It was not the best of times
There is absolutely no mistaking that we are currently living in very strange times. We have a duty to our friends, colleagues and fellow Australians to do what we can to limit the spread of a pandemic. Remote and large Australia seemed largely unaffected by the pandemics in the past. Even natural disasters although at times numerous and devastating to the people who experience them, are more commonly localised to local areas.
There is no mistaking that this is a different type of disaster we need to deal with. The measures taken to minimise the impact on our health system is certainly going to impact our economy. It has already affected the livelihood of many people and there is no doubt that there will be a continued effect on the world’s economy for some time unless we change the way we do business.
Fortunately, a significant amount of our workforce can work in isolation, from home using modern technology and a little bit of ingenuity from IT teams and management.
Communication is key!
One of the most important aspects to solve is to allow communications between workers. It is vital to keep teams in contact with each other and managers with teams. Collaboration between teams can only happen if communication is frictionless. Keeping up your usual rituals stand up meetings, coffee catch-ups, guild meetings, Friday afternoon cocktails… will assist in helping people feel like they are at work while they are working from home.
As a strategy, there should be several methods for contact for different situations and to account for possible failure of 1 type of contact. There are multitudes of tools out there, from IP based text chat like Slack, Teams, Hangouts and HipChat. Conferencing systems are a must and several great software solutions don’t require special hardware to partake, like Zoom, Hangouts Meet etc.
Don’t forget there is always the handy cell phone with voice and text messages to make sure people have everything they need to work from home.
Last but not least, it can be easier to lose track of a meeting’s purpose when speaking online. Make sure that the reason for online meetings is set and create purely social video conferences like Friday lunches to help people feel like they are still part of a team.
Some notes for everyone
Home office, A place of Xen, Err, Zen
Now onto the home office. It should be a comfortable quiet place with good airflow and minimal distractions. If you ever saw a picture of the humble author of this blog post, you would see that he should never be allowed to advise on style or decorating. So it should be left to your own devices on that subject. Just make sure you are comfortable, and remember other people will see you and your office in video conferences, so keep it tidy. Some people can be judgy.
The requirement for the internet is a must for remote working. It doesn’t need to be the widest of pipes to the virtual world, a modest ADSL 2 connection will service most purposes from the home. The only exception is where big uploads may be required. Experience has shown that attempting to upload a 300GByte data set through a 1 Mb upload link just won’t work.
Manage your time and manage up^
At home for some, it can be really easy to lose track of time or get distracted. Depending on the type of work you are attempting it may help to keep task lists, split your time up, heavily utilise your ticketing systems etc to make sure you are keeping on top of your workloads throughout the day. If you already have a good time management system or ritual that works for you, keep this up. Just make sure you make a little extra time and effort to communicate with colleagues.
Another valuable skill is to learn how to manage up. This is effectively managing how you record your work, effort, requirements up to teams leaders, managers and executives. It will assist in giving you peace of mind that your work is being seen, and will assist your managers in helping you out where you might need it.
Notes for Managers
Your People’s Needs
Not to beat around the bush, this is going to change how people are managed, and your people’s requirements are going to be quite different over the coming months. Everyone is different, and it will take some effort to prioritise those needs.
Most managers and executives would have some anxiety over having a workforce that they can’t currently see. The key here is to make the most of your tool’s reporting and monitor how your teams are, communicating, fixing issues, and hitting their usual performance goals. You may find that teams on average may slow or hopefully find some extra productivity working from home, either way, expect some variance for a short while until people can get into a groove. Be sure to adjust goals accordingly based on statistical analysis of performance changes across your organisation.
Getting the Best from Your People
You may need to adjust current procedures to suit the new working paradigm. The changes likely wouldn’t change a lot unless previous procedures required access to bespoke machinery or hardware only available on-premise.
Outside of this, you should be able to trust that people can get on with the job unsupervised once they have everything that they need. Micromanaging a … distributed team is going to take up too much of your time and your team’s time to be effective. You don’t need to see everything they do, just need to see the result, and know that the work was performed in a compliant way.
Strategies for Business Continuity
Your disaster recovery process includes a well tested, well thought out business continuity plan to allow business to continue through natural disaster, pandemics, war, asteroid strike maybe …
You don’t have a business continuity plan…
Ok so not a laughing matter, but in some cases, laughter is a way to deal with stress in hard situations.
So for a part of any disaster recovery plan, is a good business continuity plan. Plan within a plan?
Well, the good news is if you are a fan of National Geographic’s Doomsday Prepper series you are in for a treat, if you are not, try to find someone who is. OK, it’s not really a requirement. But the key is to have a pretty good and possibly slightly pessimistic imagination. You have to come up with scenarios out of your control and work out ways your business might handle those situations, even take advantage, where it might be socially responsible to do so. Remember any good plan or procedure should get pressure tested on occasion, even if it is virtually simulated.
Care should be taken to document changes that will be undertaken in specific events. Everyone should be across them at some level. To help everyone to adapt to the changes, a wiki or a booklet can be created to assist team members with vital information like, how to set up 2FA, how to connect to the VPN, etiquette in Slack, conference calls, and how to raise a help desk ticket. It should also detail other rituals, tips and key contacts in the organisation.
Clearly, there are several industries where a “working from home” business continuity plan just isn’t as simple for, let us say an accountant firm, law firm, IT consultancy etc. If you are in the travel industry, we collectively feel for you. Other than repurposing some vehicles for freight there is only so much that can be done to combat an almost 100% drop in demand.
While not a focus for this post, or admittedly a domain of expertise, some considerations for construction and manufacturing industries where work can’t be performed from home, roster timetables, cleaning regimes and travel assistance ( avoiding public transport ) would go some ways to assisting prevention of contagious disease spread and complying with demands of physical distancing hopefully preventing a shutdown, if the demand is still there.
Now for the Tech!
Now, this blog post isn’t full of hypotheticals and theory, there is a little bit of actual technology to think about as well, it is the grand enabler after all.
Capacity planning is a big part of this. The VPN and Internet connection will likely be subject to extra strain.
Testing how your applications handle extra latency is also going to be advantageous, some may have some trouble with the increased latency, though suitable strategies like a Terminal Server may become more economic in such cases. Terminal Servers are also a great tool when your administrators need greater control over the user’s environment. Public cloud also helps as you’ll be able to scale these services to handle the extra load.
Your user’s internet connection will also need to be reasonably adequate for the role they perform. As mentioned earlier, an ADSL connection syncing at around 8Mbit download and ~1Mbit up should be enough for most things. Your admins and developers may also want to invest in a static IP which will assist in securing critical architecture, and only costs a few dollars from most ISP’s / month.
In such cases, SaaS services like GSuite, Office 365 showcase their strength in adapting to changing situations. They both are quite secure, can be accessed anywhere with an internet connection, have decent security controls ( which will be touched upon in another section and maybe another blog post ) and have some excellent collaboration features.
The final piece of the puzzle for office and IT people will be the hardware they use to access work resources. A BYO or personal hardware use policy can work, particularly if you have a terminal server ready to handle more sensitive workloads or for licensing reasons. Allowing your people to take laptops and other company hardware home I know will be met in some environments with some trepidation. The best advice is to simply record who has what hardware in your asset register.
You have an asset register right…
My point is, secure the hardware, record who has what, and people can then work from home in a more controlled digital environment.
This section can fill another blog post or two. So I’ll limit what I have to say here with just a few key points.
The traditional way to bolster network security is to lock access to applications to be accessed from only within the corporate network or the “Walled Garden” approach. This is great when everyone can get cozy in the office, but leads to quite a lot of extra complexity of network infrastructure and training on how to use VPN’s, strange authentication issues and capacity issues. A secure Terminal Service ( likely using Terminal Services Gateway ) is relatively safe to put online, ( limiting access to Admin accounts etc ) reducing some complexity, you may need to have a high capacity terminal services cluster to service the load. A more modern approach to providing access to applications is “Context-Aware Security”. In a context-aware security model, you allow access to applications when user conditions are met. As a quick example, you can lock down an application to authenticated users based on the PC, operating system, location in the world, IP address etc. This is a massive subject, so I might just leave this here for your perusal.
All this though is going to be pretty useless unless you have a good authentication system. Either purely role-based or attribute-based, you should be able to quickly provision you people’s access to the applications and information they need.
I’ll follow up shortly with another blog on Information Security with a distributed workforce. Watch this space for a link in the future.
Out of Scope…
Some considerations I will list here:
- Insurance, check your policies.
- Compliance, like ISO 27001, 2 etc… Will be difficult to manage
- Hiring new people … remotely.
- Workplace health and safety about the home and the legal mess that this might be.
The main reason I have left these out of the blog is that these subjects will vary wildly depending on where you are reading from. ( Except ISO 27001, that is an international standard, but is a grand subject that will make this already wordy blog, too wordy for comfort ).
Overall this is rather simplistic. It’s a blog post not a 300 + page report. What I do hope it sparks is some thinking, and in a toilet paper induced panic, we should stop for a few moments and think how we all can work together, yet physically distant.
Finally, we should say, while we are not exactly sure how long it will be until the lockdown is lifted, it certainly won’t last forever. Hopefully it is back to normal sooner than later.
But we should never walk away from any crisis without learning something. I do hope that corporations learn how to improve their operations in normal situations. Improved infrastructure and software tools can be used to tighten collaboration methods and team spirit. Some industries may learn that they can be more flexible about where, when and how people perform their work and that we can all be just as productive.
One of the biggest positive aspects is that there has been a significant reduction of travelling people on roads and in the air. This has had a significant reduction in carbon emissions and airborne pollutants in many heavily populated cities around the world.
There are a multitudes of other lessons that will likely be learnt, once this is over, have a retrospective look at how you dealt with the crisis, work out what can be done better and work how you can make normal working days better going forward.