Organizations with lots of remote locations, like large retail chains, usually have IT departments that specialize in supporting remote offices. On the other hand, companies that have recently eliminated all the IT staff at their satellite offices and centralized IT support at the main corporate office, often lack the institutional knowledge and IT structure necessary to adequately support these newly, IT-less locations.

If not properly supported, end users in these locations may feel like they’ve been left to the wolves and grow to resent central IT. Worse, productivity can suffer if problems aren’t promptly and successfully resolved. Let me illustrate my point with a situation I recently witnessed.

A lose-lose situation

One morning, an end-user sat down to a desktop that wouldn’t power up. The power light didn’t come on. The power supply fan remained still. When she pressed the power button, nothing happened, except an occasional weak buzzing noise from the machine’s built-in speaker. The computer was running fine when she left work the previous day, but it was now completely dead. She contacted a technician at the corporate help desk and described her problem.

After hearing the end user’s tale, the technician determined that the computer’s power supply was likely dead. Given the machine’s age, the technician said the machine would be replaced rather than repaired. The end user was glad to get a new computer, but shocked to find out that it would take a week for the new machine to reach her. The user told the technician she couldn’t work without a computer.

The technician suggested she find an empty workstation to use while waiting on the new machine. Unfortunately, there weren’t any. At the corporate office, where the technician was located, empty workstations were common. This was not the case in the user’s satellite office, where there weren’t any extras.

At this point, there was nothing more the technician could do. She was thousands of miles away from the user, there was no reason to overnight a temporary replacement when a permanent replacement would be sent a day or two later, and as the machine was being replaced it wouldn’t be cost effective to pay a local IT contractor to replace just the power supply. The technician’s hands were tied and the user couldn’t do her job–a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Common remote support mistakes

The above situation didn’t have to end this way. With the right procedures, tools, and attitude, IT departments can provide remote workers support that’s comparable to an in-person experience. If they avoid the following mistakes:

  1. Not having on-site replacement machines: As illustrated by our story, having a few backup machines in each satellite office will keep employees up and running when their main machine fails. You should match the number and configuration of each satellite office’s reserve computers to the location’s various employee types. For example, an office with both developers and sales staff should have at least one machine configured for each group. The only exception to this rule is locations with groups that rely a standard software build, or who access their tools through a Web browser or desktop virtualization.
  2. Lacking a plan for local repairs: If your in-house techs don’t make house calls and you aren’t going to replace every machine with a dead hard drive, you need a workable plan for hiring local, contract support staff. A plan is particularly important if a satellite office has a server room. You could use a local IT contractor, a global IT services company, or reply on your hardware vendors for on-site support. Whichever option you choose, pick one that balances both IT and end-user needs.
  3. No local go-to IT person: You should always have a few employees who can serve as surrogate support techs at each location. These individuals could be former IT pros who now work in other departments, or individuals with advanced technical skills. You don’t have to make them domain admins, but you could give power user rights. They could also serve as a liaison between the local staff and central IT helping coworkers locate a temporary workstation, setting up a user’s new computer, changing the toner drums on the office printers and copies, and so forth. If the satellite office has a server room, you’ll also want someone at the office to have a key. A constantly beeping UPS or cooling system alarm can drive workers crazy. Just remember not to abuse your go-to IT contacts with too many requests for assistance. IT isn’t their day job.
  4. Failing to use remote control software: Everyone wants their computer problems solved, but few want to spend hours on the phone being led through various troubleshooting procedures. This is where remote control software can make a huge difference. A decade ago, remote desktop technology was just starting to spread throughout IT. Today, it’s a no-brainer. Systems like Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) and Apple Remote Desktop (ARD) are built right into the operating system. And, there are lots of third-party options, like LogMeIn, Bomgar, Crossloop, Citrix, TightVNC, and RealVNC. Why waste hours trying to walk users through a fix, when it would take you seconds to complete? Remote control software many not work in every situation, like when a user can’t get a network connection. But, you should use it whenever possible. Just be sure to get the user’s explicit permission before taking over their machine.
  5. Treating remote users like they aren’t as important as people in the corporate office: Good customer service skills are just as important as technical knowledge when it comes to providing quality support. IT should treat all users with respect and courtesy regardless of their location. If personnel in your IT department, whether they’re in support, project management, or network administration, ignore the concerns of remote users, you’ll quickly find them ignoring you. And possibility, taking IT support into their own hands.

Remote support is a growing trend

As the number of satellite offices, telecommuters, and mobile workers rise, today’s corporate workforce is often spread across a wide geographic area. Remote workers play an increasingly critical role in an organization’s success, and should be given support that’s comparable to employees located at the corporate hubs. Avoiding these five mistakes will go a long way to accomplishing that goal.