For many who aren’t used to working at home, the past few weeks have been a crash course in acquiring two very different skill sets: Learning how to work in an unfamiliar environment, and learning how to identify and get support for the technology tools that will help them do their jobs. For IT pros who are now grappling with the task of provisioning and supporting a workforce that hasn’t had to test their remote working ability, the primary challenge is how to help the workforce get back to working.
Technology journalist Glenn Fleishman has just released Take Control of Working from Home Temporarily (currently free here), a how-to guide that covers the technology tools and habits remote workers will need to pick up in a hurry. In an interview with ITPro Today, Fleishman also talked about the quick wins IT support can rack up with their organization, and how an enterprise can quickly make the cultural shift to remote working.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: There's a vast difference between an organization that has the infrastructure for remote work versus an organization that's able to adapt its culture to remote working – and whether that organization adapts an externally imposed way (like now) or an embraced way. What does a culture that optimizes remote working look like?
A: A culture set up for remote working has a pretty long list to get set up, but then keeping it going requires relatively little effort.
Organizationally, remote workers and their work groups and bosses need to establish what is expected of someone not in the office:
- Do working hours change or remain identical?
- Does work want to claw back some commuting time regained?
- Does someone need to be effectively on call, on the clock and have Slack, email, Teams or a videoconferencing room open and available all the time?
- Or do they check in for meetings and work on a project basis for most of their hours?
- What deliverables and other metrics let both the worker and their management know that it’s working. And if it’s not, what measures are in place to help with that before the plug is pulled in normal times?
That should all be thought through.
In the best of times, all the software and network components would be set up so that someone starts with a toolkit on a company or personal computer, can get the VPN up and running, and has access to servers and other enterprise documents and systems. There would even be dedicated IT people (or the right one person to call) who knows remote work issues versus internal company IT issues.
[But] with what’s going on now, flexibility is the watchword. Nobody had time to prepare. Every worker, every boss, every company should cut everyone a lot of slack as they shake out getting back into some kind of normal workflow. Some people will take right to it; some may need honestly weeks to resume something close to their office-level productivity.
Q: It seems like what you're saying in the above answer is that it's on management to set the cultural expectations and model them. How can management also reach out to IT departments and advocate for their teams right now?
A: IT departments are going to be overwhelmed at any company that isn’t almost entirely virtual or largely remote already. And every IT employee and manager will have their own challenges with home life, health and emotional wellbeing. The best strategy is to figure that every day and every week may have emerging situations.
A triage – not the best word now, but the right one – of IT needs should be set so that key employees who are keeping the business running can get what they need.
Every business will be worried about revenue, and it should be a lower priority to, say, empty the customer-service email queue because half the CS people can’t get a VPN connection than making sure the sales and large-organization product support engineers are fully supported.
That may feel like there are multiple classes in some businesses, but the counterpart to that is that no worker should be blamed that they aren’t doing their job when they need IT resources that aren’t available due to prioritization.
Because we are lucky to live in an age of virtualization and logical provisioning, a lot of fresh resources can be spun up with a few clicks — no hardware installs required, if one is lucky, from increasing VPN capacity to cloud-based storage and computing to boosting Internet connection speeds. Anything that requires more physical interaction could be highly delayed, although ordering products and shipping so far doesn’t seem very affected.
Management can advocate to IT best by stacking their needs in priority, and IT can best serve everyone by developing that triage approach and punching off items on the list. There’s also the Getting Things Done notion that with a big-enough staff, some IT folks could potentially work on solutions that aid 100s to 10,000s of employees even if it’s lower priority for each of those people.
Q: What would it look like for IT folks to potentially work on solutions that aid 100s to 10,000s of employees even if it’s lower priority for each of those people?
A: There may be low-hanging fruit that not everybody realizes would be as easy to get set up.
A lot of remote workers have never used the videoconference tool or used it with lots of people. Maybe one IT person records a very rough 15-minute how-to voice-over screen share of basic features and pushes that out to 5,000 people. That might eliminate hundreds of hours of IT calls and lots of helpdesk tickets.
Upgrading Microsoft subscriptions, Slack tier, etc., can cost some money, and a CIO has to be involved, but perhaps pushing everyone in a company or a Slack workgroup up one tier would dramatically improve their ability to communicate and exchange files without having to set up other resources.
Q: One last question – some remote workers may be on their own in finding the tools they need to do their jobs right now. Where should they start?
A: This is the time for “ask forgiveness later” and “BYOwhatever.” A lot of companies, even small ones, want an IT policy set from the top down for security, support, cost and regulatory reasons. Right now, until things settle down for newly minted telecommuters, it might be weeks — and does anyone want to give up weeks of productivity?
Going with big names is easy. Slack and Zoom have generous free tiers, no commitments, and are easy to set up, and support all major platforms for group text chat (Slack) and group videoconferencing (Zoom). Zoom’s $20/month level lets one person host up to 100 people for meetings up to 24 hours! It’s a great deal. Microsoft Teams is usually a corporate purchase, as is Office 365, but there are small-business tiers and free tiers that might make sense on an ad hoc basis and transition to a company solution later.
Many productivity editorial sites have reviews and deep dives into products like Asana, Monday.com, Trello and a million others. Many have 30-day free trials or free tiers, and most have privacy and security policies designed to let them work in most industries, including legal, financial and medical. On those last three, I’d be looking for permission rather than forgiveness, but as long as you’re using one of a few dozen services with a track record you can find online or get a recommendation about, you should be praised for initiative and productivity.
Q: Anything else you want to add?
A: Any company able to give home workers a $25 to $250 “emergency remote work” budget will find its place among the business angels in corporate heaven. A cheap but good headset/mic combo can be under $30. A very nice office chair (delivered) can run $70 to $150. Companies may not be able to budget for that right now, but I think it would be a lovely gesture if affordable.