The COVID-19 pandemic hit North American IT service desks last month, as white-collar corporate employees moved en masse from centralized office spaces that were potential breeding grounds for contagion to work from home.
For most IT organizations, the most significant change to normal workflows was a new focus on remote access to centralized IT resources and corporate networks for employees outside the office. This transition required different approaches to endpoint security and troubleshooting for IT service desk pros, and in some cases, rapid shifts in IT spending to accommodate new remote work demands.
"We're finding that we're having to help people troubleshoot their home WiFi networks, and things like that," said John Lilleyman, CIO at Stemcell Technologies, a biotech company in Vancouver, BC, that went from a workforce with about 10% remote workers to more than 90% in March. "We're trying to help them get to the edge of our network, and once they're there, we can use [existing] tools [to manage network security]."
The trouble with remote work troubleshooting
Stemcell employees must use the company's SSL VPN to access the corporate network -- the company won't let employees' endpoint devices access corporate systems directly. Many employees also use remote desktop protocol (RDP) to connect remotely to laboratory devices. The massive increase in remote workers has meant Stemcell has had to buy more licenses for its AWS-based VPN software.
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Supporting endpoint devices and home networks for remote workers, however, has not always been as orderly as scaling up the VPN.
"Everyone's got a different setup -- a different WiFi setup, a different internet provider," Lilleyman said. "There are a lot of complexities you don't run into in the office environment."
The switch to remote work muddies the waters for IT service desks trying to troubleshoot end users' issues with SaaS collaboration tools, since it can be difficult to tell whether the issue relates to the service itself or the end user's equipment or network connection.
"We've had challenges with Zoom doing an all-hands meeting with 250 users on it -- some people who were able to log in couldn't hear the audio," said Miten Marvania, COO at Agio Inc., an IT managed services and cybersecurity consulting firm based in New York. "But it could be their internal networks. That's the challenging part -- you can't pinpoint the issue with all the factors that go into it."
IT incidents balloon, spending changes course
Despite heroic efforts by IT teams, the number of incidents doubled in March among customers of IT incident response tools from PagerDuty, according to data the company analyzed from more than 12,000 customers. Customers in the most stressed vertical industries, such as online learning, collaboration services, travel, non-essential retail and entertainment services, experienced up to 11 times more incidents as before the shift to remote work.
IT pros whose clients rely on third-party SaaS collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and UberConference have felt that stress firsthand, reporting that these services showed the strain of the remote work rush, at least early on.
"We experienced some degraded voice and video on UberConference [in mid-March], but no dropped meetings," said Nicholas Hughes, CEO at IT automation consulting firm EITR Technologies in Sykesville, Md. "Teams had intermittent issues early on, but things seem to be fairly solid lately."
That adjustment required a sweeping pivot to incident response in March, according to PagerDuty's data, which showed users doubling the number of staff associated with crisis teams and special task forces. Previously, according to the PagerDuty report, support teams spent about two days per week on unplanned work, but in March, that shifted to full time.
Recent market research also shows that IT spending priorities changed just as quickly and drastically as IT service desk workflows. A survey by research firm Pulse Q&A of 100 IT leaders polled between March 23 and 28 showed that most firms planned to increase their spending in the short term between 5% and 10%, with a focus on internal and customer communication and collaboration tools for 30% of respondents. (IDC predicts that overall spending for the year will be drastically curtailed, however, compared to growth predictions made in January.) Other new spending priorities identified by Pulse respondents included remote desktop management tools, mobile security and antivirus tools.
Ras Gill-BoulosCMO, Pulse
"At the beginning of the year, most IT leaders were focused more on AI and machine learning tools, and those projects have pretty much been dropped for the foreseeable future," said Ras Gill-Boulos, CMO at Pulse. "I almost feel like we're in a whole different year all of a sudden, focusing in on what we need instead of putting budget towards innovation."
DevOps teams go back to basics to help IT service desks
Priorities also shifted drastically for DevOps teams amid the pandemic crisis -- away from innovation and expansion projects and back to shoring up IT service desk workflow and end user security tools.
Stemcell's DevOps teams helped to order the chaos for help desk staff with OutSystems' low-code platform, which it had already used for the last two years to create and maintain internally-facing applications. Last month, the team used that platform create a "My Status" app in 48 hours that helped business managers track the status of employees and the IT equipment they're borrowing while doing remote work.
"This allows for management oversight and it's easy to track [employees and equipment]," Lilleyman said. "We didn't want a whole bunch of Jira tickets for help desk to sort through."
Similarly, rolling out an enterprise-grade collaboration tool such as Microsoft Teams or Slack would have been too cumbersome with a scattered employee base that had many different priorities to balance amid the pandemic, Lilleyman said.
Agio's IT service desk teams have also leaned on relatively simple scripting tools that help them troubleshoot client laptops more efficiently. As with Stemcell Technologies, Agio software developers behind the scenes have backed up IT service desk efforts, by maintaining API connections between corporate data repositories and the company's BigPanda AIOps tool to cut down on the number of tickets and alerts the help desk receives as they deal with the remote work transition.
"BigPanda maintains a dynamic reference table that allows us to add our own tags, so that when a ticket comes to a [help desk] agent, it contains a more enriched data set," Marvania said. "What we're working toward is, when we get a network alert, we want BigPanda to initiate a script that collects additional data points and include them in tickets when they get created in ServiceNow."
To accommodate the shift to remote work and ensure clear communication, Agio's DevOps teams have shifted from daily and biweekly sprints to weekly ones, Marvania said. They're also going back to basics beyond IT service desk support, by combing through 25 back end IT systems to ensure they use consistent naming conventions.
Now that they've weathered the early waves of change with remote work, IT operations teams are bracing for the next set of challenges, including business disruptions, and potentially, sick employees.
For example, Stemcell's My Status app will help the company correlate who had checked in to its buildings and where warehouse workers are still reporting in the event of a positive COVID-19 test among their ranks. Companies will also have to adjust to the new economic reality of the world during the pandemic, which will drive shifts in demands for the company's own products and services.
Ultimately, IT pros will also have to deal with the transition back to whatever the new normal will be post-pandemic. Already it's clear to Agio's Marvania that it won't look the same as life before the crisis.
"Companies are already asking, why do we need to spend all this money for expensive office space in New York in LA, if we just proved that we can support everyone working remotely?" he said.