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Remote access is just one of many COVID-19 IT challenges

The coronavirus outbreak stretched many in IT to the limit of their abilities to find ways to accommodate the surge in remote workers.

The coronavirus pandemic caught quite a few organizations by surprise and the effects may linger long after the quarantine has ended.

IT workers scrambled to stand up technical service and hunt down enough laptops to give to workers, many of whom were working remotely for the first time. In addition to dealing with technical issues, administrators had to execute time-sensitive deployment projects while trying to explain the basics: connecting to a VPN, using multifactor authentication and muting the mic during a Zoom meeting.

Few organizations had the finances or the technical ability to quickly stand up a virtual desktop infrastructure environment to provide access to business applications that were only available to office users. As a temporary solution, some companies made do with their existing hardware and Windows Server licenses to spin up several Remote Desktop Session hosts and paid for the client access licenses to provide this remote access. Microsoft offered advice to help IT shops free up bandwidth for critical VPN systems for organizations that needed to accommodate a sudden influx of users.

Our advisory board members shared their thoughts about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, how it affected their operations and what lessons they've learned during this transition period.

Tips to help IT weather this pandemic storm

Reda Chouffani: For many people working remotely for the first time, it might be overwhelming when they experience computer problems without an IT person nearby to assist. There are several keys to help IT leaders prepare their teams to expedite support and minimize some common pitfalls of working from home.

Reda ChouffaniReda Chouffani

Here are a few things IT can consider to ease this transition:

  • Get the right internet speed. While many households have access to broadband, connecting to video conferences or remoting into the office computer is not always guaranteed to go smoothly. Employees who work from home need to make sure they have a solid wireless device. The quality of working remotely will suffer with a relatively slow connection by disrupting the use of video conferencing or some other cloud service. One way to ease network traffic at home is to put limits on the internet during work hours, such as restricting streaming video services by other household members.
  • Invest in the right hardware. Because being physically by the computer to troubleshoot hardware issues for IT might be out of the question, those in IT circles quickly recognized it's important to send employees home with reliable laptops and other equipment. This is even more critical today because a broken laptop may leave an employee out of work for several days while they await a replacement.
  • Train users on communication tools. Since many companies moved to a remote work setup, the use of real-time chat applications, intranets to post announcements, conferencing products like WebEx or Microsoft Teams and file-sharing services have increased in importance. Companies that had little use for these tools before the coronavirus pandemic have had to quickly readjust and invest in training so users have a fuller understanding of the tools they are now expected to use.
  • Other ways IT can help ease the transition. The silver lining of this pandemic is it is a great opportunity for IT workers to deliver meaningful tools and education during these challenging times. There are creative ways some IT departments have engaged with their users rather than through the typical troubleshooting exchanges. IT workers have been sending updates through newsletters and sharing daily tips and fun ways to use the new technology, such as jazzing up the Zoom or Microsoft Teams backgrounds or using Snapchat plugins on a video conference.
Adam FowlerAdam Fowler

Some shops had to scramble to set up security measures

Adam Fowler: Coronavirus changed a lot of priorities. Having the resources -- both physical devices and support-wise to rapidly send everyone home -- was the biggest struggle for many companies. Many people hadn't worked from home beyond the occasional email from their phone, so staffers were thrown into the deep end to understand what they had and what they needed.

A lot of effort went to the real basics: What sort of internet do I have, where can I plug in my laptop, how do I get this screen working? It's much harder to talk someone through these issues over the phone when the end user is not familiar with the equipment or the technology.

It was a high-pressure changeover. Everyone needed to keep working, so having to deal with plugging in your own cables or understanding why the wireless connection isn't working can be frustrating for an end user. Setting up a video conference and choosing which device to use for the speaker and microphone was enough to frustrate people who were already stressed by the great unknown of the coronavirus pandemic.

Security, of course, was another big focus. I expect a lot of companies got caught by their "we just won't give people remote access" setup because it was cheaper and easier to manage. There's a lot of setup work involved in configuring multifactor authentication and poking holes in firewalls in a short period of time. Microsoft's Azure Active Directory and multifactor authentication/conditional access is in a pretty good state right now, including user onboarding, so the timing of availability for those services was one positive outcome.

If this pandemic had occurred five years ago, then the IT world would have been in a much worse place. We would have been able to set up remote access, but it would have been less secure. There were products available but at a much higher premium than they are now, along with limited vendor support.

Brian KirschBrian Kirsch

Lack of hardware hampered some efforts

Brian Kirsch: For quite some time, IT has been on a path to reduce hardware, add more cloud services and optimize wherever possible. This helped trim budgets and was a necessary evolution for IT, but then COVID-19 hit. Few of us could have predicted how crucial that hardware was until we needed it to provide services for remote workers.

At my school, we needed to put together a remote lab environment for IT students. We were able to forklift everything the 600 students needed in a few days instead of a yearlong rollout. It wasn't perfect, but it does the job.

That seems to be the state of things in IT today: It's not ideal, but it works. We finished the lab quickly because we had the necessary hardware. The project was on our agenda, but COVID-19 expedited the process. We heard anecdotal stories of other schools that struggled to set up similar environments, but they didn't have enough physical servers, so the remote access system broke down when it could not support all the users.

This server shortage isn't just something that hit higher education. Many IT shops that worked hard to reduce their data center footprint are now laboring to get those systems back so they can provide the services their users need. In addition to servers and other data center hardware, laptops and mobile technology are in short supply, causing prices to shoot through the roof. IT teams continue to struggle to get the technology they need to help employees that need a way to remotely access their organization's resources.

It's safe to say few disaster recovery plans had this kind of scope in mind when they were created. Both people and technology are advancing at speeds that were nonexistent before this pandemic, because a once-in-a-lifetime event was not on anyone's radar.

I am seeing people who have never used remote technology not only just getting by, but flourishing as they fully embrace the tools and gain confidence by using them. The technology to support them won't go away when this pandemic is over, so we might just see a reduction in the physical offices we once thought were so necessary to do our jobs.

Nathan O'BryanNathan O'Bryan

Will working from home be the new normal after COVID-19?

Nathan O'Bryan: It's time for corporate America to embrace remote work on a large scale. While the recent social distancing order to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus is the most recent and probably most attention-grabbing reason, it's not the only one. Organizations just starting down the road of supporting remote workers have many challenges to address. The place to start is to define what your employees working from home need, then determine how your organization can secure those resources.

Multiple studies have shown that people are more productive working from home. I know many mangers find that difficult to believe, but that's the case if the remote worker has the proper setup. There are many other compelling reasons to let employees work from home, such as higher morale, less turnover and fewer sick days. Embracing a remote work arrangement can save businesses a significant amount in office expenses.

We have the IT infrastructure, laptops and phone systems to support a remote workforce for many jobs, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. Organizations need to build the internal culture, security practices and teamwork norms to support remote work that complies with corporate standards and industry best practices. While this can be a significant undertaking, there is no doubt that it is a necessary one to survive in this time of social distancing.

Protecting your organization's data is always a primary concern in these situations. Many security policies have been built around the assumption that users will access data from the organization's physical location, which is not compatible with this new world of remote workers. The IT team will need to rethink how authorized users can access that data from remote locations.

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