Coronavirus is exploding the remote workforce - here's how IT should prepare

Profile picture for user kmarko By Kurt Marko March 11, 2020
Coronavirus is encouraging remote working and that has implications for the work of the IT team.

(NHS )

The tech world first became acutely aware of Coronavirus when the gigantic MWC mobile conference in Barcelona was canceled after several of its major telecom exhibitors pulled out.

Over the past two weeks, as virtually every significant tech conference for the next two months has been either canceled, postponed or transformed into an online event, the epidemic's full implications have become apparent to everyone in the tech universe.

Events aren't the only thing being disrupted as a recent survey by Blind, an anonymous social network for verified professionals, found that more than three-quarters of respondents have some level of fear about going to work.

The disruptive effects of coronavirus seriously hit home to more and more enterprise workforces over the past week as tens of thousands of employees, including the entire Silicon Valley staffs of Facebook, Google, Apple and others have been told to stay home and work remotely as employers strive to limit the viruses spread.

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 Indeed, the same Blind survey found that ate Seattle-based firms, including Amazon, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Expedia, the percentage of those already working from home averages greater than 80%. The move is a prudent and reasonable precaution as the virus continues to afflict thousands of people outside of Asia, however, the reactionary way that the edicts have been made left no time for planning. Unfortunately, in the coming days and weeks, as the number of remote workers in organizations explodes, many will find themselves unprepared to handle the IT problems that will inevitably crop up.

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Remote work: From the exception to the norm

For some of us, the convergence of home and office happened years ago and we've learned the requisite technology tricks and cultural mores to make the transition and be mostly self-sustaining. We understand that when sharing a space with others that aren't working, you need some private workspaces and rules about acceptable interruptions. Likewise, we've installed the necessary broadband capacity, office equipment, conferencing technology and furniture to be productive and comfortable. Unfortunately, the necessarily rushed Coronavirus remote-work policies many organizations have made many of our colleagues will have a telecommuting baptism by fire.

Similarly, IT organizations that have designed and staffed for a small number of steady remote workers, with the bulk of telecommuters doing so primarily as a day-extending convenience, will suddenly be faced with hundreds or thousands of remote users accessing infrastructure built for a fraction of the load. As Gregg Siegfried, Gartner Research Director for Cloud and IT Operations put it to me in email and phone conversations:

Although the technology to support large scale remote work is nothing new, companies without a material remote workforce are unlikely to have invested in the infrastructure to the extent they can easily absorb a massive increase in the remote workforce.

Infrastructure stress fractures

As Siegfried implies, much of the technology enabling remote work has been around for decades, although evolutionary improvements have made it significantly more usable. Unfortunately for today's emergency work from home (WFH) policies, the underlying hardware, software and support infrastructure are only designed to accommodate a small subset of the employee population. Furthermore, expanding capacity for many remote work components can't be done without significant planning, procurement or hiring cycles and testing (or training, in the case of new employees). Organizations that expect to initiate broad WFH policies should focus on the following areas:

  • VPN Capacity: The foundation of WFH is the ability for employees to connect to resources like applications, file shares, email systems or databases on private networks via a VPN. For the majority of organizations that haven't migrated their infrastructure entirely to public clouds like AWS, this requires network throughput, VPN hardware capacity and adequate user licenses for VPN software. Consequently, systems designed for say, 10-20 percent of the employee population can be overloaded when the number of remote workers skyrockets. Furthermore, as Siegfried notes, VPN hardware isn't the sort of thing you can readily pick up at Best Buy or NewEgg instead, it requires a procurement and installation process that could take weeks. A significant mitigating factor is the vastly increased enterprise use of SaaS products to deliver core enterprise services like Office suites (Office 365, GSuite), CRM (Salesforce), HR (Workday) and collaboration (Microsoft Teams, Slack) since employees can access these without establishing private VPN session.
  • VoIP capacity and remote number extension: Organizations operating call centers rely on a VoIP system to handle voice calls. While many of these products can support remote agents over a VPN, it creates another capacity problem when the numbers increase. Similarly, office workers need a way of receiving calls to their work phone number on a remote device, whether that's a personal or company-owned cell phone or a PC or mobile VoIP client. The setup process for such call forwarding, along with the likely capacity expansion that's required, must be a part of a WFH policy. As Siegfried notes:

Call centers often have a 'remote agent' component, but this may be configured for overflow rather than core.  Having the majority of call center staff working remotely is going to challenge management practices, escalations, call routing & transfer.  If the infrastructure has been provisioned under the assumption that 90% of traffic is handled by agents and circuits that are physically on site, and 10-20% remote/VoIP, reversing that is likely to result in call quality problems, increased wait time, increased hold time and a resulting decline in customer satisfaction.

  • VDI infrastructure or services: Siegfried points out that "many organizations use traditional, 'thick client' enterprise applications that were never designed to operate with anything slower than 100Mbps LAN between clients and servers." These weren't designed to operate over high-latency remote connections and "may simply be unusable remotely," he adds. The only remote option for legacy applications is some form of VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure), whether a full remote desktop or app streaming software. Unfortunately, if these are delivered from internal, privately-operated servers, they are subject to the same bandwidth and compute resource capacity limitations as the VPN itself. Here too, SaaS is a savior since organizations that have adopted a service like AWS Workspaces, dinCloud or VMware Horizon Cloud can easily add capacity without provisioning any hardware or bandwidth.
  • Remote security and client support staff: It might be hard for tech-savvy road warriors and IT pros to comprehend, but for most employees, being plunged into a full-time WFH environment will be both personally disruptive and technically challenging. Not only are they likely to encounter network problems sharing bandwidth with family members streaming video and playing online games, but security issues getting a malware-infested personal PC past an enterprise NAC (network access control) system. However, In the age of Netflix and YouTube, most employees should have adequate broadband capacity to work remotely. Indeed, the FCC reported that in December 2018, the median download speed measured across 14 ISPs was 72 Mbps. Thus, most employees will have 100 Mbps circuits by now, meaning that network issues are likely related to resource contention or security problems, not capacity.

IT support staff can expect a flood of calls from frustrated colleagues unfamiliar with the nuances of remote connectivity, support problems that will be difficult to remotely diagnose since they involve third-party networks and hardware. Siegfried notes that even more experienced WFH employees might run into problems adapting to an isolated environment that primarily relies on online collaboration and communication tools. He adds that:

Even knowledge workers used to an office environment may not be as facile with collaboration tools like Slack or Teams, as the bulk of their interaction in the office is person to person or group-based.  Although the first few weeks may be rocky, this is not a group that would have difficulty learning.

My take (aka some recommendations)

Creating policies in reaction to a crisis is never optimal and the current situation requires that IT staff and employees have the patience to muddle through WFH problems in the short-term. Simultaneously, IT organizations must rush the delivery of new services, capacity expansions and support processes that address critical problems. A partial to-do list includes:

  • Thorough testing of remote network infrastructure — links, VPN gateways, other security appliances — to identify performance bottlenecks and potential failure points. Monitoring remote network infrastructure is particularly challenging because traffic traverses multiple ISPs in sometimes unpredictable ways. ThousandEyes makes a particularly useful tool that can measure end-to-end network and application performance (indeed, I've written about its cloud network performance measurements several times) and the company is currently offering 90-day free trials to help organizations dealing with WFH networking problems.
  • DIvert as many support personnel as possible to a dedicated WFH team to handle calls and create documentation. Use call notes from the first couple of weeks to prioritize new support documents like how-tos, FAQs and DIY troubleshooting guides. Another excellent idea from Siegfried is to have regular video conference office hours or AMAs to allow home workers to interact directly with support experts and see step-by-step demonstrations.
  • Medium-term; shift commodified services like email, collaboration systems, VDI and file sharing that are provided internally and where IT adds no value (and indeed, often provides inferior products) to SaaS.

No one likes a baptism by fire, but organizations that successfully mitigate short-term WFH challenges will create the foundation for a more productive workforce that can handle future disruptions to their physical workplace.