Given the uncertain risks associated with the current coronavirus outbreak, many companies are exploring the option of allowing (or requiring) office-based knowledge workers to work from home. This will undoubtedly place stress on information technology organizations and force companies to rethink how they deliver IT services. We believe that there are a few proactive actions that IT departments can take in anticipation of some of the issues that companies may face with the aggressive shift to a remote workforce.
We would suggest considering the challenges associated with IT support in this time of crisis in two buckets:
- Quickly enabling the remote workforce
- Moving IT operations to remote delivery
Regarding the rapid enablement of a new remote workforce, the IT organization should think through the impact of the shift from office to home to every layer of IT infrastructure and applications. This shift will occur for both the IT workforce and many of the end-users whom they support.
At the most basic level of IT infrastructure is the network. A shift from the office to the home will impact the network in two fundamental ways. First, edge traffic will move from the corporate access network to consumer access networks. These consumer access networks include both home broadband access (cable internet, DSL, FiOS) and wireless internet. These networks will be strained by both the increase in business traffic as well as the increase in streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and consumers shift their consumption of entertainment services to those that can be “consumed” at home.
Recommended Action 1
Companies should consider supporting remote workers by subsidizing home internet services and encouraging employees to upgrade packages to improve bandwidth and performance. Companies should also consider subsidization of wireless data services to allow a second pipeline to the home (cellphone-based hot spots) should home internet go down.
Secure remote access
At the next level in the infrastructure stack, companies must ensure that they have the right technology and capacity (and appropriate security standards) to support secure remote access. Companies typically leverage VPN services to enable an encrypted and private communication pathway between employee remote computers and corporate networks. Companies may also use Citrix or other virtual desktop services to further improve remote access security over a VPN. While companies have likely already deployed these remote access technologies, the key to successfully navigating the dramatic shift to a home-based workforce will be in flexing the capacity to implement and support VPN remote access.
Recommended Action 2
IT organizations should review their remote access software licenses and ensure that they can support the dramatically increased volume of users. They also need to evaluate their capacity to support VPN client installation and resolve VPN connectivity issues (as many users will not have had any experience with using the software even if they have it on their home desktop or laptop). Service desk technicians should be properly educated on the resolution of likely connectivity problems.
Recommended Action 3
IT security organizations should also reexamine their security policies in light of the changes in expected usage patterns. While remote access security should remain a priority, security requirements necessary to support mobility (such as mobile device management and endpoint encryption) might need to be relaxed to allow greater use of employees’ personal devices without unnecessary obstacles.
Recommended Action 4
With almost the entire organization working remotely, the risk of security breaches will increase. It is imperative to re-train, educate, and over-communicate with the remote workforce about preventative measures against email phishing, malware, and ransomware attacks. This reminder can be communicated easily with a series of very short (and maybe fun) emails instead of serious memos.
Collaboration software and services
At the next level up the stack, remote workers will need access to applications software and services that will enable them to improve their productivity while working remotely. These services are broadly referred to as “collaboration services”. They include cloud-based file-sharing services like Microsoft OneDrive, Box, and Dropbox, conferencing services such as Skype, Cisco Webex, Go-To-Meeting and Zoom, and broader collaboration platforms including Microsoft Teams (and Sharepoint and Yammer), Cisco Jabber, Google Hangouts, Atlassian Confluence, and Slack.
Recommended Action 5
IT organizations should proactively relay the services that are available for communication and collaboration with coworkers while working from home. Ideally, home-based employees should be encouraged to use whichever platform or suite of services is preferred by the company, whether Microsoft-based, Cisco-based, or something else, so that users remain compatible with each other, and support efforts are more manageable. Again, licensing agreements should be reassessed, and contract adjustments made to ensure adequate capacity. Certain vendors (e.g., Cisco Webex) may be proactively providing added capacity or upgraded features at no additional cost in the short term in hopes of increased services in the longer term.
Recommended Action 6
In most organizations, IT is well-trained, experienced, and competent in working remotely. It is only natural they help train colleagues from other business functions with little to no experience on how to work remotely effectively. Offer tips and web tutorials on the effective use of your company’s preferred communications platforms. Share videos such as this one from Harvard Business Review, titled How to Collaborate Effectively If Your Team Is Remote.
Managers of teams who don’t frequently work remotely should clearly define roles and responsibilities during these uncertain times. Set clear expectations and communication guidelines, outlining KPIs to manage and measure deliverables for productivity. Managers should also make a list of where remote employees can find helpful resources, from essential company updates to how to reach IT for technical issues. Every measure of support counts towards improving efficiency and productivity as well as employee satisfaction and engagement.
Moving IT operations to remote delivery
Switching gears, IT organizations must also consider how they will continue to do their jobs if they must also allow employees to work from home. In general, notwithstanding all the considerations above, IT workers should be in even better position to work remotely than the average knowledge worker. IT tools and monitoring software typically allow for remote operation of most functions, and as workers leave the office, the demand for on-location desktop support will be reduced commensurately. However, there are a few critical concerns that IT organizations must address to ensure they can successfully manage the shift.
First, IT should expect an increase in service desk calls, especially concerning support of remote connectivity and collaboration service. Not only will requests increase, but IT must be in a position to handle the volume of a more distributed and home-based workforce.
Recommended Action 7
To prepare for this increased demand and modified delivery model, IT should take the following actions:
- IT organizations should assess the capacity and distributed agent features of their service desk call center platforms (such as Cisco, Genesys, or NICE InContact). Many newer systems are cloud-based and should support a distributed, home-based workforce, but license agreements and configurations might need to be modified. Provided that IT can quickly address these potential issues, end-user calls can be transparently rerouted to home-based agents. IT will also need to ensure that ticketing and knowledge management systems can be utilized via VPN remote access.
- IT should also anticipate the demand for specific types of calls associated with remote access and strengthen end-user self-service capabilities, automation scripts, and agent knowledge articles to increase the organization’s ability and capacity to handle this demand.
- Service desks should also be strengthening their ability to deliver remote desktop support services leveraging software such as Bomgar, Zoho, Connectwise, or Teamviewer. This will improve their ability to handle issues formerly addressed in person by deskside support services.
- IT end-user services organizations can redeploy home-bound deskside support and field services technicians as service desk agents to increase capacity.
- Finally, to the extent that IT has outsourced its service desk, IT must understand the ability of its managed services provider(s) to ramp up their capacity to support end-users during this period of increased demand.
Second, IT must adjust its delivery model to allow the organization to continue delivering applications support and enhancements and to “keep the lights on” for all critical network, server, and storage infrastructure with a mostly remote workforce. IT may need to maintain skeleton crews at critical IT facilities, including data centers and major offices, mainly to permit any hands-on operations or troubleshooting (e.g., power cycling) and to provide eyes on any display information (i.e., panel lights) that cannot be remotely monitored. These skeleton crews should not present significant health risks as few people will be in the facilities at which they are likely needed. Most operational functions should be able to be performed from home-office locations provided that the proper remote access and communications capabilities are available.
Recommended Action 8
IT should establish or ensure the following capabilities:
- Remote access to service desk ticketing systems for crucial resolver group members
- Remote access to critical applications and infrastructure monitoring software
- Leverage of collaboration and issue tracking software such as Jira and Slack for application support and development teams
- Virtual command centers to troubleshoot highest priority issues and outages
- Clear interfaces and lines of communication to critical third parties including managed services providers, network services providers, colocation facilities operators and technical support and maintenance functions of key hardware and software suppliers
Finally, IT organizations must understand the business continuity plans and potential “work-at-home” capabilities and constraints of all key vendors, especially offshore managed service providers. While the spread of Covid-19 in India appears to be behind the current rate of infection in the United States, India will inevitably be affected as well. US companies must assess the readiness of offshore partners to undertake social distancing and work-at-home programs and plan accordingly. If plans appear inadequate, US companies must be prepared to backfill critical offshore capabilities with in-house resources.
Recommended Action 9
Companies should ensure that in-house resources establish or maintain the following capabilities:
- Access to managed services provider-monitoring tools and systems
- Administrative access rights to all critical systems and equipment
- Adequate backup capacity for service desk and L2/3 support (at least at some minimum support level)
- Access to service provider knowledge-management systems
While these aren’t the circumstances in which anyone wants to launch a remote work program, it can prove to be a good and positive learning experience for when you’re exploring new ways of working. Every action IT takes today to support a remote workforce could influence how the organization operates and how your employees engage and collaborate with colleagues and customers in the future.
For those with existing remote working programs, use this time of crisis to adjust and enhance your policies. This is your opportunity to gain insight into your team’s productivity and engagement, which you can leverage to develop a Digital Workplace strategy for the future. Work closely with human resources as you do so and discover the long-term benefits of having a program like this in place in the long run, including improved employee engagement and productivity.
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