UPDATED 12:08 EDT / JUNE 28 2020


The pandemic pivot: How IT groups are laboring to make remote working work

For Chris Conry, the sudden shift to working from home in March was a bit of a revelation. The chief information officer at cloud collaboration software provider Fuze Inc. had always been an inveterate office worker, commuting some 80 miles a day round-trip from his home in central Massachusetts to the company’s Boston headquarters.

The pandemic prompted Fuze’s Chris Conry to re-evaluate the need to commute to the office each day. Photo: Fuze

The pandemic prompted Fuze’s Chris Conry to re-evaluate the need to commute to the office each day. Photo: Fuze

Three months of telecommuting has changed Conry’s perspective on the importance of being in the office every day. “I certainly have gained increase awareness of what a positive impact it can be to have extra hours available,” he said. “I always had the mindset that it was important to be present in the office. That mindset has changed.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is challenging a lot of assumptions about the workplace and prompting many organizations to adopt distributed work styles on a permanent basis. Gartner Inc. estimates that 74% of companies plan to adopt permanent remote work policies and that nearly a quarter expect that at least 20% of their employees will remain remote for the long term.

In many cases these organizations are simply catching up with their information technology departments, where distributed workforces have been commonplace for years. Interviews with CIOs and analysts show that most have navigated work-from-home mandates with relative ease, although supporting their business-side colleagues has created new pressures.

In many ways, the pandemic couldn’t have hit at a better time for IT organizations. Many are transitioning or have already moved large parts of their application portfolio to the cloud or are using cloudlike infrastructure on-premises or in colocation centers. Automation has reduced staffing needs in data centers and the outsourcing and offshoring initiatives that many companies have employed for years have smoothed the transition to a distributed workforce.

Even support functions that have traditionally been high-touch, such as help desks and call centers, have made the transition to the cloud with relative ease. And contrary to some initial forecasts that remote workers would be distracted by video games or the refrigerator, many are actually working harder and longer without commute times and office distractions.

“I’d say overall productivity in the remote workforce has seen significant improvement,” said Rick Stark, CIO at cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike Holdings Inc. “You just have to have the right toolsets to enable collaboration.”

Accenture’s Burden says IT productivity as improved. “People are doing heroic things.” Photo: SiliconANGLE

Accenture’s Burden says IT productivity as improved. “People are doing heroic things.” Photo: SiliconANGLE

Accenture Plc has found that “productivity metrics have actually increased” among its technology workforce, said Adam Burden, the services firm’s chief software engineer. “I think that’s partly because there’s an understanding that this situation is temporary and people are doing heroic things to deliver for our clients.”

Is a temporary, however? Many experts believe work-from-home arrangements that were hurriedly put into place in March will likely become permanent.

Referendum on adaptability

A survey of 559 enterprise engineering and IT professionals by open-source database company MariaDB Corp. found that 84% expect the pandemic to affect the workplace at least through 2021 and 46% are implementing permanent work-from-home strategies.

Almost half of the 1,000 IT professionals recently surveyed by Mendix Tech BV said they’re shifting at least some of their priorities to better support remote work streams outside of IT. Nearly one-third said more than half of their IT team’s time is being spent solving problems introduced by a new way of working.

“The amount of time people have been out of the office is enough time to start changing habits,” said David Johnson, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “They’re asking some fundamental questions about the way things were done and I think that’s a good thing.”

Forrester surveys have found that about 53% of employees hope they can work from home more often after the crisis is over. “It’s higher in IT,” Johnson said. “IT jobs are so much more reliant on digital technologies than they were in the past.”

Pandemic-fueled forced isolation has been a litmus test of sorts for the ability of IT organizations to put to use the same tools they support in the field, said Vince Kellen, CIO at the University of California at San Diego. “For too long, organizations that have used face-to-face interactions as a proxy for managing culture, staff passions and collaboration,” he said. “For consultants who are used to getting on a plane and flying everywhere as a proxy for good knowledge management, their days are numbered.”

UCSD’s Kellen: If culture and processes are right, ”geography does not matter.” Photo: UCSD

UCSD’s Kellen: If culture and processes are right, ”geography does not matter.” Photo: UCSD

Kellen sees the current situation as a referendum on IT adaptability. “A post-COVID-19 world will be a selection event,” he said. “It will remove IT units that cannot manage digital technologies for their own knowledge. When they get can get organizational culture, IT employee passion and good collaboration technology and processes right, geography does not matter.”

Do more with less

Not that this is easy for anyone. The pandemic has also put many CIOs in a bind, forcing them to economize on operations while stepping up digital transformation initiatives that the pandemic accelerated. Gartner expects global IT spending to fall 8% in 2020 because of the impact of COVID-19.

Mendix’s survey found that more than 70% of respondents said they’ve put some IT initiatives on hold, but “at the same time there’s a big push for digitization,” said Jon Scolamiero, manager of architecture and governance in Mendix’s product marketing organization. “Every company is now a software company and you can’t be in denial about that anymore.”

User support is probably the most vexing problem IT organizations have wrestled with this spring. The crisis didn’t put the brakes on CrowdStrike’s aggressive hiring pace. Outfitting new employees with laptops, monitors and other gear has been a challenge with support people stuck at home, said CIO Stark.

“We have to fulfill inventory for those people,” he said. “We could image those machines more quickly where we had our staff in the offices. Now we have to look at alternative options.”

Crowdstrike’s Stark: “Overall productivity in the remote workforce has seen significant improvement. Photo: Crowdstrike’s Stark: “Overall productivity in the remote workforce has seen significant improvement. Photo: Society for Information Management

CrowdStrike’s Stark: “Productivity in the remote workforce has seen significant improvement.” Photo: Society for Information Management

The task has been complicated by shutdowns in China that limited product availability as well as the inability of shippers to deliver in some locations because of staff shortages or quarantines. “We had built up some reserves and although we got thin on some inventory, we were fortunate we didn’t feel a significant impact,” Stark said.

Xerox Holding Corp. polled 600 IT and executive level professionals and large corporations during the crisis for its Future of Work survey and reported that the top challenges remote employees cited were inadequate remote IT support (35%), inadequate workflow solutions (27%) and lack of communications and collaboration tools (22%). Nearly 75% said they weren’t fully prepared for the technology demands of the sudden transition to remote work.

Help desks struggle

Help desks have perhaps been the IT function most impacted by lockdowns. Typically staffed by onsite technology professionals, nearly all have pivoted to become virtual since March. Although phone support isn’t a problem, much of what help desk workers do in an office is dispatch troubleshooters to fix problems at employees’ desks. Since the pandemic began, however, many of those people have shifted to using home computers that aren’t managed or even known to the IT organization.

“There have been a lot more tickets coming in about users’ applications running slowly that we couldn’t see in the office,” said Michael Ringman, CIO of global customer experience and digital services provider Telus International Inc., “and you can’t send somebody to their desk to resolve a problem.”

Remote management suites enable enterprise IT workers to peer inside users’ machines to troubleshoot problems, but that’s no longer an option in many cases. IT support staff who would have previously issued tickets for field technical support “are now engaged right up front because users have infrastructure we don’t know and support.” The approach has arguably made help desk staff more responsive but also more stressed, he said.

TMNA’s Pick: IT strategy to be the “Southwest Airlines of enterprise IT equipment” paid off during lockdowns. Photo: LinkedIn

TMNA’s Pick: IT strategy to be the “Southwest Airlines of enterprise IT equipment” paid off during lockdowns. Photo: LinkedIn

IT organizations that were early adopters of distributed work technologies seem to have fared better than most. TMNA Services LLC, a subsidiary of Japanese insurance giant Tokio Marine Holdings Inc., made the strategic decision five years ago to become “the Southwest Airlines of enterprise IT equipment,” said CIO Robert Pick.

In the same way that the discount air carrier flies only one type of aircraft, “Everyone got one of two models of laptops,” Pick said. “It’s all basically the same equipment and it’s all enabled for remote work.”

About 60% of TMNA’s IT employees already had flexible work arrangements in place when the pandemic hit and the company has benefited from a long-term campaign to build the infrastructure needed to make location invisible to the users it serves. “Our IT help desk in Costa Rica transitioned to working from home and we didn’t even tell anybody,” Pick said.

TMNA’s offshore workers connect over virtual desktop infrastructure, a technology that delivers the equivalent of a PC desktop as a service. Though the VDI market stagnated in recent years as remote desktop management technology improved, “we’re see a lot of new interest,” said Forrester’s Johnson.

“There are other reasons to consider it such as security and compliance,” he said. And for businesses that are challenged to deliver large engineering and media files over consumer broadband networks, it’s also an attractive alternative.

Gartner Inc. last fall forecast that the market for the broad category desktop-as-a-service will grow at an annual rate of nearly 60% through 2023, and that was before the pandemic arrived.

Building virtual culture

Several CIOs said the most imposing obstacle of shifting to a remote IT workforce has little to do with technology. “The bigger challenge has been around making sure we’re constantly getting a pulse for where our employees’ minds are at,” said Fuze’s Conry.

Relieved of the need to commute, many people are putting those extra hours into their job. A survey conducted by YouGov PLC and USA Today in April found that 54% of people working from home during the pandemic has had a positive impact on their productivity. Among the top reasons: commuting time saved (71%), fewer distractions from co-workers (61%) and fewer meetings (39%).

CIOs are seeing the same results. “A lot of people are starting their workday at 7 and ending it at 6, so that’s been a wonderful boon for personal productivity,” said TMNA’s Pick, “but the flip side is we want to be sure people aren’t burning themselves out.”

That’s a risk. A survey of IT pros by Cisco Systems Inc.’s AppDynamics subsidiary found that 81% said the pandemic has created unprecedented pressure on their organizations and 61% feel that they’re under more work pressure than ever. An Accenture survey found that 73% of new at-home workers say they miss the social interaction of the workplace, Burden said.

The ability to foster culture isn’t usually at the top of the list of success factors in IT, but it’s been at a premium lately. When one CIO asked Forrester’s Johnson a couple of years ago what he could do to foster better relations with the business side of the house, ”I said, ‘Have empathy,’” Johnson said. “But typically, the more technology-proficient someone is, the less empathy they have.”

Telus’ Ringman: “We’ve done a lot of coaching, telling our people to…de-stress a little.” Photo: Telus

Telus International’s Ringman: “We’ve done a lot of coaching, telling our people to … de-stress a little.” Photo: Telus International

They’re trying. Telus International’s Ringman has the benefit of having worked from a home office for the last seven years, and he has used those lessons to motivate homebound employees. “We’ve done a lot of coaching, telling our people to go have coffee with their spouse or have a snack with the kids,” he said. “They need to de-stress a little because work is always there.”

The department has orchestrated global happy hours on Fridays and created events such as a recent “crazy hat” contests to help employees lighten up and socialize. “Team recognition is very important,” Ringman said.

Managers in TMNA’s IT group “can’t just drop by and check in with people anymore,” Pick said. “Team meetings have become check-ins.” Use of Cisco Systems Inc.’s Webex platform has shot up more than 800% at the company since February.

Accenture came up with #MoreTogetherNow as a way to bring employees together to support mental health, share parenting tips and provide advice on remote working. Like many companies, it seen videoconferencing explode: Use of Microsoft Teams jumped from an average of 350 million minutes per month to about 900 million minutes per month after lockdowns began,” Burden said.

As awkward as video conferences were in the early days, people are acclimating rapidly, he noted. Video calls even impart a level of intimacy that was missing in the office. “Everyone now knows that it’s perfectly OK to have a toddler escape from a bathtub to join a video call,” Burden said. “These moments of levity do wonders for morale. In many ways, I know my teams better than ever before.”

Permanent adaptation

What’s likely to change in the long term? In addition to more expensive work-from-home policies, some CIO said their use of contract and gig economy workers will probably increase, particularly if a larger percentage of office workers choose to shift permanently to remote work and require higher levels of field support.

“Time to value has never been so important,” said Fuze’s Conry. “Gig and contract workers who can show expertise in adapting to rapid change will be highly sought.”

Some CIOs also said their own hiring practices may change as organizations become more tolerant of distributed workforce arrangements. That’s a good thing in a skills market that’s tight even at a time of 13% unemployment.

“I’m of the opinion that we’ll see the shift to a remote workforce across many organizations and it’ll lead to a shift in hiring practices,” said CrowdStrike CIO Stark. “We’re in no rush to put people back into an office.”

In the office may not be where many people want to be, at least for the next year or two. With workplaces expected to adopt such safety practices as face masks and one-way aisles while doing away with amenities such as cafeterias and shared coffee services, the office of the future may look a lot like the cubicle farms that have fallen out of favor in recent years.

That’s just fine for TMNA’s Pick. “Luckily for us we did not adopt the disastrous space planning concept of the open office,” he said bluntly. “Everyone has now realized that open seating plans were always garbage.”

Photo: Pickist

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