After more than six months of dealing with COVID-19 challenges, IT leaders are beginning to understand what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to managing their remote teams.
At this stage, only one thing seems certain: IT operations are never going to return to the way they were pre-pandemic. “I don’t think we will ever go back to the pre-pandemic model,” says Nicola Morini Bianzino, global CTO for professional services firm EY. “This event has validated that a distributed work pattern can drive productive engagement.”
Doug Schmitt, president of Dell Technologies Services, agrees that remote IT is here to stay. “Work is an outcome, not a physical location,” he states. “Enabling a remote workplace program can be a strategic component of a company’s culture and operations.”
Such sentiments are borne out in recent research as well. In its CIO Pandemic Business Impact survey conducted in August, IDG found that 70 percent of IT leaders believe the work-from-home (WFH) shift has created a more positive view of remote work and will likely impact their plans for staffing in the future. Here we take a look at some of the key lessons learned thus far from the pandemic’s WFH push.
Welcome to the new normal
Remote IT work should be viewed as a long-term trend and an integral component within the overall workplace experience, says Sijia Wang, managing partner at technology consulting firm SiFr. “Modern workers want freedom in the work they do,” she notes. “They want to control where they work, when they work and how they work.” As a result, organizations that support and encourage remote IT work will be more likely to attract the best IT talent, Wang predicts.
Most IT organizations are regarded as cost centers. IT staff dispersion promises to alter that concept. “Remote IT provides a great opportunity to hire talented people in less expensive markets and thus reduce payroll costs,” observes Ryan Pugatch, vice president of strategic technology at publisher Hachette Book Group. “I will also argue that enterprises that develop this capability first will have an advantage against their competitors.”
Tools of the trade
Despite some initial skepticism, remote IT collaboration and productivity tools have generally proven their value over the past several months. “Collaboration systems are effective,” states David Linthicum, chief cloud strategy officer for Deloitte Consulting. “I prefer leveraging those [technologies] over constant video calls, where everyone has to pay attention to the meeting and not their work at hand,” he says. “The strategy should be to communicate electronically as much as you can.”
Pugatch observes that it’s important to have a collaboration toolset that integrates directly into workflows. “If you have tools like ServiceNow, Jira, GitHub, Slack/MS Teams and so on, make sure they can talk to each other — it will be a huge benefit to productivity,” he advises.
Collaboration toolsets should be used by all relevant parties, including remote staff and IT leaders. “If managers are actively using the same tools, they should be able to feel how the tools are working,” Pugatch says. He also suggests periodically surveying team members for their views on how well the toolsets are performing, as well as how they can be used more effectively. “Any way that you can develop a quantitative measure of how tools are helping people will greatly help you understand whether you are making good progress,” Pugatch explains.
Fears about maintaining IT team productivity in a work-at-home setting have so far largely failed to materialize. “At EY, we actually have seen an uptick of IT productivity since we had to move the workforce to a work-from-home paradigm,” Bianzino says. He notes that less time spent commuting to and from work, fewer office distractions and an ability to connect with anyone, anywhere are a few of the factors helping keep IT productivity at or above office workplace levels.
Linthicum believes that enterprises and IT mutually benefit when employees are allowed to work at home. “It increases retention and employee satisfaction; it reduces the overhead costs per employee to near zero,” he states. “We don’t see most companies going back to the office for positions that lend themselves to working at home — the advantages are just too compelling.”
One in-office work element that’s virtually impossible to replicate in a remote setting, even with the assistance of the most sophisticated collaboration tools, is the casual social interaction that routinely occurs among team members. Such workers may have a point. It’s now widely understood that occasional workplace idleness can actually accelerate productivity. “With a remote IT team, you lose out on water cooler talk,” Pugatch says. “Lots of problems are solved through informal communication.”
Another challenge IT leaders face is ensuring that remote personnel can acquire new or improved skills in the same way they often did in the office by working closely with the senior colleagues sitting alongside them. Resolving this issue may require offering team members some form of online interactive training.
There’s also a need to help remote staffers feel like they’re a unified team rather than a collection of lone wolves. “Organizations must develop ways to keep employees integrated with the company,” says Greg Bentham, a vice president at technology consulting firm Capgemini. Potential solutions to this problem include email updates, organized social media groups, team meetings hosted in virtual reality environments and, eventually, regular on-site visits.
Nevertheless, Bianzino remains worried about the impact long-term social isolation might have on remote workers, particularly younger staffers. “Based on what we’ve seen so far, productivity is good, and perhaps we should be more worried about overall engagement and cultural impacts,” he notes.
Assuring that remote workers are satisfied with their at-home duties, and effectively balancing both work and personal responsibilities, is shaping up as a major new responsibility for IT leaders. “In many instances, some who work from home can’t turn off work mentally,” Linthicum observes. “This becomes an issue with their personal lives.” He advises offering stressed remote workers fast access to counseling and other support services whenever requested.
Ultimately, for a significant number of people, home can never be transformed into a suitable work environment. “Employees can be distracted by kids interrupting, a spouse who doesn’t respect work hours or other issues,” Linthicum says. “There should be options for those employees to work in offices under safe and legal circumstances, perhaps rental temp-office space close to home.”
Most organizations measure remote IT worker performance with the same metrics they use to evaluate their on-site staff. “The traditional metrics still apply: monitoring your software defect rate, help desk response time, problem time-to-resolution and project timeline hit/miss rate,” Pugatch states. He makes one exception, however. “I think you need to supplement these [tools] with metrics that measure the satisfaction of your business stakeholders.”
Capgemini takes a similar approach to evaluating remote team performance, with several additions. “A few of the metrics that we measure at Capgemini are speed-to-answer, response time and resolution time,” Bentham says. “We also perform random quality audits, conduct customer satisfaction surveys and user experience evaluations to analyze how well our remote IT staff is performing.”
An important step when deploying a remote IT workforce is creating a security policy specifically designed for team members, who frequently come in direct contact with critical enterprise systems and data that remain off-limits to most non-IT employees. Pugatch advises encrypting desktop and mobile systems, deploying endpoint security software, leveraging single sign-on and two-factor authentication (2FA) technologies and having “good device management tools in place to inventory and patch machines.”
Securing a remote IT workforce shouldn’t create a major effort or expense, Bianzino says. “Most large corporations [before COVID-19] were already operating in a geographically distributed environment in terms of their technology workforces, blending, in many cases, internal and external resources,” he observes. “Not much has changed from this point of view.”
Slouching toward automation
Some observers feel that remote IT could serve as a key stepping stone toward the goal of creating an unstaffed, automated IT data center. “A fully automated IT environment is relative, not absolute,” Bentham says. “One thing is for sure: a traditional monitoring center with all the dynamic screens is a thing of the past.”
Infrastructure is becoming invisible, like electricity, Bentham observes. “The priority is to automate as much as possible, thereby allowing IT professionals to use their talents to manage the business of IT versus performing day-to-day operations,” he explains.
Yet some IT leaders remain skeptical that complete IT automation will arrive anytime soon, regardless of staff location. “There are lot of processes that can be automated, but at some point will [still] require a human,” Wang says. “For example, there can be automated monitoring, detection and remediation, but someone has to set those detection rules and remediation policies.”
While many IT leaders view the remote workforce trend as a direct response to the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, the movement actually has its roots in a staffing evolution that’s been under way for several years.
“Companies have been reluctant to promote it, fearing that productivity would go down and employee misconduct up,” Linthicum says. But the opposite has proven true over the past six months. “I don’t see things going back to the way they were before COVID,” he added. “The choice of where you work, where you live and getting out of the car makes this compelling for everyone involved.”