SINGAPORE - When working from home became mandatory during the circuit breaker last year, inventory manager Eric (not his real name) thought his company was prepared.
Before the rule kicked in, the IT support team had instructed him and his co-workers to install a virtual private network (VPN) client on their laptops so they could remotely access client data in the logistics company's internal network.
But when Eric tried logging into the system from home for the first time, he received an error message informing him that he needed to be connected to the internal network to activate the VPN.
"That meant we needed to already have the VPN in order to get the VPN working. It was really a big joke," said Eric, who is in his 40s.
He said the issue was finally resolved after two days, after members of the IT support team visited each worker's home in person to activate the VPN using configuration files stored on a thumb drive.
"Since then, we have been able to work from home, but we still get occasional hiccups. The network can sometimes crash for hours at a time," Eric added.
His company is not alone.
In September, a survey of 500 office workers from five countries, conducted by service management software provider OTRS, found that IT support desks around the world struggled with new demands and challenges during the pandemic.
A quarter of the respondents were unhappy with their current IT support.
Asked for the average time it took for an IT problem to be solved, 39 per cent of the respondents said within 60 minutes, 28 per cent said more than an hour, and 12 per cent said more than one day.
Close to half - 47 per cent - expected help from IT support within 30 minutes, and 69 per cent wanted to be helped in less than 60 minutes.
Many small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) faced similar challenges amid the rise of working from home as a norm, said Mr David Loke, chief executive of cloud services provider ReadySpace Singapore.
Mr Loke, whose company provides third-party tech expertise for SMEs looking to digitalise, said many of his clients struggled when remote work became mandatory last year, as they lacked the resources, tools and know-how to quickly adapt their operations.
He noted that many firms use specialised software installed on office computers which often need to be connected to the internal network server to work.
These include customised accounting software, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) software used by call centres or customer support staff.
Using a VPN to "tunnel" into a firm's internal network is one way to facilitate working from home.
Firms are also increasingly opting to "virtualise" their servers and workstations through external cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services and ReadySpace, Mr Loke said.
This can entail creating virtual copies of office computers with specialised software and running them on a cloud server. Workers can then access the virtual machines from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Mr Loke noted: "When companies get their staff to work from home, they need to consider issues like security, access control and data protection."
Outsourcing this function to a third-party provider also means companies would not need to maintain their own IT support staff and can focus on other aspects of the business, he said.
Larger companies have faced similar issues even though they tend to have more resources and are better prepared, compared with SMEs.
Mr Gary Teh, managing director of group IT at insurance provider Great Eastern, said his company had to rapidly ramp up its IT infrastructure so staff could work from home seamlessly and securely.
"Initially, the network bandwidth and computing resources to support these changes were strained. We had to work round the clock to upgrade the infrastructure quickly," he said.
One advantage Great Eastern had was that it had already begun rolling out digital tools for employees, including financial representatives, since 2018.
These tools enabled the workers to provide virtual sales advisory, better manage their customer relationships, and monitor their sales activities and performance outcomes, Mr Teh said.
This not only improved their productivity and efficiency but also meant the staff were able to adapt to working from home quickly, he added.
"They were able to adapt quickly with the support of our digital tools and provide services to our customers well through remote channels even with the restrictions and physical limitations brought about by the pandemic."
One challenge that is here to stay is the increased threat of cyber attacks and ransomware incidents as the use of digital devices and platforms rises.
In early December, the discovery of a major vulnerability in a widely used piece of open source software known as Log4j made waves in the global cyber-security community.
Mr Parvinder Walia, president for Asia-Pacific and Japan at IT security software provider ESET, said Log4j is widely used by many products, services and Java components, so organisations of all sizes can be affected.
"It could easily be present in the software a company uses without IT staff explicitly knowing," he added.
"Smaller organisations, in particular, need to recognise the urgency and approach their IT support department to ensure a complete search of the vulnerability in all software assets based on a prioritised list."
Mr Andy Lee, managing director for Singapore and Brunei at multinational IT and networking firm Cisco Systems, said: "With the transition to hybrid working arrangements, businesses, regardless of their size, have encountered an increase in cyber threats."
Companies should prioritise cyber security over rushing to adopt new technologies and innovations, he said.
"It is crucial that IT departments evaluate their core needs and business goals before implementing any new solutions that might impact the overall network," Mr Lee said.
"This is especially important for customer-facing departments, where security has a direct impact on their customers."