Sick cats and old PCs: The weird challenges tech support teams face to keep remote workers online

IT teams have shifted entire workforces from offices to homes - and kept them online since. That's meant dealing with plenty of unexpected situations.

The weird challenges tech support teams face to keep remote workers online
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As coronavirus shuttered brick-and-mortal offices and transplanted the workplace into the home, it has been down to IT teams to ensure organisations can continue with something resembling business-as-usual.

The transition to remote working has been easy for some – a case of ensuring everyone has access to a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection. But that's not true for everyone, and for the most part IT teams have been under unprecedented stress to ensure businesses stay running during this extraordinary blip on the historical timeline.

The first and most fundamental obstacle for working from home is, of course, having something to work off. "Our biggest technical challenge has been ensuring everyone that needed to work from home had the equipment to do so," Alex Allen, service desk manager at Leeds Beckett University, told TechRepublic.

"We only had a finite number of loan laptops available in the last few weeks before leaving campus so we had to come up with a new process to ensure those that needed a device got one based on business need. To date, we have supplied over 300 additional devices to help keep our business running."

Allen is not alone. Chris Fournier, head of IT at IP law firm EIP, experienced similar problems when the company was tasked with ensuring its 170 staff were equipped to work from home.

This involved relying heavily on a small crew of staff who remained at the office to provide on-the-ground support. This included making sure that employees who joined the company after the pandemic began could begin work on day one.

Then of course there were the logistic and practicality challenges of getting all the IT equipment to where it needed to be. "The logistics of setting up older laptops for remote desktop protocol (RDP) and virtual desktop infrastructure (RDI) connections, as well as users using their own equipment has been very time consuming and challenging," Fournier told TechRepublic.

Desk DIY

Not everyone has the luxury of a dedicated workspace in the home. Social media has been inundated with stories of home workers desperately trying to find a quiet sanctuary where they can get productive, as well as pictures of woefully improvised "desks"  cobbled together with books, boxes or ironing boards.

Maybe, we've been taking the humble office for granted all this time. "Staff who always talked about wanting to work from home are now missing the office," Colin Dennis, head of technical operations at IT services provider OGL Computer, told TechRepublic.

"Interestingly we have had very low sickness rates since everyone has been home working."

Security at the forefront

Security has very quickly been pushed to the forefront of businesses' minds, with IT teams scrambling to set up virtual private networks (VPNs) and advanced firewall capabilities to protect corporate IT environments.

While businesses have done their best to secure their networks against the influx of new devices connecting in from different locations, the change has highlighted the wildly varying levels of adherence to proper cybersecurity hygiene.

"One of the calls we took for one of our customers was from someone trying to connect from a PC running Windows 98 to Citrix," said Richard Blanford, chief executive of managed cloud services company Fordway..

"He was used to a desktop at work and had never tried to work remotely before."

Steve Douglas, service excellence manager at Atlas Cloud, said he'd be struck by the number of home computers "where no TLC by way of security and maintenance is performed," as well as an incident in which an antivirus license that had been expired for half a year was pointed out by a member of staff "out of the goodness of their heart."

SEE: How to become a cybersecurity pro: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

"The lack of user understanding if they're not technically minded has been a challenge," he added.

"With this in mind, we have made sure that we have a support team available throughout the day to help with any questions or problems."

For many organisations, working from home was something that they had never anticipated. As such, those accustomed to having someone on-hand to talk them through technical issues have suddenly found themselves struggling.

"We take for granted just being able to pop over to someone's desk to troubleshoot an issue," said EIP's Fournier. "Having to talk a user through something over the phone, such as entering the BIOS, doing a dock power cycle etc. can be both challenging for us and the end user."

A knock-on effect has been an uptick in the volume of support requests filed to IT teams, Fournier explained. For the first two weeks, his team saw a 100% increase in the number of support tickets being logged.

"These were mainly small teething issues but meant long days for the support desk. Where some people had never worked from home before, there were basic queries such as 'what is a VPN?' and 'how do I get my two screens to show different work?'

Interestingly, some reports suggest that the move to remote working has made IT teams more efficient. Data from PagerDuty, for example, indicates IT teams are resolving incidents up to 63% faster than before the pandemic.

Steve Barrett, vice president EMEA at PagerDuty, explained: "IT teams have shifted into 'hyper-care' mode. Reliability has become the number one priority for the entire IT team, which means that non-essential features are being put on hold leaving sufficient resources for the most important services to scale to meet demand. 

"Crisis teams are being mobilised so that the most urgent issues are addressed quickly and effectively with the appropriate resources."

At OGL Computer, incidents reported to the company's IT team increased by 40% for the two weeks starting 16 March, before returning to normal levels by mid-April. 

"Prior to the outbreak, we would normally have had 15% of incidents open at the end of the week. Following the outbreak in the first two weeks, that went down to 11% and has now decreased to 6%," said Karen Hughes, OGL's head of service delivery.

"Normally 65% of incidents would be resolved the same day that they were raised; this has now increased to 72%."

The trend doesn't appear to be a one-off, either. A study of 607 UK businesses by Welsh technology consortium Technology Connected found that 65% of those that had implemented remote-working policies had seen no drop off in productivity from staff since lockdown measures were brought in. At the same time, 18% suggested that staff had in fact become more productive.  

Cat capers

Working from home has also brought small joys to otherwise mundane weekdays, whether it be the zero-hour commute time, easy refrigerator access or the chance to spend more time with beloved pets.

The latter seems to be particularly cherished among home-workers – though working with animals has itself introduced a more unpredictable element to the daily grind.

SEE: 13 etiquette tips for video conference calls (TechRepubic)

"The best we had", said Leeds Beckett University's Alex Allen, "was a self-service ticket raised by a customer who made an error when setting up one of the newly delivered laptops, as they had been distracted by their cat being sick.

"I don't think I'll see another ticket that includes 'the cat has also done wrong but won't admit it!'"

It's not just pets that are falling short in appropriate home-working decorum, though. No longer chained to ours desks or strict office dress codes, employees are making the most of the comforts their home has to offer – though some appear to be getting a little too comfortable.

"We've had a few reports of people taking conference calls from their bath," said Allen. "I only hope it was audio only!"

The importance of support networks

One of the biggest social issues of the coronavirus pandemic have been those associated with mental heath. At the same time as those living alone have struggled with isolation, parents and caregivers have found themselves in the precarious position of having to juggle full-time jobs with family life at their shoulder.

"One aspect that we didn't anticipate was the impact that remote working in the context of an economic lockdown could have on our workforce's mental health," Bob Bailkoski, CEO of IT services provider Logicalis, told TechRepublic.

"All of a sudden, many of our employees had to become teachers, chefs and child minders in addition to their regular day jobs – and these extra demands meant that some of them were feeling the pressure. Others were feeling isolated because they were living alone and were not used to near-zero human interaction."

Leeds Beckett University's Alex Allen described the "logistical nightmare" he and his wife had experienced trying to balance their full-time jobs with caring for – and educating – their two young sons.

SEE: 250+ tips for telecommuting and managing remote workers (TechRepublic Premium)  

"We have set up a temporary office in the spare room," he said. "We plan our calls around each other's calendars. If timings are tight, the office changeover can feel like an F1 pit stop."

As a consequence of the pandemic, many companies are introducing initiatives designed to keep employees in a positive frame of mind and connected to their colleagues.

Shona Leavey, head of IT change at Agilisys, told TechRepublic: "Virtual team meetings and one-to-ones have proven critical to ensuring teams feel connected despite geographical barriers.

"Virtual coffee mornings and pub quizzes are but a few examples – we're also using SharePoint to host and share advice and guidance for mental wellbeing during these challenging times."

Atlas Cloud's Steve Douglas said it was important that employees were encouraged to keep talking as much as possible. At Atlas Cloud, the company hosts a virtual weekly quiz on Friday afternoons that involves the whole team.

"This means that everyone can get together, have a laugh, maybe a drink and – most importantly – not feel isolated," he said.

Similarly, Fournier and his EIP colleagues have set up a dedicated "EIP Massive" channel on Microsoft Teams where staff gather for a virtual tea break every afternoon to chat, catch-up on trivia and exchange recipe tips – with EIP pets also making a star appearance. Other options have included a Thursday caption competition with photos of EIP events from the past, daily Popmaster quiz league, and even a virtual Easter egg hunt.

Fresh perspectives

There will of course be a return to relative normality in the not-too-distant future. While things are unlikely to go back to exactly how they were, there is optimism among many that office life will be improved for the better post-COVID-19.

"When everyone was initially forced to work from home, there was an instant panic," said Douglas. "Then, there was a feeling of isolation from their colleagues, a dwindling sense of belonging and a desperation for things to go back to the familiar office-based normal.

"Now, we are several weeks in people have somewhere to sit, their home IT works of a fashion and technology allows them the sense of connection with their colleagues. They have virtual pub lunches, quizzes and catch-up calls. Their customer's dog barks on the phone and sets off your dog, and everyone laughs.

"When we go back to the new kind of normal, I don't think these experiences will leave us. Many of us will invest in better Wi-Fi and broadband, and maybe buy a desk for the space where we like to sit. Our employers will invest in more reliable technology to achieve this, and count their cash savings from not having to spend fortunes on highly expensive office space."

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

There will also – hopefully – be a little more appreciation for the humble IT worker, who businesses have to thank for enabling them to continue operating at such a hugely challenging time.

"I think everyone understands that working from home is difficult, and they've been so appreciative of the work the service desk has done," said Iain Cameron, the user service manager at the University of Aberdeen.

"Because we have been experiencing higher volumes of enquiries than ever before, our colleagues in other IT disciplines have asked if they could help us out. They quickly realised quite what a challenging and complex job it is to be a service-desk agent."

Leeds Beckett University's Allen told TechRepublic his team had since been nominated for Team of the Year at the university's Staff Awards, with two of its IT analysts also nominated for Colleague of the Year.

 "To know how much our users value our contribution to the university fills me with a great sense of pride," he said.

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