Think of an industry where advancements in technology occur at break-neck speeds and infrastructure redevelopment is a regular occurrence.  This same industry has also seen a demand spike as a result of the pandemic. What industry comes to mind? For those providing businesses/schools with streaming services and reliable internet access during the pandemic, the answer is clear: data centers.

COVID-19 has disrupted many of the critical systems that underpin daily life, and the data center industry has been among the most heavily impacted by the crisis. While the appetite for both personal and commercial data has been steadily growing for years, the coronavirus has fueled the rise of remote working and socializing platforms, substantially accelerating demand growth.

Many data center developers, owners, and operators faced a steep uptick in user demand in the early months of the pandemic and made rapid-fire changes to maintain service. Now, transitioning out of crisis mode, they are focusing on adapting to all of the changes that were catalyzed by the pandemic. This includes, as noted by ING, a predicted twentyfold increase in global cloud data flows by 2030.

The New Normal

Below are seven adaptive measures aimed at helping data center operations successfully meet the demands of the “new normal” (see Figure 1). Implementing these measures can help data center owners and operators build overall resilience, enhance the comfort and safety of users, and align work habits with evolving best practices. Leaders who embrace these changes at the top and work to integrate them into each level of the organizational structure will reap the biggest benefits.

1. Safe Receptions

Safe workplaces bring peace of mind to staff, guests, and employers. A clear message from leadership that staff and guest health is a top priority is smart for business too. Easy-to-access disinfectant and face-covering supplies can reinforce this message. Where in-person visits are necessary, touchless access is possible with the latest security equipment, including palm scans and facial recognition.

To add another layer of safety to reception areas, install temperature checks and remove common touchpoints, like business cards and candy dishes. Consider deploying transparent physical barriers where speaking face-to-face is necessary and installing sensing technology and smart communications to dynamically monitor and convey indoor environmental quality. This data can be communicated to those directly affected in a comprehensible and actionable format. Businesses can limit the number of people entering and exiting from a single point by updating guest booking policies to stagger appointments and by arranging for an alternative reception area for maintenance workers and suppliers.

Facility tours are a daily part of operations and help to secure new sales. Keep staff and guests safe by offering virtual tours. With advances in 3D scanning and 360-degree imagery technologies, this can be done more quickly than ever. Leveraging a virtual representation of a facility will help respond to frequent guest questions and add depth to the user experience. Additional benefits include maximizing the number of tours per day, expanding tours globally, and sharing the content more widely for strategic marketing.

2. Safety in Teams

Updating staffing procedures can reduce staff exposure to contagions. Establish who must work on-site and who can work remotely to limit workplace crowding. Clear messaging from the organizational leadership will ensure staff feel safe at work and know who they can reach out to for quick responses to their questions.

Regarding team working, shift teams should have mirroring skills, work in pairs, and conduct virtual shift handovers. If it is feasible to go one step further, creating multiple teams that are equally skilled and scheduling them to work at different times or on different days can help reduce exposure.

For high-priority tasks, pair staff to maintain organizational memory in the case of illnesses.  This could include the pairing of leadership roles as well, because frequent knowledge and strategy sharing support decision-making continuity. For remote locations, owners can consider employing an on-site medic for quick testing and response to symptoms.

3. Contracts

Conducting a close review of all service contracts and activating all contract administrators will help to avoid nonresponse scenarios for critical repairs or supply chain bottlenecks. Scheduling regular check-ins with service representatives will help identify and resolve potential service issues before they become a problem. Those concerned about a shortage in staff numbers required to maintain critical functions should consider establishing an agreement with an on-call employment agency. Also, establishing an upfront agreement with an on-call deep-cleaning agency will help mitigate the need to place orders on short notice during an urgent situation.

4. Inventory Security

Reliability is a key sales point for customers.  When it comes to maintaining a promised level of reliability in the face of an equipment failure, outage, or breakdown, customers want to know that repairs are made without consequence to their own business continuity.  Therefore, spare parts inventories become a key marketing element. 

Keeping a close tally on inventories will help to avoid the need to order parts under a time crunch. Regularly checking in with suppliers and vendors regarding their entire supply chain will reveal blockages that could ultimately impact data center operations.

Furthermore, reviewing service contract clauses that accommodate rushed replacements will allow you to strategically prioritize on-premises stocks; those contracts/clauses that are the least accommodating move right to the top of the priority list. 

5. Safety

Prioritize tasks strategically and execute regular failure scenario training refreshers to optimize outcomes in the event of a service disruption. Where staff numbers are low, prioritize tasks to reduce workloads. Train staff on which surfaces require disinfecting before and after work is carried out. Add protocols for hanging signs on task room doors to alert others that work is ongoing (you cannot always see staff in a plant room from the doorway).  It’s also important to schedule maintenance tasks in order to limit the number of people in any given area.

Executing drills that simulate breakdowns or failures is a good way to ensure safety issues and procedures remain top of mind. Providing visual aids to foster learning during these drills will reinforce key learning points.  To ensure staff are aware of orderly shutdown procedures for worst-case planning, revisit critical infrastructure equipment set points during drills. Check that levels and set points for critical functions, such as chilled water temperatures and breakers, are as expected, and execute simulated tuneups to avert a breakdown or outage in a crisis situation.

6. Investments

Revisit business plans to more tightly interweave planned investments in growth with expense planning for daily operations and maintenance. Where appropriate, reenvision business plans to leverage emerging market trends, such as subleasing commercial real estate, and consider supplementing current portfolios with investments in digital infrastructure. To bolster planning efforts, bring together business and maintenance departments on a regular basis.

It is also important to invest in upskilling staff at this critical juncture. Encourage staff members to reflect on what has transpired during the pandemic and what they have learned that could improve outcomes next time. Use these insights to identify skills that warrant further investment moving forward. 

Reevaluate your planned expenses to ensure the spaces users occupy are aligned with current best practices. For example, providing staff with cleaning regimens and disinfectants is now common practice for many firms. Checking temperatures as people enter the facility is another way to foster staff well-being.

Managers and team leaders may also want to allocate time for detailed scenario planning so that each department is prepared to deal with a disruption. Developing communication trees and training staff on notification protocols will keep everyone informed. The pandemic has led to an increase in the frequency and duration of staff sick leaves, as workers battle illness or care for family members. To improve efficiency, it is useful to have a work coverage plan in place to deal with any outages that may occur.

7. Reevaluate

In order to promote operational readiness, it’s important to continuously monitor evolving government and industry guidelines as well as internal policies that inform daily operations. By tracking lessons learned throughout the disruption, organizations can avoid potential tripping points. Through strong, decisive leadership and clear, consistent communication, resilient organizations can absorb disruption without jeopardizing business outcomes.

Organizations that are considering expanding the scope or the number of staff allocated to deliver an offering can use risk assessments to reevaluate potential safety and business impacts. Once a transitional policy has been put in place, evaluate the current level of organizational disruption to determine when and how to implement the outlined changes to maximize success.

It’s critical to prioritize and embrace the most impactful changes first. Some measures mentioned here will be easier to implement than others. To enhance overall resilience, consider enlisting an operational readiness expert to identify and mitigate potential risks, develop a tailored plan, earn the necessary stakeholder support, and advise on best practices for documenting and tracking.