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How Remote Work Permanently Altered Security and Channel Sales

The dust has still not settled from the massive disruption in the IT landscape driven by the mass move to remote work in 2020, which is still happening today. The pandemic forced vendors, partners, and customers alike to become more nimble and quickly adapt and pivot their operations to the ‘work from anywhere’ model. The rapid speed at which companies had to adopt new technologies to accommodate this now distributed workforce was the equivalent of drinking from a digital firehose, all across the board. 

As remote work ramped up, new challenges arose, forcing partners to evolve their remote workforce management strategies to tackle these challenges. These involved maintaining staff productivity, connectivity, and performance while ensuring employees still had the chance to grow and advance in their job roles. 

We are now starting to see some patterns and trends emerging from this tumultuous time and can make some educated guesses about what was temporary and what’s here to stay. In a recent survey of 188 channel professionals by Allbound in conjunction with JS Group, participants provided insights into how the last 24 months have changed the future of work for their organization. Answers ranged from companies encountering difficulties and crises to those seizing opportunities in the face of adversity.

One respondent to our survey said, “We have accelerated the modern IT infrastructure, which means our team has had to adapt faster to new service models and technical needs.” While a change in the technology industry is inevitable, this speaks to the fact that the pandemic sparked years of digital transformation in a matter of months. 

Here, we explore the pandemic’s impacts and resulting remote work had on the digital landscape and the realities for partners because of this significant shift.

How Remote Work Impacted End User Tech Needs

The last 24 months have irrevocably changed the technology landscape, thereby increasing customer demands on partners. In our survey, we asked participants how the pandemic altered the future of work for their clients. One respondent said, 

“Clients don’t even realize how much their IT infrastructure has changed because it was crisis-driven. They are waking up to the reality that they have so much opportunity and challenge with the changes they were forced to make.”

In the survey, respondents cited three primary drivers of increased client needs:

01

The need for 24/7/365 support

02

Increased security and compliance needs 

03

Giant acceleration of cloud adoption

As one respondent put it, “Crisis-driven IT infrastructure is here to stay.” This highlights potential gaps for partners and their customers, such as finding resources in a newfound remote workforce and IT support to address changing needs adequately.

So how can partners meet the challenges of tomorrow’s workforce for their customers? What should vendors and solution providers consider when helping enable their partners for success? 

Over the last 20 months, partners have seen a new evolution of business and a new set of requirements for supporting their customers. This latest evolution has redefined the need for support – it must be available anytime, anywhere, and always on. 

“The creation of remote offices in many cases are offices that evolved from the necessity for mobilizing a remote workforce,” says Paul Cronin, CEO of managed service provider Apogee IT Services. “However, most of these had not been assessed, and did not have the correct devices, right applications or secure environment.”

Partners still have ample opportunities to continue to address the remote workforce and design the most optimal technology solutions to assure a productive and safe remote work environment. The ‘new normal’ is here to stay, and it includes more remote workers, hybrid workers, and less full-time in-office staff for lots of businesses. 

In these uncertain times and with the new work trends that have developed, customers want the applications that their employees depend on available to them – securely – no matter where they sit or when they are working. 

“We have updated our services to include 24×7 support, managed security, voice services, application management (performance) services, mobile device management, and SD-WAN that supports the user and their devices regardless of location,” adds Cronin. “We are also working on developing more self-help options for users that want to work through problems online themselves.”

With considerable client users working remotely, it is ideal for vendors and partners alike to reassess their users and their technology needs. There has been a rebirth of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to help reduce the cost of purchasing and supporting robust, expensive laptops, provide more security for remote users’ (unknown) environments, and simplify remote management of these users. 

The big focus for partners should be to continue to build out more relevant business services.

The Remote Work Reality for Partners’ Businesses

Seventy-eight percent of the channel professionals who responded to the survey implemented remote work for all or some employees during the last two years, to varying degrees. Nearly half did not offer remote work accommodations before the pandemic but say that today, employees can choose whether or not to come into the office.  This speaks to the hybrid model that many companies are now adopting. 

21%

of businesses allowed employees to work from home but have now brought all employees back in the office full time 

19%

of those who implemented remote work during the pandemic have no plans to bring employees back into the office

11%

Surprisingly, 11% did not offer remote work accommodations before the pandemic and do not offer them now 

The last statistic is a bit of a head-scratcher, given that technology and flexible thinking enabled many businesses and employees to stay not just connected but productive outside a traditional office setting.  

Not only are most companies offering the option to work remotely, but they are also embracing it. Flexibility, expanded hiring pools, no office overhead, and time saved are some of the advantages respondents mentioned.

“Partners have now had the time to realize that in many organizations, the workforce of tomorrow is not an on-premise workforce, but one that’s more hybrid, mobile, and distributed.”

Mike Dent, director of data center architecture and solutions engineering for managed service provider eGroup

“That being said, to successfully transform a business to tomorrow’s workforce means understanding the organization and positioning technologies that don’t create complexity and impede end users, but still allow an organization to meet their security and compliance needs.” 

While the workforce of tomorrow is more mobile, Dent says that eGroup’s strategy has been to provide tools (such as Intune and Cisco DUO) and connectivity for organizations (Cradlepoint and Cisco Umbrella, for instance) that allow for control and visibility but don’t get in the way of end-users or organizational progress.

 

Recruiting & Retaining New Talent 

Finding and hiring the right person for a job is no easy feat in any industry. The “Great Resignation” has begun to define what the job market looks like as companies and employees transition to different workplace models. Technology is a vital business function, and strategic hiring is essential for any partner trying to build a successful, scalable business. It’s not enough to simply fill job roles; ensuring business growth has always been a critical component of any company.

Eighty percent of respondents to our survey say that remote work has enabled them to source talent from other geographies that were not an option pre-pandemic. When asked how the future of work for their organization has shifted, responses overwhelmingly pointed to going either mostly or entirely remote. 

In recent months, there has been a spotlight focused on the struggle to find adequately skilled, affordable tech talent.

32%

of survey respondents say that they recruit skilled talent, not through higher salaries, but through offering benefits like flexible work environments, unlimited time off, commitment to diversity, education reimbursement, and so forth

24%

report that whereas there is available talent, they have been unsuccessful in recruitment efforts because they cannot afford a competitive salary

18%

say they can afford skilled talent through contractors or part-time employees

13%

reported having no problems affording and recruiting the skilled talent that their organization needs

On the other end of the spectrum, a small percentage of partners say that there is not a robust pool of skilled workers in their market. A smaller portion is focused on investing in upskilling their current workforce to avoid paying premium prices for talent. Upskilling programs are being widely and rapidly developed and utilized across industries and business sizes, so we anticipate this trend growing. Navigating an increasingly complex digital world should, in theory, demand that companies turn an eye inward. Meaning employers should consider a career model that enables internal mobility – i.e. seeking more effective ways to upskill and “reskill” current employees.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents were forced to lay off employees as the pandemic ground business to a halt in March 2020. Still, the good news is that almost as many (35%) increased their headcount in the first year of the pandemic. And that good news just kept on coming in year two, with 66% of respondents reporting hiring more employees from March 2021 to November 2021. 

Respondents anticipate their most significant talent need in the next year or less will be:

•   customer support and experience – 27%
•   technical prowess – 26%
•   
sales – 24%
•   
marketing – 17%
•   
management – 4%

We’re also seeing generational impacts within tech talent pools. As baby boomers head toward retirement and younger workers gain the critical skills needed to become qualified employees, many partners have seen a rise of young talent in their organizations. Twenty-one percent of survey respondents said that their workforce, on average, is younger than 24 months ago.

For partners, this means gaining and holding the attention of younger recruits (and not losing those you have). Essential to this process is having the right technology stack – automated tasks, streamlined workflows, and better reporting all roll up into this.

 Younger workers see new technology and automation as the future of work. Over 90% of Gen Z and Millennial employees say they’re willing to automate parts of their job.

Automated processes and clear communication are selling points for IT talent. Operational inefficiencies, culture shifts, and the overall lack of clarity can hog-tie and frustrate many seasoned IT pros who just want to know what’s in the pipeline, what projects are in the works and what resources are needed to bring a project to completion.

 

The Security Challenge and Opportunity

For the future of work for customers, partners cite several curveballs that have affected and will continue to impact their business. Unsurprisingly, one of the most significant changes mentioned is cybersecurity and compliance mandates and what organizations have had to implement to meet those needs.

“The IT landscape has always moved quickly, but MSPs need to raise awareness with company owners and stakeholders that the sudden mass shift to remote work presents a significant security risk – usually beyond the scope of anything that was planned for.”

– Daniel Ellis, CEO of partner EPX Technical Services

“Remote working is obviously here to stay, and as we move from the ‘work from home’ to ‘work from anywhere’ model with end-user devices being used in all kinds of locations, new and unexpected threats will appear.”

Some simple examples include: 

•   Insecure Wi-Fi
•   Unlocked USB sockets on an unattended laptop
•   Strangers seeing what you type and overhearing your phone calls
•   Our most trusted device and source of all (the mobile phone) can no longer effectively pick up facial recognition due to mask-wearing, so users visibly enter their PIN every time they use pay-by-phone in highly public areas

Ellis says that if he were to pick the top ways to address these challenges, he would say:

01

End-users and stakeholders need to be aware of the new risks, and they need to learn from more than just their MSP and industry press. New threats need to become everyday news.

02

Stakeholders need to get clear on where their cybersecurity responsibility starts and ends. The MSP can’t do it all, and many companies don’t realize that.

03

MSPs must expand their focus to their customers’ business operations, not just technical operations.

With digital transformation happening at roadrunner-like speed, partners not only have to keep pace and take care of the evolving security and compliance needs of their customers but those of their own business. Underscoring this are several high-profile MSP data breaches that have happened in the not-so-distant past, further highlighting the need for secure visibility.

Over the last year, bad actors have targeted partners, treating them as singular points of failure allowing them to exploit multiple companies simultaneously. 

SolarWinds was the target of a major breach in late 2020. The information technology firm was the subject of a cyberattack that spread to its clients and went undetected for months. The attack resulted from a software vulnerability. The hackers inserted malicious code into SolarWinds’ Orion software updates sent to nearly 18,000 customers between March and June 2020. The attack also led to security breaches at numerous US government agencies. 

Because of these and other low and high-profile attacks, IT security has undoubtedly been thrust into the spotlight. And now, there are new challenges and opportunities associated with remote work configurations.

Thirty-eight percent of channel professionals say they wanted to see increased network and endpoint security functionalities from vendors to secure their distributed workforce. And we know that trend applies to their customers, too. 

According to Kaspersky’s recent ‘MSP market focus in 2021′ report, 93% of MSPs stated that they are looking to expand their IT security offering. Kaspersky also reports that the security sector has seen strong growth since 2019. 

This is particularly true for MSSPs, who have also seen an uptick in their client base in recent years. The channel is increasingly aware of the need for MSSPs to meet the modern security demands of customers and the need to update historical approaches. This trajectory is set to continue with these attacks’ ever-increasing complexity and frequency.  

As business models evolve and security continues to be a prevalent issue/need, partners must stay in and ahead of the game. This puts extra pressure on them to keep on top of the latest customer needs and available solutions.

Kaspersky’s research has shown that client motivation for using solution providers points directly to this, with the need for additional expertise cited as the top reason to use providers. Advanced cyber threats and legal/compliance requirements, paired with the speed at which businesses now need to adopt and implement technology to support today’s remote/hybrid working norm, have increased the need for more specialized IT security support. 

The Service-Sales Balance

During times of crisis and profound paradigm shifts like the pandemic ushered in, time becomes even more of a precious resource. In the Allbound and JS Group survey, 45% of respondents said that their time servicing existing clients during the pandemic increased to a point where they could not maintain new sales or onboarding activities at previous levels. Here’s where automated processes and platforms, change management strategies, clear workflows, and data-driven operations can let businesses do more with less time.

Ninety-one percent of channel professionals say that approximately one-third (32%) of their customers reached out for additional support to facilitate remote work accommodations. 

The sticking point here is that many partners’ business models cannot scale to support these additional hours for clients. Only 20% of respondents charge per hour for services, so scaling efforts are hampered, and revenue is impacted when service times increase drastically.

Vendors have a chance to provide a pretty big assist here. When asked if vendors have helped in balancing these workloads, partners reported several ways they have indeed stepped up in this regard. 

Forty-three percent reported improved virtual collaboration and communication technology, and 41% reported increased marketing enablement – an increasingly vital component tied to boosting visibility and sales (more on enablement below). Other respondents cited an increase in sales support, and a small percentage reported increased professional services support.

 

The Bottom Line

No matter the strategy, it is clear that the dependence of businesses on IT is growing and will continue to grow. Customers need a trusted advisor, especially in the fallout of the pandemic and the new remote/hybrid work environment. 

 But partners need, in a sense, to be their own advisors, too. It isn’t only end users’ businesses that are undergoing such a transformation, but also those of channel partners. Workforces are changing rapidly, and partners need to not only advise customers on how to navigate that paradigm shift but look internally to tweak and evolve their own operational strategies. It’s an excellent time to be in the channel, yes – but only for those who sense the changing winds and know how to adjust their sails.

 

Takeaways

The remote workforce has morphed from an outlier to a constant. Gartner estimates that 51% of all knowledge workers globally work remotely. In addition, as many as 32% of all employees worldwide may now be remote. The landscape has changed, and with it, the way we work. 

A hybrid workforce is the future of the work, so what does this mean for partners, vendors and customers?

1. Partners must address their customers’ remote workforce and design optimal technology solutions to assure a productive and safe remote work environment.

2. With considerable client users working remotely, it is ideal for vendors and partners alike to reassess their users and their technology needs.

3. Partners need to transform their customers’ business to tomorrow’s workforce. This means understanding the organization and positioning technologies that don’t create complexity and impede end-users but still allow an organization to meet its security and compliance needs.

4. Recruiting and retaining new talent is more critical than ever. It is necessary for partners to recruit skilled talent not just through higher salaries but through offering benefits like flexible work environments, unlimited time off, commitment to diversity, and education reimbursement.

5. As business models evolve and security continues to be a prevalent issue/need, partners must stay in and ahead of the game by expanding their security offerings. Businesses now need to adopt and implement technology to support today’s remote/hybrid working norm, which should place the need for specialized IT security support right at the tip-top of priority piles.

6. There needs to be a service-sales balance. Due to the deep paradigm shift that the pandemic ushered in, time has become even more of a precious resource. Vendors can assist here by balancing these workloads.

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