’t have the ability to have (company) cell phones were in a really weird situation where they were giving away personal cell numbers to everyone,” he said. “And, we saw in the first couple months — and it’s still going on — this big adoption to Microsoft Teams voice.”
The surge in remote work has also changed day-to-day operations for MSPs. Fusion IT, for example, has mostly put onsite projects on pause while it meets the remote needs of clients. NuWave has proceeded with some onsite projects, but it’s careful to do so in accordance with safety orders.
Meanwhile, NuWave still has a backlog of projects for companies that have been inspired by COVID to bolster remote access to information and applications.
“Still to this day, if you want to do a Microsoft 365 migration, get in line,” Paalman said. “I wish I had more people to do more migrations faster.”
Businesses also expected MSPs to do more than source, implement and secure technology for remote work. While procurement is a major hurdle, MSPs are also tasked with helping businesses with strategies to conquer inadequacies of remote work.
This consulting role is one embraced by Grand Rapids-based OST, a large IT firm with additional offices in Minneapolis, Detroit and London. The company acts as a problem solver to make remote work effective.
“For instance, one way to bring a team together is by bringing in group-chat tools such as Slack, and teaching managers and team leads to browse the channels every day and start up conversations,” said OST Managed Services Practice Manager Matt Glenn. “Add some humor, keep things fun. When having team meetings, bring in some video. Allow for flexibility in the work schedule.
“The end result not only makes the team effective and efficient at remote work, it also creates an endearing body with your team, and drastically increases retention.”