To stem the spread of the coronavirus, many companies in the New York area this week have begun allowing employees to work from home; a few have even insisted on it. If your company hasn’t yet made this move, know that it probably will happen, likely sooner rather than later. For IT professionals, this means a very large and sudden spike in the number of remote workers and telecommuters they’ll need to manage.
While most companies these days support a certain number of telecommuters, moving all workloads to that model, even temporarily, can be challenging. Below are seven steps IT pros can follow to help make this transition easier and keep their infrastructure running reliably despite a shift in user location.
Take Another Look at Your Telecommuting Policy
Your existing policy was probably written with the idea that telecommuting is a special consideration offered to certain employees. It probably required telecommuters to sign additional usage agreements for company infrastructure and service access, especially as it related to family members. Now, however, telecommuting will likely be mandatory for many employees and the IT department when it comes to support. Look over your telecommuting and security policies and decide how this will affect expectations and requirements.
company assets from casual use by employee family members should probably
remain a requirement, for example. But how will this surge in telecommuters
affect not only IT’s expected support response time, but the help desk
and trouble reporting process in its entirety? If employees will be required to
take more corporate devices home – and therefore more potentially valuable
corporate data – how will the new situation affect their responsibilities when
it comes to device and data security?
This isn’t going to be a one-hour IT-only meeting either. To make this new policy work quickly, you’ll need to meet with key front-line managers, senior management, and your legal department to walk through the current policy and work out exactly what should be in the updated version, including what criteria need to be in place before you can return to work as usual. Yes, this sounds tedious and time consuming, but if the telecommuting surge lasts for a long time or, worse, something unexpected happens while it’s in force, having current and recently reviewed policies in place can save you immense headaches in the future.
Look at Cloud Services and Immovable On-Premises Workloads
Many small to midsized businesses (SMBs) still haven’t moved even the bulk of their software portfolios to a cloud service model. Legacy apps, entrenched workflows, the need to maximize investments in per-seat licenses, even established security requirements – there’s a long list of reasons why companies might still be using on-site servers and infrastructure to provide software tools to their employees. Unfortunately, if you’re in that boat, many of those scenarios won’t work if all or most employees aren’t in a central location anymore. That’s where taking another look at cloud services will help.
Consider the Software as a Service (SaaS) Model
moving to apps served up in a software as a service (SaaS) model, you’re
effectively making server management, uptime requirements, bandwidth worries,
and even a chunk of your security requirements someone else’s headache, and
that someone is in a much better position to fulfill those needs in a
distributed setting. Start with standard workflows as these will have the
largest selection of potential service suppliers; by that I mean things like Dropbox
Business for file sharing or Microsoft
Office 365 Business Premium for basic productivity and email
hosting, and similar, more self-contained tasks. There’s a long list of SaaS companies that can not only provide service for your users, but do so flexibly (meaning
you can get off the service again when you need to) and with tools to migrate
your users over quickly and cleanly.
Examine Complex and Customized Workflows
look at more complex and customized workflows, like a customer relationship
management (CRM) system or your small
business accounting system. For tools like Salesforce
or Intuit QuickBooks,
you’ll likely have customized these apps for your business, so moving to a new
platform isn’t a lightweight problem. Make sure to document these workloads and
the steps you’ll need to take to move them in case you’re asked by senior
management. If your instincts tell you a longer telecommuting crisis might lead
to senior management looking to migrate an on-premises workload to a cloud
service, start thinking about that selection process now. That means planning
potential vendor selection and a data cleaning and migration process as well as
user management and authentication.
If you’re stuck with an app that needs to remain served up from on-premises servers, you’ll need to go over your remote access and remote management configuration. Can your current remote access solution handle the sudden uptick in users? If not, what equipment and bandwidth upgrades will be required? You’ll need to order those upgrades immediately, and likely opt for outside, expert help to get them configured, tested, secured, and running properly in the smallest possible timeframe.
Remote Management Tools
Also take a close look at your remote management tools. IT will be working from home, too, so you’ll need to make sure that any on-site infrastructure you just can’t move to the cloud can be managed as much as possible from off-site. Most of this will be software, but many heavy-iron devices, especially servers, have hardware add-ons that enable richer remote management capabilities. This is another set of devices you should look to purchase quickly and with expert installation help. Look at maintenance logs for these devices over the last year and determine what your most common management tasks will be and make sure you can do those from anywhere – command line reconfiguration, remote reboots, security-related tasks like password resets, and especially data backups. Make sure this is all doable from wherever your IT team may be.
Meet with Department Heads and Managers
Nobody wants to add more meetings to their schedule, but you’ll be thankful you had them. Use these sessions to make sure managers are fully conversant with how IT will be running current workloads, how employees should contact them, and what any new procedures might be. But also turn it around and ask managers what they’ll need to function in a mostly distributed environment.
How does the day-to-day job of managing employees change when there’s no central office? What do these managers need to not only get their employees through required workflows, but also manage them effectively when it comes to time tracking or shift scheduling, individual performance tracking, or group collaboration? Get a sense for what these managers will need to effectively manage a suddenly virtual team and then look for technology solutions to help.
Meetings with senior management should focus on the effects and requirements of new, long-term IT policies and what to do about workloads that are important to the business, but difficult or even impossible to achieve remotely. As an IT professional, you can’t make those decisions, but you should be ready to answer questions and offer potential solutions.
These will be too individual to a particular business to offer much guidance here other than to say, worry about having a solution plan first, then worry about what it costs. Don’t disregard or ignore potential solutions just because they’re expensive. What’s coming will be dire for a time, so budget considerations will change and senior management will handle it. IT pros should focus on making business happen.
Meet With HR About Employee Requirements
You’ll meet with HR as part of step three, but these meetings will have an additional component – how will your business function in a virtual environment? Until now, telecommuting has been voluntary or even a reward of sorts. Now it’s mandatory and HR will be rightly concerned because not all employees will be happy or working at their most efficient levels as telecommuters. How does HR plan to handle that?
If you foresee a virtual environment existing for a longer period (and that’s looking likely), then you’ll need to have IT solutions in place for ongoing performance management, workload monitoring and reporting tools for managers, new employee onboarding, as well as tools to manage troubled employees and even an employee termination process. Walk through each of these issues step by step and document how they should each be handled.
And if you haven’t suggested it already, HR probably will, and that’s some kind of virtual office presence. This could be anything from a central employee portal to a company-wide chat or video channel (see more on that below). Your company will need this because employees have more going on at work than simply the job. They have social connections and activities that’ll suddenly disappear when everyone starts working remotely. Some employees will be good with that, others will have trouble. HR will be keenly aware of this, so you should work with them to build temporary solutions.
prepared by researching tools adapted to such a model, which could include a
new cloud collaboration app, like Slack; or a virtual
team-oriented cloud project
management and task tracking app, like Asana. Perhaps an
internal Facebook-style social channel to keep employees engaged with one
another instead of just their work; that could include services like Workplace
from Facebook or Microsoft’s
Secure Those Devices
the broad workload planning is done you’ll be able to focus on core IT tasks;
though this will likely start with more planning, unfortunately. The first step is
going through your overall security policies and plans with a fine eye for what
it’ll take to stay in compliance. How will you accomplish your regular network
and system security scans when everyone’s distributed? You’ll also need to make
sure there’s standardized security software on all employee devices, which
means creating a plan before everyone scoots out of the building for home.
That includes not just endpoint
protection, but also the VPN service
or client your employees use and an identity
management solution that’s been tested in this style of deployment.
Make sure every device is capable of smooth backup operations from anywhere. A cloud-based
backup service will certainly help achieve that goal, but you’ll
need to make sure all company devices have that service’s agents deployed, or,
if not, at least a tested description of how to get the agent deployed for
You’ll have bumped into this as part of step 2, but this is
where you firm up how users will interact with IT going forward. That means a
clearly written trouble reporting and resolution process that includes details
like a dedicated phone support line and a shift schedule for IT to man it.
You’ll also likely need a ship-to address for faulty devices, a shipping
account employees must use to get devices there, as well as a store of
replacement units away from the office and procedures for how those devices
will get to users that need them. A good guideline here is to go through your
last few months of user support logs and make sure you have processes in place
to cover your most common support requests.
Dig Into Your VoIP System
vast majority of SMBs these days are using a cloud-served
voice over IP (VoIP) system to handle voice communications, which is
a good thing, especially in this scenario. You need to become more familiar
with the capabilities of your VoIP provider for distributed users and then
match those capabilities to your company’s workloads. Are you better served
simply forwarding calls to employees’ home phones or should you be handing out
pre-configured VoIP handsets?
Given the speed at which this migration is likely to happen, ordering, configuring, testing, and shipping out several hundred new VoIP phones probably isn’t feasible for most companies. So will you be reconfiguring the desk handsets they’re currently using at the office and shipping those out, or is a softphone more appropriate? For most SMBs looking to react nimbly to this new situation, the softphone will likely be the best option.
But that means knowing your provider’s softphone capabilities. What are its features and what are the differences between the typical basic, premium, and enterprise tiers? How do those relate to your workflow needs? That needs to be mapped out so you can make a quick and educated recommendation to management. Once that’s accepted, you’ll need to make sure those softphone clients are installed and tested on user devices. This may entail writing down instructions for users to install those clients themselves if they’ve already started telecommuting; which means you’ll need to support that operation remotely. Your VoIP provider can help with that, but you’ll need to set that up with your account rep beforehand.
Remember these are complex clients often with advanced features like call reporting, internal and external contact lists, custom hooks to sales and marketing apps, and potentially a whole lot more. You may need to pre-configure them for most effective use, which is best done while employees are still working on-site. The easiest option may be to include them as part of a new, telecommuting-oriented device image and simply installing that image on every device prior to its user moving to a telecommuting situation. While that’s an effective option it’s not a lightweight one, as it means not only building the image, but understanding what needs to be included and how all of it needs to be configured; then configuring and testing it prior to deployment. If your employees are still working on-site it makes long-term sense to attempt that process. If they’ve already begun telecommuting, you’ll need to work up a remote way of distributing those images.
Test Your Video Conferencing System
SMBs have some video
conferencing capability these days; but in your current situation
it’s likely a nice-to-have with voice connectivity being the real requirement.
That generally means users need to be able to dial into a meeting but having a
camera running isn’t actually necessary. IT will need to wrap its collective
head around the fact that in a mostly distributed user environment, video
conferencing will likely become a must-have. Salespeople will want face-to-face
communication capabilities with clients and your HR department will likely be
vocal about making sure managers and employees can see and interact with one
another visually in order to keep everyone as happy and productive as possible.
For IT, this means making sure that the devices users are taking home not only have a camera installed (fortunately most will) but also that the camera has been fully tested with your video conferencing provider in a from-home setting. If the steps to get a camera are more than simply hitting a “start camera” button, you’ll need to document those steps and make sure users have them. If on-device cameras aren’t enough for certain workloads, like sales meetings or webinars, for example, you’ll need to determine what cameras those workloads need, get a store of those cameras ready, and make sure there’s a process in place for getting them to the appropriate user, getting them back (if necessary), and supporting them should anything go wrong.
And if you didn’t bump into it during your VoIP step, you’ll bump into it here: home bandwidth. You need to call your VoIP/video conferencing provider and find out the recommended bandwidth requirements for home users. This needs to be part of your new telecommuting policy. Your systems, especially VoIP and video conferencing, will not only be critical, they’ll need a certain size of pipe. What that size is needs to be documented and communicated to users.
After that, you’ll need to figure out what to do about users who don’t have the necessary bandwidth. With today’s broadband, there will almost certainly be some users with this problem, but they’ll be few enough that you can meet with them individually and work out a solution. You might consider purchasing a company-controlled internet router for them so you can control quality of service (QoS) or other bandwidth protection measures and thereby slice up the user’s home bandwidth for them so everything works. Or you might work with senior management to upgrade the user’s home internet for the duration of this crisis.
the latter option becomes a reality, start looking now for providers offering
deals. This is a good strategy to use across any service you think you’ll need
more of during this telecommuting wave. Many vendors are looking to turn
COVID-19 into something positive by collecting more users during the crisis,
and they’re doing that with attractive deals. Cisco Webex,
for example, already has a free plan available, while Google Hangouts
is reportedly now offering free access to Hangouts video conferencing customers
as long as they’re also G