With the current global health crisis, many companies have moved entirely to remote work, or are thinking about encouraging more of their workforce to work remotely. This change is stressful for every part of the organization, because it means figuring a lot of stuff out on the fly without much guidance to go by.

It’s especially tough on IT departments, though. For many companies, most of the things IT deals with were designed with the assumption that employees would work out of an office the company has full control over, on devices the company owns, using a network the company maintains. In a 100 percent remote world, this is exactly the assumption that’s no longer true. To say this is a big change in a short amount of time is an understatement.

If you’re reading this and you work in IT, it’s understandable if you’re feeling anxious right now.

We get it. At Fleetsmith, we shifted our company to 100 percent work from home four weeks ago out of an abundance of caution, just days before the city of San Francisco (where we’re based) issued a mandatory shelter in place order.

It was a big adjustment for us, but we managed to make the transition quickly and now we’re running about as smoothly as can be expected given the circumstances. We’d like to offer this advice on things IT departments can do to make the shift to remote work a little bit easier.

It probably won’t be perfect, and you may not have time to get everything done before your team leaves the office for the first time. That’s okay. What’s important is that you try to get ahead of this as much as you can. If a sudden move to an entirely remote workforce is tough for you, the employees you support will be even more flatfooted. You want to be able to be a source of answers and encouragement for them. The sooner you work through the preliminaries, the better shape you’ll be in to provide that.

Situation audit

You’ll want to start by taking stock of your team and their technology tools to better understand what things might be disrupted by a significant portion of your workforce going remote, and what gaps you’ll need to fill to avoid disruption. Here’s just a few questions you’ll want to find answers to:

  • How many employees will be working remotely?
  • If WFH is concentrated in specific teams, what kinds of software do those teams use, and what systems do they habitually access?
  • Which hosted/on-premises systems will you need to make available outside the network, if any?
  • Does your company plan to continue to hire during the work from home period? What are the expected hiring timelines for open positions? Is anyone scheduled to start while the WFH policy is in effect?
  • What are the ISPs that your employees have in their homes?
  • What physical security will be in place while the office is closed? Do the building owners have any special policies or procedures that need to be followed to enter while the building is vacant?
  • How long is it all expected to last?

Obviously, some of these questions are going to be difficult to answer on your own, so as a part of this audit you should also be connecting with colleagues in HR/People Ops, Operations, Facilities, and the executive team. You’ll want to be in close communications because many decisions will happen cross-functionally, and a lot of this will be decided on the fly. The earlier everyone is talking, the smoother the transition will be. But it’s never too late to start with this. Active cross-department dialog will be the difference maker during your time out of the office.

Inventory management

You might assume that most of your workers already have most of the things that they’ll need to work productively from home, but this isn’t likely to be the case for a significant number of them. Many will want to take monitors, docks, keyboards, headphones, mice, headsets, and other equipment with them when they leave the office.

Employees will take this stuff, regardless of your feelings on the matter. So if you don’t provide them with an easy way to get you information about what they’re taking, and you don’t have a good way of recording this information, you’ll be in for a major headache once the WFH period ends and a lot of your office peripherals are suddenly missing.

Obviously, if you’re already diligent about device inventory, you’re going to be ahead of the game here. But it’s not uncommon for things like mice and keyboards to not be tracked as closely as laptops and mobile devices, and for these records to be out of date if they are tracked.

At the bare minimum, you should set up a spreadsheet with employee’s names, what they’re taking, and the serial numbers associated with those devices. To make this easier for people to report, take pictures of the serial number locations for things that are standardized across your device fleet, like docks and computer monitors. This will help you to help employees locate this information when they inevitably have a hard time with that.

You’ll also find that many employees will have equipment needs that won’t come up until they’re already out of the office. Maybe they don’t have adequate lighting in their house for video calls, or they really need a pair of noise cancelling headphones because they end up working in close quarters with their roommates. A good thing to do early is to establish a policy that allows people to simply buy these things themselves and be reimbursed for it—this gets people what they need without the logistical overhead of your current procurement process. You’ll probably have quite enough on your plate without worrying about buying and shipping devices.  

To do

☐ Establish a policy for employees taking home work equipment like monitors and keyboards, and communicate this ASAP.

☐ Require employees to report what they’re taking to IT and set up a system to track it.

☐ Take pictures of the locations of device serial numbers on all of the standard equipment in use in your office. This will help you better explain where to find this information to employees so that they can report it to you for tracking purposes.

☐ Consider adopting a reimbursement policy for other equipment needs during the work from home period so as to ease your logistical burden while meeting employee needs.

Establish a single point of contact

Shifting to remote work is going to generate a lot of helpdesk tickets. This is, unfortunately, inevitable.

If you’ve already got an IT helpdesk email set up for employees to use when requesting assistance from IT, particularly if you’ve got it hooked up to a ticketing system that lets you triage and track requests, you’re way ahead of the game.

If not, you’re going to want to set one up, even if it’s just a single email inbox for the IT team. You’re going to have a really hard time dealing with the volume of requests otherwise. It might be tempting to try to set up a separate email for WFH specifically, or to handle your equipment requests through a different portal. However, this will already be a confusing time for your users. Establishing a single, easy-to-remember point of contact for IT will make it more likely that people who need help will be able to find it.

Even in companies that do have an IT help desk set up often find their IT teams get requests coming in from a lot of different sources -- Slack messages, emails to admins directly, just cornering you in the hall. If this is you, now is the time to get serious about this. It’s going to be tempting to let things slip while you’re in the middle of the maelstrom.

Resist that urge, however. The more you insist that things move through the proper channel, the more you’ll be able to handle them systematically, and the sooner you’ll be back to some semblance of normalcy. In our case, we found that the first week was really tough, but once a lot of the initial problems were dealt with and employees settled into working from home, requests subsided to a level that was manageable.

To do

☐ Establish a single point of contact for IT requests and communicate it broadly throughout the transition.

☐ Make an effort to shift all requests to go through this point of contact, regardless of which channel they initially come in through. It will be tempting to let discipline slip, but it’s worth the near-term friction to have a single source of truth for outstanding requests.

☐ Consider adopting a real ticketing system if you don’t have one already.

Choose and deploy critical software for remote work

At minimum, you’ll want employees to have:

  • Real-time communications (i.e. Slack)
  • Video conferencing (i.e. Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts)
  • VPN

The VPN is going to be more or less important depending on whether you have things behind a network firewall that remote employees are going to need to access. If so, you probably already have an appropriate VPN solution in place. The question here will be getting it deployed to all the users that will need it, which might be a longer list during the WFH period than it was in the past.

But even if you normally have no need for an official VPN, you should consider adopting one across the company for the duration of the WFH period. It’s likely that some of your employees will work off of public Wi-Fi from coffee shops and other locations while they’re remote. Even if they don’t, it’s extremely unlikely your employees’ home networks have more than a very minimal level of security. Asking them to use a VPN is an easy way to establish a secure baseline when you have no way of knowing their network setup.

It’s important to at least recommend an option for a home VPN to your users, even if you aren’t going to provide one yourself. VPNs vary widely in security and quality, and if you don’t direct users toward one that you trust, there’s a chance that they could use one that will actually make things less secure, such as a free VPN that is logging and selling data.

To do

☐ Determine what your mission-critical applications are and develop a deployment plan to get these on every machine.

☐ Deploy these applications as soon as possible, ideally before you leave the office.

☐ Consider a policy on VPN usage and provide guidance on which VPN to use.

Prepare for bad internet connections

You might assume that everyone at your company will have access to a good internet connection to work from home full-time. But this is actually less common than you’d think! Many employees have relatively simple internet needs and only pay for very basic plans, or else live in old buildings with unreliable wiring. You’ll even find some employees who don’t have home Wi-Fi at all, and simply use their mobile phones for everything.

Unfortunately, employees are not likely to come forward before their slow internet connection is already causing problems. It’s likely a stuttery video conference or a painfully slow file transfer will be the first time they’ve ever thought about it. So while this will probably come up as yet another fire you have to put out, the way to get out in front of it is to think about it now and have a ready answer available for employees who experience network trouble.

You’ll want to have a policy in place to address this as soon as possible, ideally before you leave the office. At Fleetsmith, we instituted a work from home stipend that employees could use for their home internet that was enough for them to upgrade if necessary, and we set aside some mobile hotspots to send to anyone who’s home connection really wouldn’t work for whatever reason.

To do

☐ Implement a policy to help employees upgrade their home internet to meet the minimum request.

☐ Be prepared to provide mobile hotspots or a similar solution for employees who cannot get adequate internet access at home.

Communicate with your team

Once you’ve got your game plan together, you’ll want to compose a message and send it out to the entire company with important information and instructions for preparing to work from home. It’s important to get this out early, because the closer it gets to your last day in the office, the more people will be scrambling and the more people likely they’ll be to miss information you need them to have.

This doesn’t need to be anything fancy. At Fleetsmith, for example, the IT department presented information and directives for working from home at an All Hands meeting and then followed up with a Slack message. But you’ll probably want, at minimum:

  • The IT help desk point of contact that you’ve set up to deal with requests.
  • Instructions for people who need to bring equipment home: what they can and can’t bring, how to contact you about it, etc.
  • Instructions on VPN usage and security on untrusted networks.
  • Any policies you’ve established around travel and company devices.
  • Any policies you’ve established around work being done on non-company devices.
  • Your data security and retention policies and where to find this information.

We think good communication is an underappreciated part of an IT department’s success at the best of times. Once you go remote, however, it becomes absolutely critical. You should get used to communicating much more than you were doing when everyone was together in the office, and you shouldn’t be afraid to be transparent about your workload.

To do

☐ Proactively communicate all of the above policies and procedures to your whole company as soon as possible. Communicating this information early and often will ease your employee’s anxiety and confusion and prevent costly mistakes.

☐ Set up cross-functional communication early with departments like HR and operations that you will need to work closely with

☐ Be transparent! This will be difficult and you may not be able to deliver the same level of service that employees are accustomed to. People will be understanding if you are honest about the challenges you are facing, however. They may even be able to help!

Tell us your thoughts!

This is advice our IT team had for making the transition to remote work as easy as possible, but we know a lot of you have now had the same experience. We want to hear from you! We’ll be sharing tips and ideas for adjusting to remote IT over the next few weeks, both on our blog and social media. If you’ve got something to add, please email me at jx@fleetsmithmail.com and we’ll include it in future updates.