PCs

A CIO's take on the home PC support dilemma

This week, Bill Detwiler posed this poll question: Should corporate help desks support home PCs? CIO Scott Lowe has wrestled with this issue at two organizations. He shares his thoughts on the topic.

Let's go back a couple of years. At this time, I was working for a different college as the IT Director and we helped people with personal computers ... to a point. In order to help make sure that people got the computer that best suited them, IT staff often helped people configure new personal machines and, very occasionally, we handled the ordering logistics for the employee with the clear understanding that, once the computer arrived and was at the employee's home, the employee would need to obtain support from the computer vendor. After all, that's why the vendors have support centers.

This plan was OK until this happened:  We had helped a college employee purchase a computer, complete with arranging the order and making sure it got to her house. As usual, we made sure she understood that we could not support the computer. After the computer got to her house, she had nothing but problems with it and simply refused to call Dell, the vendor from whom the machine was purchased. Instead, on multiple occasions, I walked into our office suite to find her computer sitting on a tech's desk; we actually did look at and help her with the machine in a couple of instances. Finally, I told the employee that she really needed to call Dell for further support. Her response: "You ordered the machine for me so you're going to fix it." That was the day that I informed my boss - the CFO - that we would no longer be able to support employee personal computers in any capacity. He supported the decision.

Prior to this, senior management didn't want to make a decision one way or the other on the support, so it fell to me to figure out what to do.

In my current position, the same issue has raised its head. More than a few times, I walked to the help desk area to find employee personal machines in various states of disarray while other priority tasks went unfinished. This was relatively early on in my tenure and required a number of corrective actions. Working with the rest of the executive team, I outlined my reasons for feeling that it was inappropriate to support employee-owned PCs and worked out a discount arrangement with a local repair shop. Employees can now take their PCs to the local shop and have their computers repaired at a discount.

Now, you may think I sound harsh in not wanting to perform this level of support, but I do have some good reasons:

  • Liability. Eventually, we're going to get bitten. Maybe we'll void someone's warranty, drop a machine, wipe a hard drive during a virus cleansing, whatever.
  • Time. My staff is stretched very thin just dealing with college priorities. Adding the burden of supporting staff and faculty personal computers is not feasible with the current staff.
  • Why? TechRepublic reader Palmetto put it best in his response to Bill Detwiler's poll:
Let's replace 'computer' with other work-from-home needs.

What about maintenance / facilities staff and personnel? Should I expect them to come to my house and rebuild my plumbing? If I'm working from home, I need to drink and use the toilet, don't I? If I lose power, can I call them to replace the fuse?

Say I travel for the company. Instead of taking a company car, I opt to use my own. Should I expect the guys who maintain the company vehicle fleet (say, school buses or delivery trucks) to work on my personal vehicle?

I work for a catering company. If I chose to prepare food for a customer from home instead of using the company kitchen, is my employer obligated to repair my kitchen appliances?

I couldn't have put it better myself. What, really, is the difference between a computer and other tools that are necessary to get a job done?

Another story: I once worked for a guy who had similar feelings. People constantly came to the group and asked us to, after work, go to their houses and fix their computers as if the time imposition was just part of the job. After a while, he came up with what I thought was a great response to one of the guys that was working on a roofing project at the time: "Sure, no problem! When I'm done, you can come over to my house and help me replace my roof for free." The asking person was not offended. Instead, he actually apologized and said, "Wow... you're right." Now, not everyone would be that nice, but there does come a point at which a support level is simply unsustainable and the requests begin to border on rude.

Obviously, there will be special circumstances that must be considered. Nothing is black and white. If, for example, an employee simply has to work from home - maybe for medical reasons - and use his or her own computer, we'll absolutely do what we can to help, although I would prefer for us to supply that person with a loaner machine instead. Further, if the executive management team someday decides that we need to go down this road, we'll need to adjust our policies - and our staffing - to accommodate.

The timing of Bill's poll was great; my staff and I had a half-day retreat to go over some operational changes and personal computer support was one of the topics that came up. My response to my staff was that what they do on their own time is their own business, but that I do not want to see employee machines at the help desk. If the employee wants to assist someone - either for free or for pay - it's up to them as long as it doesn't happen on work time. Believe me - we have more than enough to keep us busy!

What do you think? Am I being realistic or even fair in my view of personal computer support? Is my view that a computer is no different than a car or other tools way off base?

Recently, Jason Hiner and Rick Vanover talked me into using Twitter. Want to follow me and know when my new posts are added to IT Leadership and Servers & Storage? Look for me on Twitter http://twitter.com/scottdlowe.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

32 comments
Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I've been used as a 'man who can' helping out colleagues, some have even slipped me a few quid , or bought me a beer or two in exchange. That was a personal transaction though, and there was no way I considered it part of my job, not even if it was the CIO's nephews. Doing it during work hours, would be easy grounds for disciplinary action. If an an employer sanctions the work then it is my job, and they are liable for what is and isn't done. I'd want that very clear before I even started. The practice of using personal PCs for work is to me outright lunacy, for both an employer and an employee. Security and privacy concerns alone should rule that out.

dbwriter
dbwriter

The only way I would HELP a co-worker with their home PC is if I really liked them and they brought it into work. There is NO reason IT staff should ever even consider working on a personal (heh) PC. I don't care what the person's position is. My job is to ensure the user's can get their job done. If the god of the company asked me, I would say the same.

scott
scott

This is how its done in the entertainment industry, unless its the owner/ board member of the studio. I've built up a very nice Scotch bar thanks to this favor-trading method.

Exelby
Exelby

A bit of a different spin on the situation, I was actually Laid off from my position as Network/Systems Administrator. I would get calls from the staff from 6:00 am to 8:00 pm asking me to tell them how to fix an issue they have encountered in the system. One call I got especially early, around 6:00 am was that the shipping clerk was unable to send EDI. When I told him that I need to be approved by management to come fix the situation, he began to get beligerant. I personally do not want to offend and lose relationships with people there that I have built over the last 8 years, so I have told them what to do in some cases when it was easy. My thought on that was perhaps management would see that I still cared about the organization and look more favorably on calling me back. That may have been a mistake. What would everyone else do?

sathyanand
sathyanand

Wonderfully Said !!& Written!!. As a Sysadmin in a company I have faced similar issues and totally aggree with you.

natem
natem

We've also had to draw the line with home support. There are just too many home computers to even consider making IT responsible for maintenance on them. We do help our end users get remote access working but that is about it. Just from helping with the remote access situations I can tell it would be very difficult to ever support such a crazy assortment, and sometimes quite ancient, fleet of PC's, Mac, and even a few Linux..... On the other hand there are some employees, CEO, that it completely makes sense to ensure that they always have computer access and that's why we have company laptops.

TTfight
TTfight

As the guy in my company who has to bring IT and the rest of the company together, I see both sides. I have worked IT in an earlier life and have lived with this problem myself. There is a balance needed here. Productiviy and profit are driven by an individuals ability to work. We have folks that work from home (whether managment or employees)that are key to ensuring continued profit. If they can't work, I'm not making money. If I invest an hour of IT to prevent a week of lost productivity, then I will. However, if an employee that doesn't directly impact the bottom line, doesn't use his/her PC to work from home, my IT should never touch that machine. I am also flatly against letting our techs do private work on staff or customer's PC's. Now matter how you inform and educate the "client", the company will eventually get sucked into liability issues on that machine.

Rastor9
Rastor9

I worked for a public school in a small town where I had previously owned my own repair shop. Many of the teachers and staff had been customers of mine and knew full that I "used" to do that work. Many would ask, and when I mentioned pay rates similar to what I charged in my shop, they would get offended and state "you aren't in business anymore, so why charge so much?" I would then state, the reason I had to come and work at the school is because enough of you wouldn't pay my rates then to keep me in business, why would I want to give it to you for free now? Besides, at my age I would rather spend all day fixing company tech problems and then go home and read a book about NON technical items rather than spend my off time with even more technology. Tired of living, breathing, and sleeping tech. I only do that at work now.

nwitt
nwitt

I completely agree with the article. My biggest issue is the liability & security problem that this presents. My current employer has not taken a stand on this issue. The company owner not only expects but demands people to work from home, but refuses to spend the money to purchase equipment for them to do so. Therefore I am expected to support virus infested, pornographic material clogged, off brand computers and get them setup to connect to our office VPN! When I first started working for the company and raised my concern to the Director of Security and the Director of IT, they both agreed with me. But there response basically was "yes we know, but that won't fly here". Basically there is a fear of telling the company owners "NO" at the expense of compromising sensitive company and consumer data! My IT Directors have not taken a stand with the owner. But since I am the only 2/3 level tech for 200 employees and the only one who is solely responsible for the network infrastructure and management employee support, I've had to take my own stand. If it's work related, I will do what I can to get your computer working once or twice, otherwise I can offer a loaner for a limited period. So far, knock on wood, I have not been reprimanded for it. But I have turned people away, including a fellow IT employee.

Menace65
Menace65

This is all well and good when the CIO actually has some type of IT background, but when all he has is a business background then all bets are off. It never ceases to amaze me how much our CIO wants IT to bend over backwards for the business requests, no matter that IT is backlogged with projects that are crucial to our infrastructure. If we were able to complete these projects, then the business requests would probably cease because they are all related. He wants to keep putting on bandaids because he can be the hero when something gets fixed (even if for the short term) immediately. If users started wanting their home computers fixed by IT, especially if the users were part of upper management, I'm sure he'd have no problem with it. Thankfully that has not come up, yet.

jacques.francis
jacques.francis

My response is to inform the person that I'd be only too pleased to help because I run a spare-time business offering a complete PC assistance programme, from ordering through installation to training, fixing problems, and really anything to do with home PCs, that my rates are very competitive, but it's an out-of-hours service only, never in-hours. This filters the whin from the chaff and provides me with a bit of spare cash. Set your rate high but reasonable. The less you want to do it, the higher the rate. Of course, you'll need to let your employer know about the sideline first, but they should be supportive because, if you're a technician, it's part of your continuous professional development.

EricTam
EricTam

It is very common that employee use corporate IT staff as tech support for home computer. I was once in the same position and the conclusion was the same. At work hours, support work related. Outside work hours, it is their time and they can do whatever they like.

michael.i.doyle
michael.i.doyle

As a former CIO who has held direct responsibility for all infrastructure at several companies - I'll add my "you got it right".

jatmartin
jatmartin

I think you are correct in holding this view. But to expand a bit further, users need to learn on how to use their computers and on how to maintain it. Not fix them, but pro-actively maintain their pc's via patch updates, cleaning and other routine maintenance that will help them prevent problems.

melias
melias

to support customer PCs inexpensivley. My reason? This way, if I do not want to work on someone's PC, I feel no obligation to do so, even if I have done so in the past. If I want to put it off for a while, I can do so as well. And I let them know that up front. Much like much of the free or shareware software on the internet.

trsnell
trsnell

I took the same tack - "Up to my guys to help on their own time either free or for pay" - when this is for pay, the downside is that they are now employed by the home-PC-user. I caution them on that, but it works out in most cases.

Derek Schauland
Derek Schauland

I think supporting employees personal system should be handled on the personal time of technicians at the rate they agree upon with their co-worker. Keeps things simpler that way and removes liability from the organization

jasonn
jasonn

As a Network Engineer I too see that employees try their best to take full advantage of the IT Departments knowledge when it comes to their home computers/network. I've learned if I tell them this isn't a company computer/network and I do some side work for extra money and I will be glad to take a look at it after hours. Once you mention money it will stop them trying to get free work out of you but if they really want something repaired they don't mind paying.

csmith.kaze
csmith.kaze

I do not do employee computers at work as a rule and charge alot for off the clock work. I Try to teach people that the IT department employees actually do have lives and don't want to worry about other people's computer problems all the time. Call Best Buy.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

As a supervisor and manager in the military, I know I refused to use unit assets to repair personal PCs during duty hours even when AF policy left it up to the supervisor. In the one case that illness required that a civilian co-worker work from home, we provided his equipment and the military paid for his network connection. As a front-line tech today, I sometimes find myself resenting that people expect me to fix or give guidance on fixing their home PCs during work hours. I often tell them I'll be glad to help them after work hours, but my charges are $50/hour, including travel to and from. Some take offense, but most seem to understand.

CG IT
CG IT

Dell, HP, IBM, Toshiba, Best Buy/Geek Squad are not easy, accessible and in most cases, not free. When you have free, easy support, everyone will take advantage of it because everyone with a PC hates the mfg's support center, the time and effort it costs to pack up, ship in, get repaired, shipped back, not to mention the horror stories of replaced hard drives with data on it showing up on Ebay. Another reason "Cloud Computing" for the consumer will take off like a bandit if they make hardware like a TV. Turn it on and your in business.

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