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IT needs durable remote work strategy to keep employees home

After the initial rush, IT admins are now faced with how to keep remote work going.

Some states are reopening their economies, but it may take more time before employees are comfortable returning to the office -- leaving IT with the task of figuring out how to make remote work continue.

Given the swift work-from-home orders states enacted to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, IT administrators used whatever means necessary to get employees connected to company applications and data. Now that the initial wave is over, IT admins will have the opportunity to take stock of their remote work needs and build a remote work strategy that addresses the ways to best meet them.

Doing so could be to a company's advantage, according to Ken Robinson, market research analyst at workforce management company Motus LLC.

"If businesses race to get back to what they perceive as normal ... there's going to be an employee engagement gap," he said. "I'm concerned that most people are going to be apprehensive about going back to the open-office, close-quarters environment that a lot of offices have adopted."

"That's why it's to a company's advantage to look to remote work in the future," he added.

A need for collaboration tools

David Rabin, vice president at Lenovo, said he believes the pandemic will "leave a permanent change on how corporations and knowledge workers work."

David Rabin, vice president, LenovoDavid Rabin

Rabin said Lenovo remote-work surveys and discussions with other companies after the outbreak first began revealed the need for both hardware and software collaboration tools. The massive migration to video-meeting platforms, he said, had been the most prevalent trend seen in the research.

"A knowledge worker must have basic tools to enable video collaboration," he said. "Among the three remote-work areas we focused on -- collaboration, security and productivity -- I'd say collaboration has been the most pervasive need, from the end-user perspective."

Eric Klein, independent analystEric Klein

The most basic tool needed to enable remote work, Rabin said, is a computing device, with the laptop being the choice of most knowledge workers. Most modern laptops, he noted, are well-suited to video conferencing, as they tend to have built-in microphones, speakers and webcams.

Rabin said, though, that there may be a desire for stand-alone collaboration devices, including Lenovo's recently launched ThinkSmart View, which can act as a second screen during audio and video calls. Such devices allow for video meetings while freeing up a worker's computer, so they can consult notes, work on a document or call up a presentation.

Independent analyst Eric Klein said he believed collaboration software, including Slack or offerings from Salesforce, would be at the top of a longer-term remote work strategy list for enterprises.

Chris McMasters, CIO, City of CoronaChris McMasters

Chris McMasters, CIO of the city of Corona, Calif., said municipal employees have turned to Microsoft Teams collaboration software as employees operate remotely. One of the things the city is looking to address, he said, is ensuring Teams works well with the Cisco phone system it uses in municipal buildings.

"To make that function really well, we need some session border controllers [devices or software that manage VoIP phone calls] put in the cloud so that those systems can act together," he said. "We have call centers that are operating at home now [using Teams], which is amazing, but [we need] that connection between using on-prem telephone systems and off-prem systems and making them work together."

BYOD policies

With the immediate need for "work from home" options, some businesses adopted BYOD policies by necessity, as they could not immediately provision the necessary number of laptops or phones. As quarantines continue, companies must decide to better support personally owned devices or to replace them with company-owned and managed ones.

Klein said the nature of an organization will inform its choice in the matter.

"Larger organizations and those in more regulated industries are more inclined to stay away from BYOD as the predominant way of providing their employees access [to company data]," he said.

Ken Robinson, market research analyst, MotusKen Robinson

BYOD policies may look more attractive, Klein said, during post-COVID-19 economic uncertainty. While remote work strategies will likely include making investments to better support remote work, he said, firms will probably be doing so with constrained budgets.

Robinson said, while bring your own device policies were typically associated with devices, employees' home high-speed internet connection has proved to be more integral to their jobs than their phones or computers. As companies consider more long-lasting -- or even permanent -- work-from-home options, he said, they may wish to consider reimbursing employees for the cost of their connections.

A changing view of tech support

Industry observers said the work-from-home shifts would bring about change for IT professionals.

"Probably the largest area of focus for IT professionals would be, 'How do I manage a device that I don't get to touch and feel?'" Rabin said. "Candidly, this is not a new phenomenon. Companies have always had remote or field employees."

But the sheer scale of the shift, Rabin said, does represent a challenge for IT staffs. Simply getting new technology out to employees has been made more complicated, although the ability of PC manufacturers to ship preconfigured computers directly to workers has eased things somewhat.

"We can take a lot of the previously manual work and automate it through software," he said.

There's also the matter of changing an employee's ad hoc home office into a more productive workspace, Rabin said.

While some employees may be happy with a laptop, others may need such things as a monitor, keyboard, dock, headset or mouse to work most efficiently, Rabin said.

Klein said businesses may rethink the way they deliver technical support to workers.

"I've spoken with a lot of companies that are dealing with that issue, specifically -- they've enabled employees to work remotely at a high level, but what they're dealing with is more support calls," he said.

As such, Klein said, companies may outsource support to managed service providers as a way of delivering more advanced IT services.

A possible return to the office

Robinson said it could take months before some employees return to the office, which means IT professionals should build a remote work strategy as if it would be a necessity for some time.

"Employees have to feel safe and comfortable in their office environments," he said. "There are some logistics that sound pretty easy but could be difficult for employers."

According to Robinson, businesses may have to consider new modes of operation to maintain a comfortable distance between employees. In one option, employee schedules could be split, with three days working from home and two in the office. If done correctly, a whole team could be in the office at the same time, allowing face-to-face collaboration while providing a safe distance between them.

McMasters said his city was examining such a means of bringing its workers back to the office.

"What we're envisioning, as we roll back, is a 50/50 environment. We're going to have 50% of staff on site and 50% off. We're going to rotate them out so we can continue to have social distancing and are not overly exposing employees."

As such, McMasters said, the city would be pushing the use of Citrix virtual desktops, which has played a key role in its remote work strategy, in both the home and at city hall, to ensure a continuity of experience.

"Basically, users will have no difference in their experience at home or at work," he said.

The prospect of completely abandoning the office, Robinson said, is not as far-fetched as it once was. In such a situation, he said, businesses could use the large amounts of money spent on real estate for other purposes -- including, potentially, additional tech to support remote work.

Rabin said the situation may indeed call for a reevaluation of office costs. He noted that, because of the quarantines, a massive amount of commercial real estate is vacant.

"Every day, [companies are] paying the bill on space that's going unoccupied," he said. "That alone is going to get companies speaking."

How significant that shift will be, Rabin said, is yet to be seen.

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