5 Greatest IT Challenges Managing a 100% Remote Workforce: VPNs, Home Networks
For many IT professionals, the order to get their workforce remote came quickly and without much warning. For many companies and organizations, that meant compressing what should have been months of planning into a mere few days.
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.
Now that everyone is remote there's additional challenges for IT professionals charged with supporting a remote workforce — while being remote themselves.
At larger companies most support work is routed through a central service desk with dedicated staff and a clear escalation structure. In these cases, most support is going to be remote anyways, so call volume may increase with slightly more esoteric problems (like ISP and home network issues). But for dedicated support staff at larger companies, working remotely to assist remote employees, it's fundamentally no different than a busy day.
For many other smaller IT shops, supporting an entire workforce on a hastily patched together remote infrastructure poses a number of challenges to support. Based on our interviews with these 10 IT professionals, here are the most common.
Challenge 1: Planning for Infrastructure Resources
The number one thing an engineer will likely think about in preparation for a sudden surplus of users will be compute, memory, storage, and networking capacity. To prepare for rapid deployment of resources, it's important to have metrics and historical data to evaluate where you are — and what you will need.
While troubleshooting, the fewer elements you need to worry about, the better. Confidence in your remote infrastructure will ultimately make your job supporting remote workers much easier.
Challenge: Operationally, trying to look ahead at the resources you'll need is referred to as capacity planning. However, the unusual nature of the COVID-19 pandemic turns this into a business continuity planning (BCP) concern, which means figuring out how to keep the lights on rather than optimizing processes.
Lesson: Follow your vendor's best-practices for capacity planning and the handful of golden rules such as a minimum 'n+1' for host failures and the 3-2-1 rule for backups.
Challenge 2: Home Internet Is Too Slow
Every IT professional surveyed cited issues with users' home internet as a source of support calls and troubleshooting.
In a business environment, you have full control over your network. Wireless access points are positioned and fine-tuned to kill dead spots and maximize bandwidth. All that goes out the window when everyone is working remote and connecting to the network with a VPN.
Solution 1: Help troubleshoot wireless connections
The IT professionals surveyed experienced the full gamut of wireless issues from connectivity to bandwidth issues. Here are the most common recommendations in regard to wireless internet connectivity.
Check internet speed. Your first step should be to check internet speed. Luckily, that's easy enough. You can use a tool like Ookla Speedtest or Comparitech's speed test (which raises money for charity) to check your bandwidth if you're unsure.
Kill unneeded processes. One of the first things you can check is whether or not there are any applications eating up your bandwidth. Verify this by pressing CTRL+ALT+DEL and opening up your task manager. On the processes tab, look at the column titled "Network". If there is a large percentage of resources dedicated to that column, end the processes that are to blame — unless they are critical for your job.
Move close to the router. One of the best remedies for slow internet is simply moving closer to your router. Wireless can get finicky the further away you are from the access point. If you're set up in a back bedroom, garage, or basement, you may need to reposition yourself or your router for better access.
Limit bandwidth. If your spouse, children, or roommates are at home with you, ask them to refrain from streaming videos or music. These actions can hog significant amounts of bandwidth, and cause teleconference calls to drop. It's an escalated measure, but you can even get into your router and adjust the quality of service (QoS) settings to prioritize traffic from your work computer on the network. If all else fails, you can start blocking sites and applications.
Solution 2: Suggest a Wired Connection
If possible, send everyone home with a length of ethernet cable and make documentation available on how to select the ethernet rather than a wireless card. This is particularly useful for users who are sent home with their desktop computers.
Challenge: The primary challenges with supporting and troubleshooting home network connections are the variety of routers available — and the location of the router.
Lesson: A wired connection is preferable to a wireless one, but it may be difficult to achieve easily given router placement relative to the user's workstation at home.
Solution 3: Have Them Talk to Their ISP
Encourage your users to contact their ISP for support. At the time of this writing, Comcast and T-Mobile were offering packages that either provide free internet access, increased bandwidth, or reduced prices for a period of time due to the COVID-19 epidemic.
Challenge: You don't want to pass the buck while trying to support your users, but there are some problems you simply can't solve. Like many other services, ISP support centers are working remotely, too, while trying to handle high volumes of calls.
Lesson: Confirm to the best of your abilities that the issue falls on the ISP.
Solution 4: Provide Mobile Hotspots
In the event that a user doesn't have internet at home or slow internet, mobile hotspots are a good solution. One IT professional's company distributed mobile hotspots to employees with no or slow internet.
Challenges: Mobile hotspots rely on cellular coverage, which is limited in some rural areas of the United States. Hotspots are also relatively expensive for the company, but the show of support it shows to users is priceless.
Lesson: Make every effort to provide users with the resources and training they need to work remotely — in all situations.
Challenge 3: Troubleshooting a Problem Over the Phone
When you try to troubleshoot a problem over the phone, all you have to go by is the user's description of what they see on the screen. This can turn a very simple problem into an unsolvable conundrum — mainly because they do not see the screen the same way you do. Things that are immediately obvious to you when you see them they will not catch.
Use a remote desktop tool rather than relying on a user's description of what they see on the screen. One IT professional noted "this can turn a very simple problem into an unsolvable conundrum. Mainly because they do not see the screen the same way you do."
He recommended Teamviewer QS, which is a free software that is very easy to set up, and it will allow you to see exactly what users see. It also enables you to take control of users' machines without having to route Remote Desktop or VPN into the network. All they need is an internet connection. Teamviewer is just one example. There are many alternative solutions.
Challenge: There are inherent issues with training your team on new software in the midst of a flood of support calls, but it'll be easier than the alternative.
Lesson: Seeing the problem and being able to drive is easier than having it described and relying on memory of an operating system to fix a problem.
Challenge 4: Granting Permissions on Active Directory
Three of the 10 IT professionals interviewed found they had to adjust permissions to allow their users to work remotely, which is not surprising. Security-conscious administrators should limit remote access for anyone who doesn't need it.
Group policies are an essential timesaver when attempting to get everyone prepared to go remote. In this case, it's better to think ahead about the privileges to assign users rather than field support calls from the field.
Challenges: There are inherent security concerns with sending users to work outside the confines of a well-protected enterprise network. Make sure your users can access the resources they need to do their job, but also maintain a strong security posture with password requirements and multi-factor authentication.
Lesson: Think about the resources your users will need to access remotely — and develop an automated process to grant them least-privilege access by department or job role.
Challenge 5: Training Your Staff
Along the same lines as documentation, training for the service desk staff is essential to empowering your service desk and keeping them from having to forward tickets to already busy engineers. At this point, you want your engineers focused on the bigger picture. Their focus should be on prevention and remediation of issues. Effectively training your support staff ahead of time is key to operational efficiency.
Challenge: Under normal operations, support staff would be fully trained (and maybe even certified) on the technologies they're regularly using.
However, the speed that the remote order came left a lot of IT teams scrambling. Many IT professionals had to send their workforce home with loaner laptops or desktop computers, or quickly stood up remote infrastructure to facilitate remote work. The inherent challenge here is unfamiliarity with the software or potentially even hardware.
Training for everyone going remote means both technical and user training. While that probably wasn't possible in the midst of the move to go remote, there's time now to keep learning the new technologies — online.
Lesson: There's no substitute for well-trained technical staff. By training just 30 minutes a day with CBT Nuggets, team members will be prepared for certification exams, advancement in their career — and even a mass exodus of users going remote.
Don't Forget About Support
With the sudden shift to remote work, it's easy to get wrapped up in how to get everyone out the door and forget about how to serve your users once they're remote. While everyone is remote, be gracious (and once they're back, too).
You'll likely be working with a lot of users who have never been remote, so make sure they know how to contact the help desk from home, access documentation, and don't feel stranded and frustrated.
There will be users with a whole range of issues. Some will be firmly in your normal operating procedures. Others may be a little outside your typical lane. While home internet is typically not the responsibility of IT professionals, it's also not typical to suddenly hurry users to work remotely. To help their colleagues maintain internet connectivity in their homes, IT pros helped in the following ways.
Be kind. Do what you can to help. For many, you and your team will be their technical lifeline.