How to adapt infrastructure to remote work: Lessons from IBM

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, IBM's Fletcher Previn co-wrote an action guide for other CIOs.

The coronavirus could make remote work the norm, what businesses need to know
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Even the biggest corporations need to consider each employees' and customers' needs, as COVID-19 has moved much of the workforce into homes and out of offices. In addition to hosting a webinar, IBM CIO Fletcher Previn co-wrote a four-step action guide on how to adapt infrastructure for remote work spoke to TechRepublic about IBM's swift transition to nearly 100% remote work, and gave recommendations for other businesses on successful deployment.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

One thing that's critical to working remotely is the function of worldwide IT departments. With so wide-sweeping a plan devised quickly, it's inevitable that corporate culture within businesses will need to change to address the new reality. 

There aren't many businesses worldwide with so significant a staff as IBM. Previn oversees an IT function within IBM comprising 12,000 people across 1,300 offices globally, who ensure IBM's 480,000 laptops and 220,000 mobile devices run well for the more than 350,000 full-time employees using them.

Prep is key

"I'm pleased to report that the vast majority of our people reported they were able to efficiently perform their jobs while working remotely," Previn said. 

How was IBM able to implement such a large-scale plan, and with success? Preparation. Previn said, "We regularly test our IT systems' ability to continue to operate during a crisis. We model for disasters of various types--natural disasters, geo-political instability, cyber attacks, and a range of other potentially disruptive scenarios."

Watching the world

But in addition to being disaster-prepared, IBM monitored the world's situation and focused on science and data. "As we watched the virus start to spread quickly around the globe, we anticipated the need to understand what the IT requirements would be to support almost 100% of IBM's 350,000 employees working remotely," Previn said.

Despite the prep and close watch, Previn said, "Quickly shifting to almost 100% was certainly a challenge. Some of the more difficult tasks like culture, ways of working, and etiquette were thankfully already in place, as IBM was already supporting a number of employees working outside the office." 

Cybersecurity

One element IBM was concerned about security, not only for itself, but for any company making that switch to company-wide telecommuting. " Cyberattacks have increased as have phishing attempts, so we've had to adapt our cybersecurity programs to address the increased attack surface of our distributed environment," Previn said.

Focus on people

Another concern in adapting the infrastructure focuses on people: "Some of the biggest challenges for employees revolved around simple human-to-human interaction," Previn said. "When you're working in an office, it's easy to have impromptu interactions with colleagues and build friendships. You're able to make deposits in the 'relationship bank,' and those bonds carry over into work. If you don't make an effort to have a virtual equivalent of those interactions, relationships can deteriorate." 

Previn recommended CIOs define a strategy for remote work. "Define clear guidance, rules, and policies. Train employees on remote etiquette," and provide tools for teams to "collaborate and contribute."

Previn's guide highlights the importance of making "meaningful decisions quickly" in times like these to minimize disruptions to operations, while additionally investing time and effort in protecting company culture and workforce bonds. He said, "The Action Guide was written soon after the global crisis began, however, many of the practices that are within the guide have been established at IBM for years."

Previn's four steps

Modernize across the board: Companies should commit to modernizing application environments to be more flexible, build out for sudden increased demand in bandwidth, enable employees to be agile with remote work, and think ahead to more readily overcome new challenges.

Prioritize the personal: In-person interactions help workers build rapport that carries over positively into business, and equivalent effort should be made virtually to avoid only making withdrawals and no deposits from relationships that may become purely transactional.

Make time to build relationships: With nearly all workers operating from home, family-like bonds formed by less formal office interaction can quickly dissolve, which is why it's important to set aside time to stay in people's lives even when the work is done.

Emphasize remote culture: Adequate IT planning and support enables remote work, but it also enables remote culture to thrive outside the walls of any company through use of technologies like videoconferencing to emulate the casual interactions workers would normally have around the office.

The IBM CIO's best tip

Most important of all, Previn stressed, is for organizations to never stop preparing. While there were rumblings of what was impending, it was still a surprise when nearly 100% of those who were able to work remotely had to with little actual warning. 

A company's IT department should be "a reflection of its own performance and how well it's able to create a high-performing environment where people genuinely want to work." 

As for the future of remote work and how the pandemic has affected business, Previn said. "We're all learning a lot. We are not in ideal circumstances, obviously. But we are learning what types of roles are enhanced or diminished by working remotely. After the pandemic ends, we will have a better understanding of which jobs benefit from being in the office and which jobs work better remotely. We just won't return to the way things were. With a better appreciation of jobs in different environments, we'll know which technologies will deliver the benefits of working alongside bright people who aren't in the same building."

Also see

IBM Corporation Innovation Center headquarters located in Silicon Valley

IBM Corporation Innovation Center headquarters located in Silicon Valley.

Image: Sundry Photography / Getty Images