3 Ways to Go Remote When Your Users Don't Have Laptops
In response to local and state social distancing directives designed to limit the spread of COVID-19, many companies and organizations have asked employees to work remotely.
For the nearly third of Americans who already work from home either full time or occasionally — and the companies who already have the infrastructure to support them — these directives could immediately be carried out. For other organizations, sending everyone home presented challenges to the IT professionals tasked with preparing users, infrastructure, and hardware for the switch to a fully remote workforce.
We interviewed 10 IT professionals from nine U.S. states and two countries who participated in rapidly deploying virtualization, cloud, and productivity software, as well as hardware to about 3,500 employees at 10 companies. In some cases, they had 24 to 48 hours to prepare an entire workforce to work from home. Download and read the full report: How to Prepare Your Company to Go Remote
Here's what they had to say about the challenges with hardware.
The Problem with Hardware
Most companies surveyed had viable software infrastructure to facilitate remote work — virtual desktop infrastructure, VPN, and collaboration and productivity software. With a couple exceptions, software-based tools for remote work were implemented with relative ease.
Office equipment, however, posed logistical, technical, and social challenges for the companies as they prepared their workforce for remote work. To accommodate remote readiness, organizations need to put thought into their office hardware — particularly individual workstations.
Challenge 1: Lack of Laptops
Two of the 10 companies surveyed didn't have enough laptops for every employee eligible to work remotely.
In the last decade, laptops have become a suitable alternative to the desktop for many enterprise environments. For most office tasks, laptops and desktops are virtually indistinguishable based on performance and utility. For the typical office worker, an off-the-shelf laptop has plenty of processing power to operate standard productivity software and other enterprise software.
There were three primary reasons cited for their desktop infrastructure: industry standards, company policies, and cost savings.
Industry tools and software. For some industry professionals, desktop workstations are the standard due to system requirements for certain computer-assisted design (CAD), manufacturing, and graphic design software. High-end laptops may be able to run these types of processing-intensive software, but desktops often come out ahead in terms of cost to performance.
Organizational culture. Desktops are still popular in industries that haven't embraced remote work. In many industries, like manufacturing, healthcare, and government, laptops are reserved for employees who require them for their jobs. One respondent who works in the manufacturing industry wrote that laptops are issued or loaned only to "outside sales, employees who are traveling, executives, IT personnel catching up, and the occasional worker who may have an illness preventing working in the office."
Security and property management. Security is another reason companies enact policies that limit laptop use to those who regularly travel or work remotely. It's harder to lose valuable property if it never leaves the office.
Cost savings. Quite simply, desktops are cheaper than laptops to purchase. They are also easier to maintain and configure, and more durable than laptops. There's also less chance a desktop will be accidentally damaged.
For these reasons, desktops make sense for many companies, which subsequently makes the switch to remote work more challenging for the IT teams charged with sending a workforce remote.
The IT professionals we interviewed found three solutions for quickly sending people home with a computer.
Solution 1: Hand out spare laptops
The first thing you should do is deplete the hardware you have on-hand — even if it's not perfect. Many IT shops have a stack of old or loaner laptops lying around. Deplete your cabinet of old hardware before moving to the labor-intensive second solution. The vast majority of office workers really only need a machine that can handle the Microsoft Office suite (Outlook, Word, and Excel) and a browser.
Challenges: Loaning out old laptops is not the perfect solution — and it's a solution that crumbles at scale. Functionally, even if the laptops are updated, operational, and imaged properly, you're still giving someone a hardware they're not familiar with. You're inevitably going to have to support that laptop and its user remotely.
Lesson: Know exactly what hardware employees need by job role to better prepare for the possibility of remote work.
Solution 2: Take desktops home
There are many good arguments for allowing employees to take their desktop towers home with them. The users are already familiar with the machine, which has all their applications and files. You can be reasonably confident that the accessories they grabbed from the office will work with it. However, there are also challenges associated with sending hundreds or thousands of desktops — and their accessories — home with employees.
Challenges: Sending desktops home with newly remote workers may seem like the easiest thing to do in the short-term. However, the IT administrators interviewed found that it posed challenges in practice.
Wired access only. Most enterprise PCs are built to sit on a desk and connected to ethernet, which means they often don't have built-in wireless cards. One company's IT team solved this problem "by purchasing USB wireless cards at local retail stores". It may also be helpful to send everyone home with a length of ethernet cable as a backup. Take this into consideration before everyone heads out the door. Otherwise, be prepared to support both hardware and network connectivity issues remotely.
User support for desktop setup. Some people will not know how to set up their desktop computer at home. In at least one case, "IT staff struggled to help a newly remote employee over the phone to navigate all the cables and ports." Eventually, support techs resorted to FaceTime and other video call software to provide support.
Remote software support. Support can be challenging enough in a business environment when everyone is on the same network and using the same hardware. Troubleshooting becomes particularly challenging with the X factors (damage in transport, new hardware, misconfiguration, network connectivity, etc.).
Lesson: Prepare documentation for the most basic hardware tasks — and develop the documentation for someone with no experience with computer hardware. Even the most expeditious way to get people remote requires unique support challenges.
Solution 3: Buy new laptops
In the event that there isn't spare hardware and it's impossible for employees to take home desktops, then purchasing laptops may be the only solution to get a workforce remote. At least one company purchased "hundreds of laptops so that employees could take them". There are benefits to this solution. Supporting a homogenous device environment makes support easier. Additionally, with the purchase of new hardware, you'll be confident of the ability to send the workforce remote again. However, there are logistical challenges to this solution.
Challenges: Quickly purchasing and deploying hardware to a remote workforce is fraught with potential financial, logistical, and support challenges. The greatest challenge one IT team faced was a logistical one — unpacking, configuring, and setting up hundreds of laptops. In this particular case, the desktops weren't functional with the company's VDI environment, which led to the decision to purchase the laptops. Ultimately, they were "stuck getting all users into the Active Directory group that allowed VPN access".
Lesson: Laptops with a dock are a versatile solution for an increasingly mobile workforce. Purchasing laptops may not be cheaper upfront, but it's cheaper and easier to set up everyone for remote work ahead of the immediate demand, rather than implement the infrastructure and hardware piecemeal — or rapidly.
Hardware was just one of the challenges IT professionals faced while rapidly scaling and deploying their infrastructure to accommodate remote work. In the case study, How to Prepare Your Company to Go Remote, we compiled 29 lessons from 10 IT professionals who had to quickly take the majority (or all) of their workforce remote quickly.
Download and read the full report: How to Prepare Your Company to Go Remote