By now you know about COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, and you know that it’s wreaking havoc on any gathering of people, already leading to cancellations of conferences, sporting events and social gatherings. Those gatherings of people are now including people at work, leading authorities in the state of Washington to ask their employees to work at home where possible.
Major employers in Washington are doing so. Two of the state’s largest employers, Amazon and Microsoft, have already done so. This social distancing, as it’s called, makes it harder for a communicable disease to spread. But in doing this, it also makes it harder for employees to perform their work. While some companies routinely allow employees to work from home, most don’t have the majority doing that. And for some companies, working remotely is rare.
Complicating things, the IT department, chronically understaffed in most companies, will be the group that has to pick up most of the work-at-home load. “IT support is not prepared for remote workers in such a large amount,” said Archana Kesavan, director of product marketing for ThousandEyes, a network intelligence provider that has been helping companies who find themselves unexpectedly having to support remote workers.
Remote employees need a lot more than a laptop
Kesavan said that sending employees home to work involves a lot more than just sending them home with their laptops. They will need secure remote access to the company network, probably though a virtual private network. They will need collaboration tools. The VPN gateway that’s being used must now support vastly larger numbers of employees, which means that the capacity of the gateway must be increased, and your company will need to increase the number of licenses so that the gateway can be used.
Add to this the fact that the IT support require a five times greater workload, Kesavan said, and that will require more monitoring, a means to triage support and reliable means of communications.
Without adequate planning, “it will create chaos,” she said.
Planning for a significant interruption such as being told your employees must work from home needs to start before the remote work requirement appears. The triage of support needs to start well before the impact actually takes place.
“What are the must-haves?” Joe Berger, senior director of the digital workspace at World Wide Technology suggests as the question to get you started. The answers to that question include effective communications, a way to participate in meetings, access to necessary tools and data, and training in how to use it.
IT staff will have to enact all the policies
It will be the task of the IT department in most organizations to work through the steps. The first is to evaluate the existing tools and confirm that they will work in the remote communications environment. Will employees be able to use Zoom or WebEx even if they don’t have a fast internet connection? Will your unified communications software work? How about Salesforce, if you use that?
While the IT staff is confirming whether the tools will work, how about the infrastructure? Some companies issue employees a laptop and a cell phone that should work for working remotely, since one assumes that was confirmed when they were purchased. But other companies let employees provide their own, and those need to be checked for remote work. And some companies simply don’t provide for working remotely, so their employees have nothing, and they need to be brought into the mix somehow.
The licensing issue can be dealt with for companies that want to use Cisco’s WebEx, because Cisco is offering free licenses for companies while COVID-19 is a factor. Others such as Microsoft Teams have a free version that may work for some companies.
But there’s another group of employees who are getting little attention during the work-at-home push. “There’s a whole part of the population who don’t work at a desk all day,” Berger said. “You have to think of them and how to reach the office.”
This is part of your triage process that is frequently overlooked until it’s too late. Even though you may expect your manufacturing, field service or delivery employees to keep on working, they too need communications with the office. How do you do that when the office isn’t there?
Communication is of super importance
Berger suggests a creative look at digital signage for factory workers and ways to either provide company email addresses or to use their personal email for others. Either way, “Make sure those people stay informed,” he said.
While you’re doing all of this, it’s important to remember that your IT department is going to be significantly over-committed. A massive increase in service calls, setting up new levels of support for your communications and collaboration software, and testing and checking of your infrastructure will be far beyond what they deal with on a daily basis. Activities such as negotiating new enterprise licenses may be cone by someone else, but IT will still be involved.
This means that along with everything else you will need to make sure your IT staff gets a lot of motivation, not to mention significant rewards. Why? According to a new study conducted by PagerDuty and Dimensional Research, unexpected heavy workloads and unplanned work will cause as much as a 20 percent attrition rate. And if a fifth of your IT staff quits during all of this, you’re screwed.
But if you plan ahead to deal with remote working requirements and provide incentives for your IT staff, you can survive the chaos.
Wayne Rash, a former editor of eWEEK, is a longtime contributor to our publication and a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing.