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VMblog Expert Interview: Leon Adato of SolarWinds Talks Tech Pros and Remote Work During COVID-19


Coronavirus has already impacted global businesses from supply chains to global travel.  If COVID-19 continues to spread as the World Health Organization expects, an increasing number of companies will require their employees to work from home - forcing companies to create an action plan and adapt to an evolving environment while maintaining security measures.
VMblog recently sat down with Leon Adato, a Head Geek at SolarWinds, to talk about the steps tech pros can take to ensure they can effectively monitor and manage environments remotely while also enabling end users to achieve seamless remote work.  We also discussed the challenges of remote work in hybrid environments and what we can do to prepare. 

VMblog:  Can you share some background about yourself as a "remote" employee?

Leon Adato:  While I've worked in IT since 1989, I've been "online" such as it was, since 1980-back in the days of 300-baud modems and BBS-es (bulletin board systems). While nothing like our current online culture existed then, my high school, college, and early working years were times of enormous advances in PC communication technology and a focus among many IT folks on just how far we could push our online life. 

My first remote-work opportunity came in 1998 when I was able to work from home via an 128k ISDN modem, and I've been working 100% remote for over a decade now. I share this NOT to make some imaginary tech-god flex, but to point out how "remote worker" is not at all a new concept.

VMblog:  From a technical standpoint, can you explain the best way to set up a remote workforce?

Adato:   Sure.

  1. Set up a VPN concentrated somewhere within the corporate network and consider purchasing additional bandwidth for inbound traffic. Distribute the VPN from client to employees, making sure to provide all device types and operating systems.
  2. Review internal network and access controls to ensure those VPN connections can get to the services they need.
  3. Set up monitoring, allowing the company to proactively understand when and where failures occur/pressure builds up and must be relieved.

Monitoring is important for looking into resource usage-bandwidth, user connections, percent utilization on affected systems, and so on. But it's also important for monitoring what information is being accessed, as a remote workforce comes with its own risks. You want to have a clear sense of the people accessing internal corporate information-are those people who OUGHT to be accessing it, both from a permissions perspective and a "Do they even need this?" point of view. Beefing up your monitoring systems includes building out alert rules and reports, adding modules for now-necessary protocols like NetFlow, adding application performance management (APM) solutions for internal solutions, and so on.

VMblog:  What are the challenges employers and employees will encounter when working remotely?

Adato:  It would include things like:

  1. Misinformation: Part of helping any population through a period of stress is managing misinformation. It's important to recognize instances where employees are accessing unreliable sources, but whether a company should outright block a site is a decision best left to each management team and can only be achieved by monitoring.
  2. Socialization: There are plenty of employees who crave (and even thrive) in the bustle of workplace interactions. One of the biggest non-technical challenge's businesses will face in building a remote workforce is crafting an online analog for socializing-this can include setting up and encouraging employees to join non-work/non-monitored chat areas focusing on topics ranging from entertainment to parenting to hobbies.
  3. Hands-on technical support: A hurdle for businesses to overcome specifically in a time of a virulent outbreak is how to provide hands-on technical support without exposing the support staff themselves. This will stretch IT professional's troubleshooting, analytical, and communication skills to their limit, and require a host of robust remote access options to ensure a hands-on visit is only warranted when all other options have been exhausted.
  4. Trust: The biggest pushback most companies have is "How will I know if they're working if I can't see them?" The issue of changing workflows and habits applies equally to employees of the company-in the face of the oncoming crisis, leaders will need to learn ways to gauge productivity and employees will need to learn how to demonstrate effectiveness.
  5. Equality: Many employees have worked remote for years, but many haven't, so it's important to understand not everyone has a suitable workspace at home, including extra hardware, electric outlets in the right places, a landline, reliable Wi-Fi, etc. The gap most companies will struggle to fill if this crisis continues is one of helping their employees build this non-technical structure.

VMblog:  What else can you do to prepare for a remote workforce?

Adato:  On top of that, businesses need to start the conversation with their employees-which employees could shift their work to a fully remote schedule by the end of next week? What are the limiting factors? It's critical to ask these questions now, opening a clear, honest, and non-judgmental conversation, addressing any issues before employees feel their back is against the wall. At the same time, organizations need to open a conversation with managers and find out who would be comfortable leading a fully remote team-sometimes it's just a matter of identifying mentors who have experience with remote teams the concerned manager can lean on for advice, other times, there are more specific challenges each business will have to address separately. 

Another point facilities need to consider is employees who cannot work remote (or can't work remote 100% of the time)-from maintenance workers and cleaning staff to the people who maintain the systems in large data centers. In 2019, only 55% of Americans had access to paid time off, leaving a large number of employees without work or income for extended periods, which could create or exacerbate what could become a financial crisis. Businesses may want to weigh the cost to communities and their reputation against the dollar value of ensuring those employees whose work is not needed-when most others are remote-aren't thrown into crisis themselves.

VMblog:  And once a business has a remote work policy in place, what other best practices should they follow?

Adato:  As mentioned earlier, businesses need to adopt a policy of open communication-nobody is going to succeed if problems are buried under the rug. Also, organizations and their employees need to adopt an attitude of "work-life blending" where the hours worked are far more flexible and varied. 

Business leaders will need to adopt a level of flexibility they might not have previously wanted to consider. Recognizing and accepting the ways of leading a remote workforce (when it wasn't originally planned as the company model) is going to create a lot of new social challenges and bring many new pressures-for the business, the employee, and their family-to the surface. Those pressures will have to be dealt with because in the face of this oncoming crisis, there simply may be no other choice but to (remotely) link arms and forge a way forward-together.


Published Monday, March 16, 2020 7:33 AM by David Marshall
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