by Byron Connolly, David Binning

Australian CIOs scramble to manage teleworker exodus in face of COVID-19

Mar 23, 2020
IT Leadership

covid 19 coronavirus battling virus with surgical mask by recep bg getty images 1210129671 virus ce
Credit: recep / JONGHO SHIN / Getty Images

If the average day of a 21st century CIO consists of perpetually herding cats, then surely managing the response to COVID-19 must be more akin to herding locusts.

According to Rowan Dollar, CIO at the Department of Human Services in South Australia, organisations have been caught flat-footed. Specifically he points to a worrying lack of VPN tokens and VPN tunnels as thwarting a transition that has now taken on a war-time degree of urgency.

Elsewhere, critical systems are showing the strain, most recently with Monday’s crash of the federal government’s MyGov digital portal supporting social services for millions of Australians. Built essentially by IBM, the site fell over when just under 100,000 people tried to log-in to access a welfare life-line to help people cope with the COVID-19 fallout.

Serious questions will need to be answered.

Meanwhile, Dollar explains the SA Department of Human Services has had an incident management team running for several weeks which is convening every day as the situation unfolds.

The department doesn’t rely on VPNs and last Friday, it went live with Windows Virtual Desktop, a deployment that took just two weeks, Dollar said.

The department’s offices are still open but staff across all areas of the organisation are now able to work from home with access to the platforms that they need.

Therese Chakour-West, head of information technology at power equipment company Stihl Australia, said COVID-19 has meant staff that have been hiding behind their old processes are “coming out of the woodwork” in response, and asking to be connected to collaboration tools such as Cisco Webex and Jabber the company had already been investing in.

Most of its 100 staff are now working from home online.

“All of this is coming to light. I said to our head of HR, ‘my job is done, thanks to covid-19, my job is now officially done,” Chakour-West proclaimed.

The IT team have been running simulations to stress-test the corporate network and applications and “so far so good” she confirmed. “Our WAN connectivity, our internet which we upgraded last year – it’s almost like we are doing everything without knowing that we were prepared for this day.

“There are a few niggly things like resetting passwords and we are still trying to get customer service [staff] working from home because technically, they should be able to. We are working with them, troubleshooting.”

Stihl has also created a covid-19 shared community site with updates and task lists for staff.

“I really do think that if it wasn’t for our technology today, we would not be able to continue running our business. Technology is enabling us to continue to operate,” Chakour-West said.

Point of no return

On a macro level, this period will be looked back on as arguably the most important event in the history of the IT&T industry, as hundreds of millions of workers across the world prepare for an indefinite life of teleworking, challenging organisations to completely rethink their tech strategies and relationship with their staff.

“We’re going to see radical changes emerge to the relationship between digital workers and the organisation,” Gartner VP and distinguished analyst, Whit Andrews told CIO Australia.

The front-line battle at the moment is within service and help desk departments now being forced to support an unimaginable flood of telework requests, the majority of which will involve integrating and managing hardware as well as software not bought or controlled by the organisation.

Andrews cites recent Gartner findings that of the total minutes spent by workers on computers, half are spent on desktops, with the remainder spread between laptops, tablets and phones.

“The massive challenge here is making it possible for people to work without company supplied and managed hardware where software can be controlled and updated and secured.”

“What we’re running into is an unprecedented load on service desks and worker competency because you’re working on a machine that doesn’t smell like you: It doesn’t smell like the company either.”

Compounding the problem is the fact the service desk isn’t allowed to be in the same office with itself as everyone quickly normalises the new culture of isolation.

“They’re facing massive disruption: we’re telling organisations to keep their most important apps under an umbrella that they can manage as remotely as possible,” Andrews said.

Technologies like the cloud and mobile communications have come ahead in leaps and bounds, but the speed and scale at which organisations are having to enable remote working in response to COVID-19 means many organisations will face “tremendous costs” in globalising their technology, he added.

And once the dust has settled, three, six months or more from now, we will all be in a completely different world where the telework Jeanie is well and truly out of the bottle with the entire IT&T industry forced to obey it.

“This will be a massive change in how people work forever,” Andrews predicts. “You’re not going to be able to get some people back in the office.”