Tech & Work

Talking Shop: Blend tech with tact when closing a remote office

Avoid confrontation during the closing of a remote office


Closing a remote office can present specific challenges for support pros, who are often the first to arrive on the scene after the closing has been made public. For the IT department, dealing with the removal of client machines in a remote office that has just learned of its fate requires a systematic and careful approach.

Our IT staff at TechRepublic had to deal with these issues when we closed two remote offices of our ITRadar subsidiary in Minnesota and Iowa. Our IT staff was only given a few hours notice about the closing of the smaller office in Iowa, but, thankfully, the Minnesota office closed more slowly, over a period of about a month.

Preparation time can make a big difference in the ease with which a remote office is closed, according to our IT director Troy Atwood and senior systems administrator Joe Zink. To help you through a similar situation, here is their account of the IT staff’s closure of these two remote offices.

Defining the scope of the project—with discretion
When a company decides to pull the plug on a part of its operation, employees often aren’t immediately told how this news will affect their job security. For practical purposes, however, the support department is often informed about when and where the cuts will be made, which usually makes them the second group after the executive team to know about the closure. Despite the advanced warning, sometimes it’s still not enough.

In an ideal world, the IT department would know months in advance that an office is going to close. This would give the department time to assess what contracts and services need to be terminated and what equipment and network requirements need to be addressed.

Among the most critical factors IT needs to address is determining the scope of the project, and this is done through an accurate inventory of what equipment will be involved, Atwood said.

That, of course, is the ideal situation.

"First off, you get no warning," Atwood said of the typical office closing. "So we tried to cheat" by getting a head start on the inventory.

Here is the first place where it gets a little delicate. If all the employees are aware of the office’s closing and their own job’s future, then techs could simply ask the remote office for a complete inventory. But these employees often don't know if they are going to be let go, and it’s human resources’ job to tell them, not yours.

If the IT staff at the main office is used to talking to the remote office folks, then asking if an up-to-date inventory exists may not come across as a foreboding inquiry.

"Admins out there will tell you about extra mice, peripherals, and other small items, but you don't care about that stuff for your inventory," Zink said. You want to know how many monitors, desktops, and laptops there are and who owns them, he said.

"In your mind, you're thinking about how much you can fit in the truck," Zink said. You will also need to know about printers, servers, and other network equipment, but if the office will go through a period of operation after most of the staff have been laid off, then you don't need to worry about that just yet.

If an inventory doesn't exist, or the question cannot be posed without creating undo angst, the best thing to do is to get a copy of the office phone list, according to Zink and Atwood.

Often the human resources department will not track contractors because they aren't company employees, but when it’s time to take an inventory, this group shouldn’t be ignored since contractors can use a significant amount of company computers and equipment. That’s why the phone list, which is almost always kept up to date and usually includes contractors, is a good starting point.

Sometimes it’s not necessary to do much detective work in order to find out the scope of the project. Zink said that once, in a previous job, he had to close a call center. He asked the call center supervisor for an inventory, and the supervisor told him he had 250 employees on shift at one time. That number was all Zink needed to know to define the scope of the project as encompassing 250 monitors and desktops.

Completing the job
Once the scope of the job is determined, the next step requires a more hands-on approach.

So that they could arrive at the offices first thing the next morning, Atwood and Zink flew to Minnesota from our Louisville office the day the employees were being given the news their offices would be closing. Since the employees had just been given the bad news, it was imperative that Atwood and Zink be sensitive to the situation—a difficult task for two techs whose job it was to inventory the offices of the employees who had just been laid off.

Once the IT staff is able to begin removing equipment, the most important tools for the techs are permanent-ink markers and heavy-duty plastic bags. The markers are used to put the names of the employees on the backs of the equipment they used. This has two purposes, according to Zink:
  • In many cases, there may not be business-critical information on the desktops and it won't be necessary to ghost them onto a network server for archive purposes. With the names on the machines, if some data is needed from X's machine, it will be easy to find that machine and retrieve the data. "At this point, just leave the data on the computer, and if no one asks for it in six months, then it probably doesn't matter," Atwood said.
  • If there is a change of plan and X is either retained or rehired, his equipment can be returned to him for use. "If someone had a big-screen monitor before he left, I want to make sure he gets it back," Zink said.

Label a plastic bag for each former employee and then toss in all the cables, mice, phones, and other small accessories or peripherals.

Storage and distribution
In TechRepublic's case, the Minnesota office was used as a staging point for the equipment that was extracted from the Iowa office and for the equipment that was removed from the desks of the laid-off workers in the bigger Minnesota office.

Zink went to the Iowa office, which had about 10 employees, and packed everything up and brought it back to Minnesota to the larger office. There, he and Atwood combined all the equipment in a room that was not being used.

Once the equipment is collected, the decision must be made on what to do with all of the client systems. Depending on what they are and the needs of the organization, the machines can be stored, sold, or redistributed within the organization.

Equipment that is being stored needs no immediate action, but if it is being sold or redistributed, a disk image should be ghosted to the server and then transferred to tape after a month or two.

If the machine will be sold or junked, the hard drives need to be erased and zeroed.

TechRepublic support technician Ted Laun made a number of copies of a boot disk that contained a basic system, necessary programs, and a script to automate the process of wiping the drives. The disk didn't need keyboards, monitors, or mice connected to the computers in order to function. It was also programmed to play a short tune when the work was successfully completed.

If the tune didn't play, Atwood said, that usually meant there was a password that prevented the erasing. On those machines, he would just clear the CMOS and run the disk again.

The machines that will be stored need to be segregated into categories and stored together—monitors with monitors, laptops with laptops, and desktops with desktops, Zink said.

Smaller items like phones, mice, and keyboards can be sorted and stored in boxes.

Once everything is collected and sorted, you can contract with a local packaging company to come and pack everything up. The great thing about this is that the packaging company has its own boxes, padding, peanuts, and other packing materials and can pack everything up more efficiently and cost-effectively than an IT staff can.

Then the boxes can be shipped or moved to the main office with limited damage or loss.

Bringing it all home
The key to successfully closing a remote office is to quickly dismantle the office, while still treating your now-former coworkers with consideration and respect. No matter how little time you are given to complete the project, you must be very organized in order to collect, mark, classify, and remove client equipment without causing the employees any additional hardship.

Because of the job losses involved, closing an office can be one of the more difficult jobs required of an IT professional, but by doing it well, you will have served the best interests of both the company and its former employees.

Are there better ways?
Have you had to close more offices than you’d care to remember? Do you have any tips or suggestions that you’d like to add? What do you do when you find out you have to close an office in only a day or two? Tell us what you think in the discussion below.

 

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