Employers across the globe are uncertain about when and how they’ll welcome employees back to the office. But one thing is abundantly clear: Remote work is here to stay.
To adhere to social-distancing guidelines, many business leaders plan to keep a portion of their workforce remote. In fact, “nearly 3-in-4 CFOs plan to shift at least 5 percent of previously onsite employees to permanently remote positions post-COVID 19,” according to a recent Gartner survey.* And IT is in the hot seat for enabling this new workforce reality.
To help us explore how IT teams navigate this “new normal,” we sat down with technology leaders (virtually, of course) from Pittsburgh Technical College and World Wide Technology.
IT Teams Shine In Initial Response
World Wide Technology (WWT) is a technology solution provider with more than 6,000 global employees. Before the pandemic hit, the company estimates that under a quarter of employees worked from a remote site. That figure jumped to more than 90 percent in the last few months.
Fortunately for WWT, its IT team made pre-pandemic digital workspace investments.
“I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time over the years preparing for this kind of moment without really knowing we were preparing for this kind of moment,” says Joey Toms, manager of IT end-user services at WWT. “Having a digital workspace platform and robust VDI environment already in place meant that, fortunately, we didn’t have to hurry up and burn the midnight oil for 12 days straight just to ramp up and be ready.”
Using an app catalog and virtual desktop environment, WWT employees access critical business apps from any device and any location. “The only thing that changed was the morning commute,” says Toms.
Pittsburgh Technical College (PTC) also made a smooth transition to a remote work and learning environment thanks to previous tech investments.
“Our campus infrastructure is about 95 percent virtualized. Not just our servers, which are probably closer to 98 percent virtualized, but our workstations, as well,” explains Jon Buhagiar, supervisor of network operations at PTC. “So, when we had to make the switch to working remote, the only difference to the worker was that they were not working at their desk anymore. They still had the same software and same standardized desktop image. Basically, the only difference was they were in a different place.”
That’s not to say the transition was without technical challenges.
PTC’s campus, for example, is located in rural Pennsylvania. Many staff and students live in communities without access to high-speed internet. To accommodate these connection challenges, PTC shipped hotspots so users could access their virtual learning environment and stay productive.
Technology Helps Provide a Human-Touch
Another unique challenge for PTC’s IT team was keeping the college’s unique cultural and academic spirit alive.
As CIO Bill Showers explains, “We’re a single campus, and so our culture has always been very much centered around an open-door policy. It’s very common for folks to just drop by your office for an unscheduled chat. Our biggest challenge here has been navigating how to keep that family atmosphere and tight, single-campus culture and transfer it online.”
Collaboration tools helped the team both cultivate in-person connections and open the eyes of its staff to technology’s possibilities.
“We’re seeing all sorts of folks eager to try new alternatives and moving to collaboration apps and video chats to connect. These are colleagues who I would have never pegged for that, and they have been very progressive. I think this is going to raise the bar for us technology-wise moving forward,” says Showers.
The PTC team also had to find creative solutions to enable professors to remotely teach highly-technical subjects that traditionally call for hands-on instruction.
Buhagiar shares, “We teach programmable logic controllers, or PLC, in the electronics program and you need a physical PLC when you’re doing that. One of the ways we overcame that challenges was to use an emulator to simulate the experience in a virtual environment. While the students cannot touch and feel the actual device, they can see and experience the intended learning outcome.”
Reimagining IT Support in the “New Normal”
In light of the pandemic, getting users remote access to apps and resources was the top priority a few months ago. Today, IT teams continue innovating to address other challenges associated with keeping a business or organization running.
Toms shares that one of his team’s biggest challenges at WWT is getting physical hardware and devices to new hires. These employees joined the team during the lockdown and are located in countries that have experienced supply chain disruption.
“We’ve been very fortunate to utilize VDI to allow new employees in these situations to use whatever device they have at home while we work on getting them their company-issued device,” he explains. “Since they are accessing our data center and company network from a secure VDI instance, we can get new hires up and running quickly on a personal device without being concerned from a security standpoint.”
WWT uses this approach when an employee’s device is broken and requires an IT person to physically repair it.
“People working from home with their kids just seems to equate to more accidents,” jokes Toms.
When a device needs repair, employees use a personal device to access the apps they need through WWT’s digital workspace platform. Then, an IT team member fixes the work-issued device and ships it back to them.
The Remote Work Genie Is Out of the Bottle
While this transition isn’t without challenges, these IT leaders still find a few silver linings when looking forward to their organizations’ futures.
For one, Toms expects employees to be much more open to modern collaboration tools that were previously resisted.
“We’ve seen our video collaboration minutes explode, increasing by over 50 percent. Our internal team chat tool use has exploded as well,” explains Toms. “I like to think we’re going to come back to the office to a much more technically-astute user base. That’s my optimism,” Toms says.
Showers agrees that in addition to users adopting new technologies, this experience changes the way many students and teachers feel about distance learning.
“I think the genie is out of the bottle. You’re going to see both employees and employers demanding support for remote work moving forward,” he predicts.
Watch the full conversation between PTC and WWT’s IT leaders.
*Gartner Press Release, Gartner CFO Survey Reveals 74% Intend to Shift Some Employees to Remote Work Permanently, April 3, 2020, https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2020-04-03-gartner-cfo-surey-reveals-74-percent-of-organizations-to-shift-some-employees-to-remote-work-permanently2