Working remotely causes strain on IT—and challenges work-from-home culture

Malcolm Gatewood hasn’t seen the floodgates open yet, but when they do, he says he’s ready.

Gatewood is a tier-three operations engineer at Cisco Systems, a global leader in IT, networking, and cybersolutions. In his role, he’s responsible for internal support of the company’s systems, and when the CEO announced employees could work from home last week, he saw the help desk tickets come through. 

While they haven’t been overwhelming yet, as more people try to log on remotely, he knows more issues will arise.

“This is definitely a time we’re seeing an uptick in cases,” says Gatewood, who lives in North Carolina. “People who are used to coming into the office every day don’t normally work from home, and there are a lot of challenges there—other than just not being in your usual space.”

Companies across the U.S. have urged—and in some cases mandated—their employees work remotely. Some local and state governments have taken it a step further, shutting down office buildings and restaurants, issuing curfews, and asking all nonessential employees to stay home. 

But as more employees log on from the comfort of their own home, it prompts some questions: How are IT professionals handling this? And what will this response dictate about corporate culture in general?

“Once employees know it’s possible to work from home, and they were productive and able to respond to their company’s needs, it’s going to be a different deal if companies try to pull that back,” says Burke Autrey, CEO of Fortium Partners, a technology consulting firm that works with C-suite executives. “It’s going to be hard to put that genie back in its bottle.”

Autrey says the executives he engages with have been highly concerned with technology problems related to working from home. Many companies don’t have the infrastructure to support a mass amount of people working remotely, and even less have the security to ensure they’re not being exposed. 

Coupling that with employees who are inexperienced in working remotely could mean a recipe for disaster.

“This puts a tremendous amount of stress on the infrastructure and the people who support it, and it throws a lot of potential security issues in there too because of how quickly companies are doing this,” he notes. “IT professionals are being told, ‘Get it done, and get it done now.’” 

In this day and age, it’s rare for companies to have no systems for remote work already set up. Greg Brainerd, owner of Braintek, a Houston-based full-service computer and networking company, says most business owners have some sort of technology that allows for remote access: VPNs, cloud-based services, applications like DropBox or Google Drive. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Brainerd says a lot of his clients moved to these types of systems because of a similar situation to COVID-19: Their offices were inaccessible, and their employees needed to work.

“We’ve definitely seen a big push over the years toward cloud technologies,” he notes. “We’ve stressed moving to a cloud-centric point of view.”

As companies are making that shift, so has Brainerd’s IT support staff. Typically, all of the work his IT people do is remote. They can monitor and access systems of their clients from anywhere with a secure Internet connection. Because they specialize in this type of remote work, Brainerd says it’s been relatively smooth since the pandemic hit.

He says he’s more worried about those businesses that don’t have any systems in place and hopes this will be a wake-up call. “Companies need to set up an alternative plan to say, ‘Hey, if this were to happen, what are we going to do?’” 

Autrey agrees. Those struggling the most with remote issues right now are small businesses who can’t afford a strong IT support staff to implement these systems, and local and state governments with outdated equipment. Fortium Partners vowed to offer pro bono services to some of these companies struggling with their IT infrastructure in response to the outbreak.

“It goes without saying: There’s enough stress and anxiety in the world right now. We have to get through this together,” Autrey says. 

No one knows how long this new remote work style will last, and the overall impact on business is still speculation. As for those logging in for remote work during this time of crisis, the IT people on the front lines have just one request.

“Please be nice to your IT folks,” says Gatewood.

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