Supporting the supporters: Giving IT teams what they need to handle remote working

Supporting the supporters: Giving IT teams what they need to handle remote working

John Leonard
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IT leaders and support staff reveal strategies for coping and opinions on video conferencing and I&AM tools

The coronavirus pandemic has opened up a number of gaps in society. There are people who've not stopped working and travelling and there are those who have not left their homes or who have been furloughed or laid off. There are those who are coping just fine with the restrictions while others are being driven to their wits' end. And there are businesses that are seeing revenues rise, while others are in danger of going under.

Whatever the cirumstances, businesses and individuals are reliant on technology to bridge these gaps, keep them connected and see them through the crisis, which has placed a considerable burden on the shoulders of IT leaders and support staff. Again, some IT professionals are sailing through the challenge unscathed while others, often those faced with legacy systems and complex organisational structures, are having a tougher time.

We asked 160 IT leaders and support staff from all types of industries in organisations with 50 to 10,000+ employees how the changes have affected them.

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Base: 160 IT leaders from UK organisations with 50 to 10,000+ employees.

First, we asked 'does remote working present a challenge in terms of support'. Around a fifth said it's a major challenge or definitely a challenge, the largest chunk said it's somewhat of a challenge, whereas the small slice in blue on the diagram said it's not a challenge at all.

So what specifically makes supporting remote working a challenge? Well, the L-Word cropped up a lot.

"We have a lot of legacy systems that are pure client-server so we need to rely on ageing remote access solutions such as Citrix," said one respondent.

For another the challenge was about keeping systems secure, and for a third working from home was simply a massive upheaval for everyone.

"Users are not used to working remotely. And the company was never set up to work remotely" that person said.

'It's a challenge'

 

 

Here's a list of the main points reported by those respondents who reported having a tough time supporting their newly remote workforces.

Despite the difficulties that legacy tech is causing, many companies are reluctant to pay for alternatives in this uncertain time, meaning that tech teams are just having to get by as best they can.

Security was a recurring theme. Of course, this is much more difficult to manage when everyone's working in different places, perhaps not on work-approved machines.

And given the shocking speed of the change, many individuals found themselves totally unprepared for their new circumstances and are having a tough time adapting.

Surprisingly though, while it was mentioned once or twice, Internet bandwidth was not one of the main limiting factors. Had this crisis happened five years ago when far fewer had access to high-speed broadband the picture would have been very different.

'We're coping'

However, as we saw earlier, most are managing to overcome these challenges. So, what was different for them?

Much of their success was due to what they already had installed, the structure of the business and the attitude of management.

"We had the infrastructure required from home working before COVID. Management just needed to trust people with homeworking. They have no choice now," said one.

"Implemented for all staff, no outstanding technical issues just involve purchasing additional soft phones and laptops," added another.

"We have a modern stack with browser-based apps and all legacy is accessible via VPN," boasted a third.

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A list of commonly mentioned factors is shown above.

In many of these companies working from home was already well established. Some had a distributed structure with multiple premises, so adding a few new connectivity points wasn't a big deal.

The companies coping best had invested in cloud for enterprise apps and infrastructure, and had well developed business continuity plans.

On the tech solution side, Office 365 and Citrix were mentioned frequently, along with single-sign on, password managers and 2FA.

So, some fortunate organisations had everything in place and when lockdown was imposed it was just a matter of scaling it up.

Supporting the supporters

Resolving technical issues is one thing, but another, particularly as time drags on, is maintaining team cohesion and personal wellbeing. IT personnel have been working long hours under tricky circumstances to keep their organisations functioning smoothly - as we've seen with some deal of success - but everyone has their limits.

So, we asked 'how do you foster team spirit and keep morale high within the IT team?'

Here are some typical replies.

Because management from a distance is harder it's important to establish a routine. It's equally important to be able to tune out of work issues and have a laugh.

Building in regular catch-ups over conferencing software - video not audio - was a recurrent theme, and not just team chats, also one-to-ones. Not everybody feels comfortable in a team meeting where the loudest voices tend to dominate.

Video conferencing tools

It's amazing to think that two years ago Zoom was virtually unknown and yet now its a verb like Hoover and Google (maybe the double ‘o' is the secret?). Its rise has been nothing short of meteoric and it was the second most used video conferencing tool among our respondents.

Given Microsoft's install base among Computing's readership, its no surprise that Teams was top; in third place was Cisco WebEx.

A little further down the list we see teams using Slack, which does have a video facility but is only really suitable for small groups, likewise with WhatsApp. Others preferred Google Hangouts, LogMeIn, and Apple FaceTime - which is fine if you're on Apple, not so good if you're not - and the long tail features 3CX, Bluejeans (recently acquired by Verizon) and a host of others.

We asked about the strengths and weaknesses of these tools, what respondents had come to like and dislike now they were using them more frequently. Here are the top three.

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First Microsoft Teams. Respondents loved the integration with Office 365 and Active Directory which made many tasks easier. And they liked the ease of use, or at least some of them did - others weren't quite so keen. The document and screen sharing facility gained another thumbs up.

They weren't so keen on the small number of visible streams, you could only view four participants at once (much less than Zoom, for example) although Microsoft has since upped this to nine. The web app was described as ‘poor', and some found the UI confusing. One IT leader described Teams as ‘buggy and immature'.

Then we have Zoom. People love the large-group capability and the fact that it is quick and easy to deploy. It's also relatively inexpensive.

What they didn't like were the endless stream of security and privacy issues - traffic being routed through China, zero-day exploits being bought and sold, etc. The company had said Zoom meetings are end-to-end encrypted, which turned out to be untrue, and 'Zoombombing' - projecting porn into meetings - has become a global phenomenon. The company vows it's mending its ways, but still you should be careful what you entrust to Zoom.

There were also moans about the audio quality especially when two people try to speak at once. And the mic and camera detection wasn't the best other people said.

And then there's Cisco WebEx which has been around for decades and is a good solid product, according to respondents who use it. Webex integrates with Outlook, which is a great help since so many people use Microsoft's email and calendar app. Good picture quality, good controls, very scalable and reliable, was the overall verdict.

On the downside, consensus was that the UI is clunky and needs an update. It's slow to start which can be quite a big deal if you're your running late. Administration was said to be complex and the support from Cisco less than stellar.

Identity and access management tools

We touched on security pertaining to Zoom, but of course that's just part of a much bigger picture. With staff spread out over multiple locations, using many more connections and devices and applications that may not have been vetted by the IT team, protecting data and systems is a difficult but vital task. A key tool in this is I&AM software, making sure people are who they say they are and that they're authorised to use the systems and data they are trying to access.

So we asked which I&AM tools, the organisation used.

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Top by a massive margin was Microsoft Active Directory (no surprise as it's integrated with all Microsoft enterprise tools), followed by RSA, Okta, Google Cloud, IBM, Oracle, Auth0, and then a long tail including AWS, IBM, Sailpoint and others.

Once again, we asked about the top three. What were the pros and cons?

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Microsoft AD is deeply integrated with O365 Azure Dynamics and the rest of the Microsoft stack. It's a simple beast really, it does what it does managing identity across applications; it's flexible and familiar and it's easy to find engineers who understand it.

However, it's not terribly secure, according to our respondents, and makes a juicy target for hackers. Others complained about the APIs, and the complexity of both admin and licensing options was mentioned as bugbears.

Next was RSA, a big name in encryption and security going back decades.

RSA's I&AM tools are easy to use, people said, and very secure with multi-factor authentication and other features all built in. They're flexible, portable and simple, but expensive, with a reportedly steep admin learning curve and it's awkward to set up.

On to Okta. The fast-growing cloud-based identity as a service solution was praised for its ease of use, and especially its integration capabilities. Okta has a hook for pretty much any application you want to throw at it, plus adaptive multi-factor authentication. The single sign on features are very well thought through, but some compained it can be awkward to configure and manage, and the controls could be more granular.