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Adapting to the IT Challenges of Remote Work

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Coronavirus (COVID-19) is having significant social, financial, and personal impacts, not the least of which is the initiation of mass work-from-home programs for eligible employees. But issuing an edict and getting quality results are two different things.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve seen hundreds of articles giving employees guidance on how to adapt to working from home, and every company with a cloud solution is touting how its tools are the proper enablers. For the prototypical knowledge worker, this is fine.
However, these wonderful work-from-home tools will do nothing for the myriad of jobs that are linked to on-site support and require office buildings to be busy. It’s nice to hear that some large tech companies are committed to paying normal hourly wages to bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other non-employees who provide services to workers, and otherwise trying to ease the financial impact. In Seattle, for example, Amazon set aside $5 million to help small businesses located near its headquarters.
Similarly, some workers are difficult to send home because of the systems they’re using. People whose occupations are highly regulated or require tight security can’t always work remotely. Some government, healthcare, insurance, and educational organizations, for example, use proprietary legacy software systems. The software is rarely optimized for remote workers, and often, it isn’t properly patched. Not only does this create a security concern, but it can also make working remotely unproductive and a negative experience for the employee.
Even when workers can be productive remotely, they may have requirements that don’t align with working from home. That can include using special tools such as plotters or high-volume copier/scanners, having access to paper files or records, processing checks and invoices (not everyone has switched to fully electronic), and conducting on-site inspections. In many situations, a face-to-face meeting with a team just can’t be duplicated by using video cameras.
Speaking of which, will all this remote work lead to a drop in sales of black tape many workers use to cover up embedded cameras on their laptops? It seems the camera-shy will remain so, but perhaps a few will explore video to enhance the connections lost by staying away from the office.
Overlooked Foils
What works well for a once-a-week remote worker or the occasional snow day can break down when remote work is continuous and pervasive. Individual workers still must address typical work-from-home challenges like finding an appropriate space and being able to focus. But if more than one adult is telecommuting at the same time, is there adequate space and tools? Productivity might also be affected if a teleworker must devote some time during the workday to children who are out of school during this period, too. Maybe they’ll have to help with homework or alleviate boredom or they may be affected just by the presence of a full household.
The typical home networking infrastructure isn’t designed for everyone to be at home at the same time. Even if each adult has a space to work that is designed for full day usage, the bandwidth of the internal home network may be overloaded when the kids are streaming videos, playing online games, etc. With this situation duplicated from one home to the next throughout a neighborhood, providers might see strain on their Internet backbones. Situations like these can easily affect real-time services such as VoIP, which will operate acceptably well in normal times and fail miserably during these unusual ones.
IT Security Nightmare
One of the more significant IT challenges with a mass work-at-home environment is security- related, with the network perimeter now encompassing all employee home networks. Considerations include:
  • Are home Wi-Fi setups adequate?
  • If the teleworkers are using company-provided devices, do those devices contain valuable company data? Are physical access risks mitigated?
  • If personal computers or other devices are in use, can IT be certain the core network won’t be subject to computer virus and malware coming through unvetted machines?
  • Are employees adequately trained about email use? Given the surge in emails that offer COVID-19 information, hackers are using similar messages to fool people into clicking on links containing malicious code.
  • Are telecommuting policies up to date, especially as they relate to access via other family members and non-mobile personal device access?
Managing this new device sprawl includes securing and patching remote endpoints, some that may not be corporate-owned.
IT Support Headaches
IT is facing new challenges in other ways. The IT service desk function is already feeling the stressful impacts of more calls and the inability to "drop in" to fix puzzling user problems. Wait times and time-to-repair are growing, and in some cases, remote support tools need to be added or activated, further slowing responses down.
Not all companies are set up for massive remote access, especially if a VPN is employed to access corporate services available to on-network/premises-connected users. Some on-premises/fat-client software may require special configurations to be remotely accessible. In addition to equipping more machines and users with the right tools (configuration tasks), the VPN core will be flooded with traffic that may exceed its design – both in sessions supported and bandwidth available. Furthermore, any performance problems or service interruptions will have a much larger impact than ever before.
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology such as Citrix and Amazon WorkSpaces can enable remote work, but not without its own potential pain points for both users and the IT support team. IT can’t roll out VDI without careful planning and training. Although VDI and its zero-trust design can help with security concerns, the remote desktop doesn’t always work as well as advertised. Examples of problems include:
  • Systems with unique graphics such as AutoCAD don’t work well over VDI
  • Some devices don’t work (our version of Amazon Web Services doesn’t support video cameras)
  • Many headsets take constant configuration management if switching between using the computer in local mode versus the VDI instance
  • Often the application software loaded on the VDI instance is different than the version users have been running on local machines, and some apps may not be available

In summary, while we have far better tools for remote work than we’ve ever had before, remote work isn’t a panacea for everyone or every situation. Although it’s an added burden to the IT team today, working through this process will better prepare both organizations and employees for productive remote work.

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"SCTC Perspective" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.