COVID-19 could forever change IT as we know it--for the better

The coronavirus crisis could force companies to embrace remote work and create a new normal.

home office. Business woman working on laptop. Online conversation via messenger.

Image: robertprzybysz, Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of my first real technology jobs was moonlighting at a corporate help desk while in college. I sat in a small rectangle of cubicles with a dozen other people on the night shift, in a section of the "glass house" data center, where we'd quietly sit (and occasionally doze) with the soothing sounds of large minicomputers and imposing hardware, all in a glass-walled room in the center of an otherwise standard office floor.

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Occasionally, an incoming call from some other soul working after hours would hit the switchboard, and one of the monolithic boxes somewhere in the data center would apply a mysterious algorithm to determine which one of our phones to ring. About 50% of the time we could solve the issue by walking our customer through some steps over the phone, usually involving the infamous help desk equivalent of whacking something with a hammer: a Ctrl-Alt-Delete reboot. The other 50% of the time, with some percentage of that an excuse to escape the cold and over-illuminated confines of the data center, we'd take a "field trip" to the person's desk and attempt to help them. Should our skills not be up to the task, there was always the larger daytime shift, a cadre of "second tier" help desk folks who were more skilled, and then the last line of support: Application support. I'd guess there were probably 50-100 people dedicated to supporting a couple thousand workers, each of whom could have a friendly face at their desk in moments.

Obviously, that was an expensive way to deliver tech support, and at most organizations, that small army is likely now an offshore call center and a couple of people at the largest sites. The grand ritual of provisioning new technology has even simplified. At most organizations, mobile phones are delivered directly from the provider to the end user, where the user installs an app, enters their login, and gets security and company app settings sent to them in seconds. Our end-user devices have increasingly become portals to company apps that are delivered using web technologies, and we can get work done with the same tools and security whether we're using a company-issued desktop, a personal phone, or a tablet.

COVID-19 adds fuel to the self-support fire

The shift to self-support has accelerated exponentially with the massive transition to remote work spurred by COVID-19 . When chatting with neighbors (at a 6-foot distance, of course) about their transition to remote work, one mentioned receiving an email suggesting she no longer use the company VPN , since there were a limited number of connections that were being exceeded, and most corporate applications were designed for the open web anyway. Another mentioned his company allowing employees to replace broken equipment or acquire technology from Amazon, the online juggernaut providing faster delivery, lower prices, and less administrative overhead to already swamped IT support.

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Many people I've spoken to mentioned that their home networks are faster and more reliable than workplace networks, and their only struggles are with occasional application outages that likely come from unplanned spikes in volume. The press is even awash in stories of people "co-opting" serious business applications to stay connected with friends and family, and while I would never even consider using corporate applications for personal use, theoretically Zoom allows for a half-decent "cocktail hour" with friends and family holed up in their abodes and missing social connections.

Companies that did not have a large pool of remote workers have asked their employees to get creative, and with little more than some gumption and a web browser, most have risen to the occasion and found low-cost tools that allow them to stay connected and productive. I've chatted with more than one person who was long restricted to SharePoint and email for collaboration, who excitedly shared the joys of working in Slack or Teams , and what a revelation it has been to have tools like this at their disposal.

This is the new normal

While many of us may be looking forward to returning to offices, meetings, and human interaction, it's going to be difficult if not impossible to tell employees that they must return to company applications from 2003 when they've spent the last two months unchained from the constraints of decades-old IT policies, especially if their productivity increased.

SEE: IT pro's roadmap to working remotely (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Rather than planning how to put the hundreds of cats back in the proverbial bag, start planning now on how to take advantage of these new trends. Do you really want to devote intelligent and capable staff to picking out the two types of keyboards and mice that you'll "officially" support, or will the world end if people just buy what they like on Amazon and support it themselves? There are hundreds of articles about the evils of Shadow IT , but perhaps it's time for you to bring a flashlight into the shadows, and integrate the best cloud tools into your IT environment, a task that's simple for most of the mainstream tools.

You've likely spent years extolling the virtues of online meetings; now you have weeks of proof that this is possible. Consider how you'll maintain that momentum where appropriate. These months of remote work have forever changed how people use technology. Like it or not, your IT department will likely be caught in the tide and can either use it to carry your capabilities to new heights, or swim against it until exhausted.

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