Foster health and safety in the post-pandemic data center

Data centers adapted to a new set of circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic. As work and the pandemic continue to change, here's how data centers can continue to evolve.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced data centers around the world to quickly adapt to new safety protocols and digital-first workflows. Some of those changes might fade away post-pandemic, but some are here to stay. Organizations must consider what factors keep employees happy, safe and productive, even in the wake of the pandemic.

COVID-19 accelerated a shift to remote-first operations in many workplaces, and organizations everywhere implemented various new protocols and procedures to protect workers. Widespread vaccine distribution means many industries have begun to return to old practices. However, some changes precipitated by the pandemic might be here to stay. For example, according to a FlexJobs survey, 58% of respondents reported wanting to remain as full-time remote employees post-pandemic, while 39% desire a hybrid work environment.

For organizations heading into the recovery period of the pandemic, data center admins and facility managers can anticipate certain safety measures and operation structures to stay and others to go. Here's what you might expect moving into this new phase.

What pandemic safety looked like for the data center

As organizations everywhere went into government-mandated lockdowns, there was some debate over whether data center administrators qualified as essential workers. However, with the onset of the pandemic, organizations relied more heavily on digital operations and remote communication than ever before, which tasked data centers with supporting critical internet and data infrastructure, as well as a massive increase in usage. Uptime became vital. Failure was not an option.

Data center managers had to find ways to keep the people who had to work on site safe. Common safety measures included:

  • Creating tiered COVID-19 response plans. Some data centers developed a staffing threat matrix for absenteeism situations. Organizations based these tiered plans on government recommendations that detailed how many staff members could be on site at a time, what safety precautions they must follow, and what to do in the event of a positive COVID-19 case or potential outbreak.
  • Establishing reserve data center teams. To prevent the contamination and spread of COVID-19, facility managers developed shift schedules for on-site employees. The few administrators who went on site did so in longer but lighter load shifts. Managers created backup teams so that if one group had a risk of infection, another could take its place to keep operations active. This enabled data centers to minimize the amount of staff on site while maintaining uptime.
  • Monitoring temperatures and health. Data center administrators already monitor temperature in data center facilities. With the onset of COVID-19, organizations asked admins to monitor for fevers. Data centers used noncontact thermometers to take temperatures of any employees who needed to work on site at every access point. Organizations also required employees to fill out checklists about their health before coming in to work.
  • Equipping staff with protective gear. Even if employees showed no COVID-19 symptoms, data centers required them to wear masks, face shields, gloves and other protective gear. This accompanied social distancing protocols to limit exposure to other employees.
  • Cleaning everything regularly. Organizations required employees to wash their hands several times over the course of the day and wipe down their stations after using them. Cleaning solutions with high alcohol content were used on high-touch areas -- such as door handles and biometric readers -- to kill germs. Many data centers also mopped floors daily.

Facility managers also transitioned to remote and digital workflows to minimize the amount of staff on site and keep employees productive. For the data center, this meant an increased reliance on data center infrastructure management tools and software.

DCIM software enables staff to remotely manage and monitor data center resources and infrastructure. It can deliver remote email alerts to flag bottlenecks in the data center, automate temperature and power reports, and report failover to identify equipment in danger of exceeding redundancy thresholds and power capacity.

Post-pandemic data centers

When the world recovers from the pandemic, data centers will likely scale back on many of these safety measures. For example, most organizations have replaced monitoring for fevers with rapid COVID-19 tests or have stopped mopping floors daily.

However, in the wake of the pandemic, organizations should revisit their business continuity and disaster recovery plans. They should regularly conduct comprehensive risk assessments to identify hazards and implement better safety policies and procedures. They can consider what worked during their COVID-19 response and keep such policies in mind. For instance, organizations can have reserve data center teams documented and on call, or they can maintain leaner and more efficient shift scheduling.

With fewer employees on site, threat actors might see a weaker physical security presence and take advantage of potential weak spots, so organizations should invest in tighter physical security and do away with biometric authentication that requires physical contact. Hands-free security -- such as facial authentication -- is harder to spoof, unlike fingerprint scanners, which data centers also must wipe down regularly during an ongoing public health crisis.

Remote work is also here to stay. For the data center, that means remote management. Data centers must decide what remote management tools they require to run from a distance. Lights-out data centers enable admins to work from home while keeping a close eye on the environment, from equipment status to resource provisioning.

Committing to continued health and safety

As the pandemic continues despite the development and distribution of vaccines, businesses must remain committed to the health and safety of staff first and foremost.

Moving forward, organizations should keep an eye on the World Health Organization's COVID-19 safety recommendations, as well as those outlined by their governments. Data centers must show their employees that they care about staff's well-being and should provide as much transparency as possible around operations to better set and meet expectations.

Data centers can continue to revise and optimize their approaches to maintaining safety by investing in better, more capable remote management tools. Such tools ensure uptime while enabling employees to work safely and remotely.

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