In the current environment with a real possibility of travel restrictions and companies being encouraged or possibly forced to have their employees work from home it is essential to review IT service capabilities to ensure they can continue to operate if these scenarios play out. For large companies with a dedicated IT department this is routine practice but for smaller businesses IT contingency is often overlooked but it doesn’t have to be an onerous task.
It is likely that the majority of a company’s IT services are either ‘on-premise’, meaning they are hosted within the company’s physical building or ‘cloud-hosted’, either as a fully managed service, such as Microsoft Office 365, or located in a data centre such as Amazon Web Services. Starting with the on-premise arrangement there are a few key areas to check and address.
Internet Connectivity Capacity
Not surprisingly it is often the case that the office internet capacity is thought about from the aspect of employees working in the office not the situation where they are all at home trying to remotely access services and this can put a different type of demand on the service.
The situation can be further exasperated if the existing connectivity is ‘non-symmetric’, where the download speed is higher than the upload speed, as is the case with services such BT Infinity and other FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet) offerings. In these cases when the users are remote the ‘upload’ speed becomes the critical factor since that is what will limit the external employees accessing the services.
Extra capacity may be needed via additional services or by ‘bursting’ the speed on fibre services, either of which may take time to install or activate. There are various options possible, each with their own time and cost implications.
Virtual Private Networks (VPN)
Most users access their office networks via a Virtual Private Network (VPN), typically a piece of software which securely connects them to their office network. It is not unusual for the ‘hub’ at the office to have concurrent user restrictions either via licencing or just simply down to performance. It is wise to understand what the limit is and whether it can be increased to avoid the situation where only some of the employees can connect at any one time.
Remote System Management
If the situation arises that all employees are working from home then managing the IT services on-site from home is also key, this needs to cover everything from basic administration using software to scenarios where systems may need restarting manually using specialist tools. At the same time it would be wise to ensure some form of monitoring is in place on those systems which can alert support staff if problems arise.
The approach for telephony will depend very much on what is currently being used. If traditional phone lines or ISDN telephony are relied upon then the only option may be basic call forwarding. One step up from this could be the introduction of a VoIP (Voice over IP) service with the existing numbers forwarded to that service.
For those already using VoIP there are more options. If the service is cloud-based, then it should be straight forward for users to use this service from home, either with a physical VoIP phone or a ‘softphone’ which is a piece of software which runs on a laptop or mobile phone.
Where a company runs its own VoIP PBX then a similar approach should be possible but this may need some firewall configuration and checks on internet capacity.
Communication & Collaboration Tools
With all employees working from home effective communication and collaboration is critical and at a minimum an instant messaging application should be in place for everyone. If no existing on-premise services are in place then it may be most efficient to utilise one of the many cloud-based solutions, however, if existing aspects are operating on-premise then ensuring these can be used remotely should be on the checklist.
Where the key IT services are outsourced to a cloud provider a few different aspects need to be considered. The first aspect is a fall-back plan. Although the big providers like Microsoft & Google have significant capacity and high reliability there is always the risk that they will have a major outage. Although painful during normal operating times, an outage when all employees are at home would have a major impact. At a minimum there should be a documented plan as to what the approach will be in such a situation and preferably this should extend to back-up services – this may be as simple as holding information on alternative personal email addresses for all employees in case the primary service fails.
If the company is hosting their own cloud services in a data centre then remote management is important, but this is likely to be in place already. Capacity should also be checked but it would be expected that this would be suitable given it would not make much difference in this scenario as to whether users are at home or in the office.
Remote Worker Preparation
The final aspect of preparation is the actual home workers. Each employee needs a suitable device, preferably a laptop for the best flexibility or otherwise a PC. This could be the users own PC if they are happy for additional software to be installed. Depending on the set-up it may also be necessary to provide an external keyboard and mouse, and possibly a monitor, to maintain a good ergonomic set-up for long working hours at home. For effective voice communication a USB headset is a good investment.
Any home working scenarios is only going to be productive if the user has suitable internet connectivity. A poor ADSL connection is unlikely to be good enough for anything above basic email sending and browsing. If audio calls, video conferencing such as Skype or Microsoft Teams and cloud-based collaboration is going to be used then extra capacity is likely to be needed.
The only short-term solution may be to provide a 4G Mi-Fi unit or 4G Router if the worker has a good signal from one of the operators, but this could rack up significant data costs. Alternatively, it may make sense to assist with the employee upgrading to a better service if it is available but this may take time.
The homeworker also needs to test all the components before any policy is enacted, this should include checking access and operation of all the tools such as a softphone, conferencing system, messaging services and collaboration tools.
With employees potentially out of the office for a period of time, all laptops or PCs should have some form of remote management tools so that any problems can be dealt with by technical staff.
This may look like a long list but with suitable support these aspects can be covered quickly and a plan drawn up. A small amount of time spent now getting everything in place could save a lot of lost productivity later on and, as a side benefit, enable a longer-term flexible working environment which is more productive for everyone.
Remote working though is much more than just a set of tools, it requires changes to behaviours and processes to be effective but getting the tools in place is the first step.