ICT considerations in setting up and managing remote work
For a long time, organisations have used the option of remote work to lure new employees. Are they, however, able to take full advantage of remote work or does it simply offer the chance of a comfortable, easy-going working environment? The Covid -19 pandemic has brought these questions strongly to the fore and has required the adoption of new working methods and tools to support remote working.
For the end user, remote work seems easy. All that is required is a laptop and a mobile phone and then work can start. The necessary instructions and co-workers are available on the Intranet, and if any problems arise, the IT support team can be contacted. All the software and data has been set up into shortcuts on desktops and co-workers, supervisors and customers are available via online meetings. This begs the question why anybody would need need to go to the office in future? What is behind all the shortcuts?
Remote work not for everyone
Remote work is not for everyone. Does it boost efficiency or simply offer an excuse to laze about? Some people find motivation in an office environment and find it easier to mentally let go of the day’s work when they can physically leave the workplace. At home, this may not be so straightforward.
Remote work is better suited to employees who primarily work outside the office, such as salespersons, consultants and specialists. If employees are used to a culture of being around the office, having conversations, comparing tasks and working on something side-byside with a supervisor, how can this be achieved when the team is scattered for weeks at a time?
In principle, any work that does not require one to physically face another person can be carried out remotely. This was completely turned upside down by Covid-19; when even some doctor’s appointments were handled remotely. Organisations have faced challenges in measuring remote work results, managing the work, and ensuring the flexibility of tools and systems used.
ICT solutions behind remote work
Technical solutions already enable efficient remote work with various devices and even with slow connections. However, the preparedness and operating methods of organisations may not have yet reached the same level. That is why some employees still need a traditional VPN solution. Cloud storage and internal systems still support VPNs, but this is by no means mandatory. All it takes is an organisation-level decision to primarily favour remote work, grant the required resources and, thus, achieve a technologically functional environment.
A VDI platform and cloud service go a long way and may even fulfil all the needs. Both require a personal username and password and authentication with a one-time password (Multifactor authentication MFA is an absolute requirement). VDI offers a Virtual Desktop Image for even the heaviest software (even 3D design) or the virtual software is simply shared as a shortcut on a desktop. All the data runs in the organisation’s data centre or in the cloud and no one needs to worry about accidentally disclosing data to third parties. The services may also be divided according to roles; no extra data is made available or visible.
Setting up these kinds of solutions is naturally not free. VDI solutions are available as hardware, if considered necessary, but the cloud offers raw computing power or virtual desktops paid by the minute. In 8/5 -type work (normal working time), a calculator can be used to select the most costeffective service. What is the payback period and the benefit? Data centre infrastructure and telecommunication links may require further investments. Remote work also enables 24/7 service (every hour of the day and the availability of the services must comply with this requirement).
It is worth taking into considering the following: reduced commuting, enhanced use of working hours, more affordable workstations, more extensive recruitment opportunities, increased information security, use of a temporary workforce for projects, scalability (also down), and potential cutbacks to office spaces as part of the payback/benefit.
Remote work prior to Covid-19 at Elomatic
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the only employees who occasionally worked remotely at Elomatic were administrative workers, supervisors and project managers. Their days mostly consisted of working on Office documents, inspecting and approving invoices and hours, reading and sending e-mails, and attending Teams meetings.
To work remotely, a company laptop with a VPN client installed, a mobile phone for the one-time password and, of course, an Internet connection either at home or through their phone was required. Before the pandemic, there were about 400 employees with VPN licences and about 40–50 simultaneous users each day. Office 365 services such as e-mail, Teams, OneDrive, and SharePoint/Intranet can be used without a VPN connection, whereas it is required for travel expense reports, approvals of hours and invoices, cloud storage, and software licences. The operating culture of the organisation also dictates the attitude towards remote work.
At the time, Elomatic’s remote workers did not experience many ICT issues, probably in part due to low user numbers. All the systems used by the organisation had not been properly tested for remote work; testing was limited to sporadically collecting user experiences. There was no need for extensive testing before the pandemic.
Covid-19 leads to scramble for ICT resources
In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything. People were asked to stay home, some were even quarantined. Travel bans and even curfews were put in place. The recommendations, instructions and orders issued by the government had a major impact on business operations. Some companies were forced to shut down as their operating models gave them no choice.
At Elomatic, this resulted in a strong recommendation to work remotely. Preparation was not in place to transition to remote work so quickly or in such large numbers. This resulted in a short-term shortage of licences, computers, laptops, information on system functionality and the sufficiency of VPN capacity for so many users.
The company’s Service Desk received numerous VPN licence subscriptions and questions about available laptops. The company laptops ran out in a few weeks and licences had to be ordered without knowing whether they would be of use to all employees. For this reason, the decision was taken not to order licences for all employees immediately. System administrators were asked to quickly test the functionality of the systems through home connections. Some users had no laptops, only desktop computers. The computers are extremely powerful and could not, therefore, be replaced with laptops. Buying new computers was not an option either, due to the hectic schedule.
However, the administrators’ feedback on the functionality of the systems indicated that the situation might not be so dire after all. As some systems could not be used from home at all, their users remained at the office or were given an RDP connection to a desktop at the office. However, this connection requires a company laptop and a VPN connection and does not run 3D images, for example. Fortunately, today’s home connections are relatively fast and enable even heavy remote work, as long as a slower work pace is taken into consideration.
Thereafter, more licences were ordered in batches of 20 or 50. Occasionally, the licence deliveries were slower than expected. The offices emptied quickly, which resulted in new types of support requests for the ICT department: The Service Desk received tonnes of tickets concerning basic support and connections.
Supporting use of tools on home computers through VPN
As use became more widespread, a new question arose: how could support personnel use their tools on the users’ home computers through a VPN connection? Fortunately, a solution was already available, it only needed to be scaled up: Systems such as Teams and Dameware (alternative to e.g. remote support) are used for this purpose. Users could take laptops and monitors home, thus bringing the related problems home with them. Telephone support is used as necessary.
The VPN system sometimes jammed as the number of simultaneous users grew tenfold. Fortunately, this only required a small licence upgrade to bring the previous 50 MB band to 200 MB. This did not quadruple the data transfer rate but helped the system support simultaneous users more efficiently.
What lies ahead?
Currently, remote work is running smoothly. There are employees in quieter offices whose tools could not be set up for remote access. There are also many who still want to do their work in an office setting.
Microsoft Teams has seen an enormous increase in users. Supervisors have regular meetings as well as more casual coffee breaks with their teams, while one-on-one video calls take place each day. The Teams chat is very active and the channels are full of messages.
Remote work will most likely be favoured and developed further going ahead. Running teams and projects remotely may require some training. It remains to be seen what the best practice is for monitoring projects and ensuring consistent efficiency and quality while progress cannot be reviewed face to face with the designer? Technology is not the answer to everything. Teams has, however, proved invaluable in this regard.