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Arguably one of the biggest cultural shifts as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been the transition toward remote working for employees around the globe. Thousands of companies have been pushed into the unfamiliar territory of a work-from-home culture, with some faster to adapt than others.
While the concept of remote working is not new, the pace at which companies have been forced to accelerate their digital adoption is certainly unprecedented. A recent study by MIT highlighted the significant increase of this trend, with over a third of employees having shifted to remote working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This has correspondingly led to an escalated workload for IT professionals, who now find themselves on the front lines of supporting a much larger number of remote workers -- assisting them with everything from setting up new technology infrastructure, to accessing applications, to even setting up workplace equipment at their homes.
So the question arises -- how are IT help desks responding to the challenge of supporting employees remotely in the era of social distancing? And how can they leverage digital solutions to enable a seamless transition for a workforce newly adapting to the norms of remote work culture?
The challenges of remote IT management
In normal times, the role of an IT help desk is not easy. The common misconception is that smaller businesses usually face a smaller volume of IT requests. In reality, the volume of support requests increases as innovation advances, and with the shift to remote working, employers are more eager than ever to adopt new solutions to keep workers productive.
Following are some key challenges in this regard.
IT teams need access to technology, financing and staff to adequately oversee frameworks, maintain standards, react to issues and provide end-user solutions. Normally, they are squeezed to deliver the best of service at the lowest costs, necessitating creative solutions to be able to fulfill their roles proficiently. At present, most spending that would have been budgeted toward technological innovations and expansion projects has been rerouted to supporting help desk workflows and security, further limiting the availability of resources.
Security and technology limitations might cause further complications in remote IT management. For example, secure server VPNs and remote desktop protocols can make it difficult for IT teams to connect remotely to employee devices. In addition to this, the devices used by employees themselves may not be standardized or up to date with the latest software and hardware, making it even more challenging to adopt a uniform approach to virtual support.
While several virtual solutions are available to address workflow issues faced by IT help desks, security is also an additional concern. IT teams need to assess security risk before deploying any company-wide solutions. Additionally, IT staff as well as other employees need to be adequately trained in the usage of these tools before fully migrating their processes, to avoid inadvertently exposing their company to cybercrime.
How can automated IT services help?
In 2017, a study was published that helped companies determine their ideal IT help desk staffing level. The golden ratio, 70:1, is something that many companies struggle to achieve under normal circumstances. Under strict social distancing regulations, this problem is only further exacerbated. In such scenarios, IT service automation is an ideal solution to make up for lost capacity.
Here are some of the key benefits of automated IT services.
Managing spikes in workloads
The increasing volume of support requests, as is currently being observed during the pandemic, can be easier managed through the automation of IT workflows. Standard queries that would occupy valuable time can be resolved quickly and easily, without the need for human intervention. Automation also reduces the need for round-the-clock availability of IT staff, while still enabling greater flexibility for work-from-home employees who can self-serve instead.
Achieving more with leaner teams
Several IT teams are working at limited capacity due to social distancing regulations that have been put in place to reduce the risk of infection. At the same time, the volume of IT requests has been constantly increasing, with some companies reporting as much as a 16% increase in the number of tickets. Leveraging digital solutions can help keep productivity high even with a leaner staff. By incorporating automated solutions, IT professionals can be more agile in their operations, eliminating time spent on mundane or time-consuming tasks.
Accelerating issue response
IT workflow automation significantly speeds up response times and problem resolution by incorporating predetermined responses or actions. For example, certain repetitive queries can be addressed with a pre-recorded or automated message to the user. More examples of this are chatbots or automated voice calling systems which are used to route different queries to the right people within IT teams.
Reducing the risk of error
The more human intervention involved, the greater likelihood of error in a process. Automated workflows enable IT teams to be more accurate in their response, ensuring that critical time is not wasted due to inconsistencies or inaccuracy of data. Likewise, managers' time can also be freed up from supervision or oversight of team members' tasks, since incidents will be managed automatically.
Building a knowledge base
While speed and accuracy are important in the short term, managers need to have a more far-reaching vision of IT automation. Leveraging technological solutions will contribute toward the creation of knowledge bases that make it easier to learn from experience and solve problems faster in the future. Rather than reinventing the wheel, future help desk professionals can just refer to these data resources when addressing user queries, helping them do their jobs faster.
Examples of automated help desk tools
IT managers need to consider everything from end-user technology, to core infrastructure, security and personnel when it comes to adopting new technologies to support remote working staff. With the plethora of tools and solutions available, whittling them down is no easy feat. However, there are some key technologies that have become increasingly popular among service desks.
A versatile tool for help desks, chatbots automate workflows, enabling IT teams to extend support to basic user queries. If needed, they can also escalate more complex queries to human agents. What's more, they are available 24/7, can be deployed across a number of digital channels including mobile, text, and phone, making them the ideal self-service solution for remote workers. Some platforms such as PandoraBots also improve their performance over time by leveraging artificial intelligence to enhance their interaction capabilities.
Virtual service agents
Though similar to chatbots, virtual service agents take automation a step further by actually linking front-end user requests to back-end workflows. This means that a predetermined set of routine tasks can be fully automated without any human intervention required at all. For example, ServiceNow provides users with a catalog of services that are available upon request, completely eliminating the need for support staff to get involved. This can be especially helpful for repetitive requests that occupy a support agent's valuable time.
Routing and query optimization
A surprising amount of IT teams' time gets wasted in guiding people to the right point of contact. Ticket triaging takes up valuable time, increasing response time and harming customer experience. Simple software like Jira can help by letting help desks set up if-when-then scenarios for routing tickets to the right teams. Smarter tools like Spoke take it a step further by first searching its own knowledge base before guiding users to the right point of contact.
Remote asset management
One of the biggest challenges for help desks during the pandemic is deploying the right software and hardware to users. Inventory management and remote asset management tools like Jamf or 1Password can help to make this process more streamlined, while reducing errors in manual processes associated with these tasks. This helps reduce the burden on support teams in correcting any costly mistakes.
Automation helps companies better adapt to remote teams
According to a recent Gartner study, 41% of employees expect to continue working from home even after the pandemic has passed, which means that IT managers need to prepare themselves for the inevitable challenge of scaling up their operations while remaining agile in the long term.
It is clear that in this regard, automated solutions such as the ones discussed above will be a key pillar in enabling continued productivity and continuity -- not just for IT teams, but organizations as a whole.
About the author
Craig Greenhalgh is a Research Analyst with Comparesoft, where he helps produce and share articles, podcasts and other content on current software technology trends.