Love it or hate it, remote work is here to stay. The businesses, municipalities and agencies that have successfully weathered the pandemic are those that have been able to get their entire workforce quickly set up to work remotely, something they’ve likely done more than once at this point.

Information technology workers on the front lines scrambled to make the shift to remote work possible. Their work may be mostly invisible, but it was crucial to keeping many companies afloat. Two years in, what do we know about remote work from an IT perspective?

Tim Colby

Be ready to flip the switch instantly

At the beginning of 2020, most organizations were completely unprepared to have their entire workforce go remote. They could handle certain exceptions, like a remote staff member, or one-off situations like Joe from accounting asking to work from home to care for a sick kid. But everyone suddenly going remote at the same time was a different story.

While there was, and continues to be, a computer shortage, it often wasn’t a question of having enough computers to send home with each employee. Thanks to security measures like VPNs (virtual private networks), staff can generally use their personal devices for remote work in a pinch.

Early in the pandemic, companies, school districts and everything in between were suddenly asking questions they didn’t like the answers to. Can our phone system be used remotely? Is our VPN properly configured to handle the number of people who will need to use it? Do we have enough licenses for our VPN concentrator? If not, how quickly can we get them?

Many organizations quickly discovered that their existing infrastructure couldn’t handle the volume of remote access they needed. Instead of switching instantly to fully remote work, they had to overhaul their infrastructure first.

From a thing to a service

The pandemic accelerated the transition in how we think about IT. Rather than technology being a thing organizations own, it has become a service they use.

This may come as a surprise to engaged residents looking at town or school budgets, as well as companies projecting their costs. Even more surprising: The total cost of changing to subscription-based off-premises email and data storage is higher than purchasing servers.

The budget doesn’t tell the whole story. A service model for IT includes more robust support services that are customized to the specific tools an organization is using, a full suite of complementary products (like integrated video calls), and the ability to tailor your licenses as needed for individual staff.

Some of these may have been nice-to-haves before the pandemic, but in today’s unpredictable environment their value is clear. Plus, servers an organization owns can go down or be back ordered. Redundant data centers sidestep email outages and supply-chain issues. 

Robust remote networks aren’t built in a day

Changing over network infrastructure takes time. Identifying the necessary changes, choosing remote solutions, sourcing vendors, training staff on a new phone or email system — these all create delays in getting people back to work.

Say, for example, you need a new phone system to make and receive calls as if your team is in the office. VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology can absolutely accomplish this, but it still takes time to choose a vendor, negotiate a contract, put the system in place, and train your staff. Your IT staff likely needs additional training on managing the system.

An in-house IT manager may not ever have implemented a system like this before. Like everyone else, it’s not like they knew what 2020 would bring. Developing new skills or bringing in outside help for certain aspects of the IT environment takes time as well.

The ability to flip a switch and go fully remote has obvious advantages. The caveat is that before you can hit that switch anytime you need it, you have to have rock-solid systems in place. Like so many things, the way those systems are built and paid for may look different now than it did two years ago.

Tim Colby is a Senior Systems Engineer with Glastonbury IT consulting firm Kelser Corporation.