Moving a Workforce Out Of Office
Raise your hand if the current pandemic climate has accelerated a change or outright shift in the way you do business. Keep your hand raised if you weren’t 100% prepared for this shift. For those that can’t see, my hand is firmly in the air as I expect many of yours are as well. Fortunately, our group was more in the “accelerated a change” group than the alternative. That change consisted of exiting the physical office, because quarantining didn’t give us much choice, and embracing the remote work model and everything that comes with it.
I run our Business & Tech Services group, which is basically a glorified title for embedded IT services that we provide to multiple departments within Purdue. In a matter of days, we had to transition our support from a controlled environment with an established, robust and secure network infrastructure, to many independent environments of unknown capabilities and risk factors. The idea that non-IT employee will become their own onsite technical support staff initially resulted in a lot of foreboding and a bit of heartburn.
So many questions ran through my head. Can everyone do their job outside the office? How will everyone communicate and collaborate without being in the same room? Did I remember to thaw some frozen beef to make spaghetti tonight? How can we possibly support so many home offices? How can we get our hands-on equipment to troubleshoot and fix problems? If I’m working from home, do my pets become my new co-workers? When one of my new co-workers starts licking something inappropriate right out in the open, do I have to report that to HR? Who lives in the boonies without good internet service? Turns out it’s our director, but he already planned for this with his mobile data plan and I also hear he has successfully petitioning Elon Musk for early access to the Starlink satellite internet access and a flamethrower.
I’ll give you a quick insight into the inner thoughts of IT support, printers are the bane of our existence. They have a lot of moving parts, put together with the cheapest materials, provide unhelpful diagnostic messages, and break for no reason what-so-ever (ok, I’m admittedly a little jaded and they may not be quite this bad). Factoring those reasons in, we justified paying for a third-party to service our large professional use multi-function machines. 3-4 printers per department turned into 40–50 printers with no third-party to pass off to when they start to misbehave. Due to the impossibility of administering or providing maintenance on the user’s personal equipment, home printers were concluded to not fall under the purview of IT support.
And there was much rejoicing (yaaaaaaaay)!
I know I have made this sound pretty bleak, but truthfully, we were not starting at a baseline of zero. Our entire workforce was already issued laptops. We had access to centralized services provided through Purdue such as VPN (essential for accessing secure shared folders and servers), Microsoft Teams (instant message and video chat), Office 365 (email, spreadsheet, document), Brightspace Learning Management System, and Cisco Jabber softphone software, all protected through the same two-factor authentication process. All the departments we support had implemented SaaS solutions that host their primary data entry, storage, and reporting functions. All of these platforms and tools had already been vetted, approved, actively used, and made accessible from a non-office environment allowing for a low-effort transition to remote use. Even after the move to remote, central services have continually added tools to support ever-changing needs pertaining to tracking health and well-being, virtual engagements, and other functions.
Transitioning the delivery of our services from a remote position was a mixed bag. On one hand, our corporate education and training services were adapted quite seamlessly to online delivery both self-paced and instructor-led through the use of the central learning management system (LMS) and our department installed cyber range scenario and simulation software. On the other hand, our onsite security risk assessments were put on pause since our customers, understandably, didn’t want to introduce additional persons into their work locations until health concerns have been alleviated.
We allowed our staff to take home monitors, docks, peripherals, and office chairs to help make their home space a better fit for their daily work needs. As closely as we were able to replicate the office accouterments, there was one thing, besides the pesky printers, that we could not replicate, the network. We went from 2 internet service providers to at least 5 different service providers on 50 home networks. Again, the personal equipment, modems, and routers fell out of the official purview of IT support, but we still made good faith efforts to assist our users with troubleshooting and setup assistance.
With discussions and preparations completed, the first week arrived where we had to lock the office doors and I felt like Samuel Jackson in Jurassic Park who, as he prepares to send some scientists and children on a dinosaur death tour, says “Hold on to your butts” and then I turn the key.
As time away from the office went on, it turns out our staff was able to acclimate very well to remote work. In-person conversations made way for virtual video and messaging chats in Teams. My new message notification dings so much through all hours of the day and night, that I’m not sure people are talking to their own family members. Animated gif usage is at an all-time high. We even created a Teams Poll on the proper pronunciation of gif (hard or soft “g”). Hard “g” won. Group morale and culture have stayed strong and productivity has not dropped.
As state and company guidelines have allowed, we have opened the office back up to limited numbers in order to complete tasks better suited for proper social distanced in-person interactions. This was much appreciated by my staff member that provides desktop support as coordinating the arrival and departure of laptops through postal services, front doorstep drop off, and third-party team members had become a nightmare. Now we can schedule a two to four hour window at the office where the exchange can be arranged between the two parties, safely and efficiently.
All-in-all, I consider the transition of our workforce to a remote lifestyle a success. During the quarantine, we did have one of our departments downsize their physical office footprint to a significantly smaller space 30 minutes away, but I’m not going to get into that one right now.
I hope you all have similar success stories in your remote work transition efforts, it can be a daunting task, but sometimes you just have to say “hold on to your butts” and jump in.
Oh, by the way, I had thawed the meat, did make the spaghetti and it was delicious! Also, my cat was issued a written warning for inappropriate behavior, but I don’t expect much change in his attitude.
About the author
Assistant Director, Business & Tech Services