This past week, organizations and IT departments across the world crossed a new frontier: remote work for everyone.
While business continuity planning has always been part of an IT department’s mandate, organizations and their people have not seen disruption to business-as-usual on this scale before. Preparing to adapt to a fast-changing scenario like the one surrounding COVID-19 is a major advantage. However, being ready for anything doesn’t happen overnight.
The need to support all-remote work has also highlighted the need for IT leaders to integrate the human factor into their business continuity thinking along with traditional concerns around data and infrastructure.
On Thursday, March 12th, Softchoice conducted a company-wide test of our remote work capabilities involving more than 2,000 users across the US and Canada, who depend on 24/7 access to applications hosted in our hybrid data center and SaaS applications in the cloud.
We met (remotely) with Jeff Reis, Sr. Vice President – Information Technology, and Lester Moniz, Director of IT Infrastructure, to discuss what went into preparations to meet this unprecedented need and how others could benefit from what we’ve learned.
Laying the Groundwork
Softchoice has always had a business continuity plan in place as part of our responsibility to customers. However, the last several years has seen the IT organization lay the groundwork for remote work with a focus on people, process and technology.
The underpinnings of native business continuity at Softchoice came out of a strategic decision to outfit every employee for flexible work. About three years ago, Jeff explained, the company made a switch from deskbound technology to software-enabled tools.
“In terms of the process, equipping everyone with a laptop, camera, headset and a suite of collaboration software – is by design when they start at Softchoice,” said Jeff. “Part of our business continuity plan is the toolkit we give them.”
More than just hardware, the broader technology strategy touched a host of software and infrastructure areas. For instance, support for remote VPN connection required network and data center upgrades.
There was also a major security component, including the adoption of TLS 1.2 – the highest standard for encryption protocols, without deprecating support for older protocols needed to support partners and customers. Planning for an all-remote work scenario included mitigating the risk of loss of assets as well as data loss. For the past two years, all employee laptops have shipped with built–in firmware allowing the IT team to track and manage anywhere in the world regardless of OS build.
Measures like multifactor authentication and device encryption also played a key part in providing employees with a secure way to work remotely. A single-sign-on (SSO) portal model helped ensure ease of access to applications for remote users – tying together all the components needed to native business continuity.
All these efforts were done “with the notion of any time, anywhere and on any device” in mind.
We applied this thinking to our Network Operations Center as well to provide continuous support to our Managed Services Customers. Even with all the components to support a remote workforce in place, however, Softchoice had never fully tested these capabilities for a scenario requiring remote work for the entire organization.
They warned that rolling out all-remote work doesn’t happen overnight. “By and large, we did have this in mind – but not in a perfect way,” said Jeff.
Putting All–Remote Work to the Test
On test day, the biggest concern for the IT team was the stability of the VPN infrastructure. This had never been tested for the load about to be put on it. While VPN connection is not necessary to access all work applications, this would be the area where strain would be most visible.
“We felt good about what we had designed on paper and implemented, but as is often said, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating,’” said Lester.
The good news: The all-remote work test went as planned with few surprises.
At peak time, Softchoice had 60% of our users with an open VPN connection and their total utilization did not load the VPN infrastructure beyond 20%. At the same time, the ticket dashboard revealed a ticket volume and issue type dispersal consistent with a typical Thursday.
“Relief and confidence were the words – that our people were able to work without challenges,” said Jeff.
Softchoice planned its remote work test on March 12th with the intent to capture and incorporate any lessons learned before shifting to all-remote across the company.
Circumstances moved the timetable forward.
“The COVID-19 situation evolved so fast – we thought we’d have a week or two,” said Jeff. Because the results were so positive, however, the executive leadership team was confident enough to go ahead with all-remote work for Softchoice employees beginning the following Monday.
An Integrated Approach
Jeff and Lester attribute the success of the business continuity plan, to people and process, then technology. They described the approach as “very collaborative,” involving many departments outside IT, including Human Resources, Operations, Risk Management, Facilities and Communications.
Decisions needed to be made and were guided by our company values. Keeping our employees well informed was paramount. Ensuring customer experience and our ability to deliver uninterrupted services was equally important. Enabling managers to lead remote teams and planning for upstream and downstream impacts to the supply chain were also key focus areas for our business continuity planning.
They agreed that the cultural shift toward flexible work also played a key part in the test day looking like business-as-usual from an operational standpoint.
Applying Lessons Learned
Jeff and Lester acknowledged that there are likely some organizations living their lessons learned around remote work right now. Some may be wishing they’d had a few months to prepare for this situation.
Their advice? “Keep challenging yourself on the what-ifs,” said Jeff. They agreed that there is a responsibility for certain leaders in an organization to consider different scenarios and make the right decisions and investments to be ready to react.
At the same time, Lester explained, the shift to cloud-based tools at Softchoice played a key part in reducing the stress on known potential failure points in the infrastructure.
Furthermore, they advanced the notion that being able to work anywhere, anytime and on any device extends well beyond emergency preparedness. “It’s a cultural work shift and expectation of younger people entering the workplace today,” explained Lester.
“I think if organizations start to think that way, it will open the possibility of reducing their dependency on a single physical work space.”
Where to Start with Remote Work
In an unexpected event, complexity and confusion threaten to impede the return to business-as-usual. Our team of experts and product specialists are on hand to help you identify, deploy and adopt the right approach to support your users for all-remote work.
The Softchoice Remote Work Preparedness Workshop is a structured workshop addressing the most common end-user enablement challenges organizations might face during times of work interruption. The session assesses your readiness to support remote work, pinpoints gaps and identifies requirements. Each workshop is facilitated by an End User Productivity Journey Architect, a highly tenured expert in helping organizations to define and enable modern collaboration and workplace strategies.