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How to manage IT during a pandemic

Tue 31 Mar 2020 | Neal Berggren


Many midsize and enterprise companies are now tossing their business continuity plans out the window. Most companies can handle the one or two-day closures from a major storm or other natural disaster without too much pain, but with a weeks or months-long remote work and lockdown situation, the response is entirely different

Customer service, for instance, can be handled through automation, such as a support website, or their interactive voice response (IVR) software.  But after a few days, the company must determine how to take phone calls or at least have live conversations with customers through electronic means.  A few days at home isn’t a huge concern for most workers when it comes to using personal equipment. Now, companies need to address the security and reliability of those home office setups for “the new normal” of remote work. Companies with consumer-facing websites experiencing increased demand right now have other problems to solve – namely keeping those external processes working smoothly for customers stuck at home.

The truth is, many large companies probably have a pandemic response plan in place.  But if it hasn’t been tested or practiced, at this point, it may only be a framework.  Most organizations are not prepared to resume business as usual in a remote fashion, at this scale. But that doesn’t mean you must run around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Here are my recommendations for running IT during the coronavirus lockdown, from years of experience working in the IT operations groups of large companies:

Put together a Covid-19 response team

Akin to the White House “war room,” you need people from across the organization to help brainstorm and execute new ideas and workarounds to problems. That means developers, database administrators, website administrators, cloud architects, security analysts, network managers and so on. Don’t forget to include key business leaders who can prioritize needs for employees and customers.

Supply secure and simple remote access tools

Employees don’t mean to be careless, but they will do workarounds if the tools and processes you give them are painful to use. If your VPN is too slow to access company apps, they’ll get creative and use unsanctioned online tools to get their work done. Bottom line: try your best to make it easy for people to work remotely; many companies are using remote collaboration tools like Slack, Zoom, Cisco WebEx and Microsoft Teams. If not already in wide use, push the adoption of these tools. If it’s not easy, people may resort to insecure methods, or not work much at all.

Consider the needs of customers

Going back to the call center example, if your organization doesn’t have a modern phone system that is accessible remotely, you’ll need to consider workarounds. Those could include methods like social media or email or even text, but it depends on your customers. For less tech savvy populations, this may not work. Then, you’re faced with figuring out how to enable home-based workers with the right equipment or software to accept calls.

Leverage the cloud

Modern companies, especially young ones, are more likely to have a heavy cloud/SaaS footprint and therefore have fewer issues with remote access and bandwidth. But many organizations still have a significant amount of on-premise systems and data. This is a great time to increase your cloud footprint if you can. There are some simple ways to save money in the cloud as well, like auto-terminating development instances out of hours, reducing reliance on “on-demand” resources and using storage-efficient tools.

There are potential roadblocks with the cloud, however. If your IT organization’s security posture requires that remote workers connect to the corporate network first before logging into the SaaS application or cloud service, this could slow down or break connections under massive concurrent demand. If you haven’t thought through the process of purchasing a lot of bandwidth quickly, you are likely looking at a 60-to-90 day wait time. So your Covid-19 response team will need to consider how to conserve resources for the short term, such as by scaling back development infrastructure for the sake of keeping production systems running at full speed.

Grow cloud-native design

If you’re on one of the major public cloud services (AWS, Google Cloud, Azure), you can scale up quickly or even take advantage of auto-scaling services to do it for you. But if your applications are not designed for the cloud—written using cloud-native technologies and methodologies such as microservices and container technologies, DevOps and Agile, REST APIs and modern languages such as Python—you’ll have issues with cloud scaling. Critical business applications may need to be refactored on the fly if you need rapid scaling capabilities.

Have empathy

The emotional strain on employees and their families is sky-high right now, and it’s also very individual. Some people struggle more than others adapting to the isolation of working from home. They may need more guidance, communications, and encouragement. Some will have spouses or relatives who have lost jobs. Others will have less time to work, given the needs of caring for children now at home 24 x 7 and/or sick relatives. Patience and compassion are powerful leadership qualities during these times.

IT workers play an essential job right now. They are doing heroics — working late into the night to fix problems and develop scrappy solutions to help remote workers and customers stay connected and continue to be productive during extremely difficult times. IT leaders will need to watch for burnout. They can offer support by ensuring their teams feel appreciated, are able to manage conflict effectively and have the tools and processes in place to work together cohesively and solve issues faster.

It’s helpful to remember that pandemics are temporary, and we will get through it. People will adapt faster than we may foresee right now. When this emergency passes, we will be able to look back and learn what worked and what didn’t; these experiences will help our organizations solidify and strengthen response plans when and if we are faced with a similar event down the road.

Experts featured:

Neal Berggren

Solutions Architect

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