COVID-19’s Work From Home Surge & It’s Impact on IT

By Rory Monaghan

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I think everyone is pretty overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information about COVID-19 and if this post gets very few views, so be it and I completely understand. This one is meant more as a diary entry for me to look back on that I figure I’ll share with others.

As we’re all well aware, COVID-19 has been spreading rapidly around the world with devastating consequences. The global economy has pretty much spiralled into what seems like a depression within just a few weeks. At the time of this post, 17,156 people have lost their lives and the healthcare systems in parts of Italy, Spain and the UK are over capacity and overwhelmed. Regions in China are now seeing a steady decline in cases and others are not yet at capacity of their healthcare systems but have a steady increase of new cases each day which could see them overwhelmed in just a matter of days.

I’m not a medical expert and I can’t add anything more worthwhile to the large amount of data and reports that are already out there. Instead, I’d like to blog about the current situation for IT departments, in particular Help Desks and EUC teams who are dealing with a surge in remote workers. I do not work for a vendor. I work on an inhouse EUC team for a healthcare company. Unlike the countless e-mails you likely got from vendors trying to upsell you their products for work from home features, I am not trying to sell you anything in this article.

China, South Korea and Japan all had to deal with the challenges COVID-19 presented to their businesses and healthcare systems earlier than Europe, the United States and countries in the Southern Hemisphere. Japan were actually pretty fortunate that in the lead up to the Tokyo Olympics, the Government was working with businesses there to encourage more work from home to reduce congestion in the city while attendees were expected to be visiting for the games. Large Chinese companies like Alibaba and Tencent moved to 100% work from home back in January.

One of the key strategies to tackle the spread of the virus is social distancing. Which requires everyone to try to leave at least 1 meter, preferably 2 meters of space between them. Most Governments also announced a ban on mass gatherings, which at first did not necessarily include workplaces but then did for all non-essential workers. Most Governments encouraged work from home for any employees who could do so.

The unfortunate truth is that most organizations were not in a position to just turn on a dime and enable their workforce to go home and work remotely seamlessly. I’m sure many looked on in envy as Microsoft, Amazon and others seemed to so seamlessly deal with moving to a WFH (Work from Home) first strategy. In times like these, I guess it helps to own your own massive cloud platforms and collaboration tools! Doesn’t Jeff make it look like fun!? I’m sure they also faced tech challenges with the move but you couldn’t tell from his smiling face. THIS.IS.FINE!

I currently work remotely for a company based in the US but I live in Ireland. The US was a couple of weeks behind Ireland in it’s response. I got contacted quite a bit from people in Europe with questions about Citrix and application delivery challenges they were facing. All this a couple of weeks before dealing with the set of challenges sending my own employer’s workforce home would bring.

I also shared a poll with more than 300 responses. 288 choosing an option in the poll and others replying on Twitter. From the poll results and overall results, VPN was just about ahead as the lead solution companies were turning to. Worryingly, 6.3% put VPN on employee’s personal devices. This can be a security nightmare. VPN overall can work very well but is not without it’s challenges and performance woes.

A solution like Citrix RemotePC surprisingly only got 18.1%, personally it was my preferred option for dealing with the demand but I was overruled. RemotePC has the benefit of the machine being there anyway and you already know the user has all their software and everything they need ready to go on it but alas it was not to be. Virtual Desktop got 39.6% in the results. Not quite the year of VDI even in these difficult circumstances.

In my organization, we considered Windows 10 virtual desktops. We already had the desktops and a Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops farm ready to go but we needed extra storage to accommodate the number of desktops that would be required. As it turned out due to the bottleneck in the Chinese supply chain, new drives would take 8-10 weeks to receive. That was a non-starter for us.

Of the replies to the poll. The most common answer was published applications. We went with a combination of published applications and published desktops. It was quite an effort to scale up the farm to have enough published desktops for the surge but we handled it.

The problem with rushing people onto published desktops and virtual desktops if they haven’t used them before is that they may not have all of their applications on the new desktop and/or they might run into workflow issues caused by differences in the desktop. (Differing security policies, maybe a different Operating System etc.) It’s part of the reason I feel a solution like RemotePC would work best. Minimal issues since there’s very little different, little to no user education required and performance benefits from Citrix’s mature HDX protocol and user experience.

If you have had VPN for select users but not all in the past, you may face workflow challenges, user education will be required and scaling problems can be a headache to name just a few potential pitfalls with this solution. I worked for a company who’s IT department setup three different VPN solutions just incase, the other two failed and they did fail, often.

If trying to move people to just use published apps rather than a full desktop, you may discover they were using OS features like Explorer Favorites, manually mapped drives and other fun quirks you weren’t aware of. It will also likely be a significant change to the workflow they are use to.

No matter the solution. Moving people who had only used a physical desktop in the office to a remote solution is bound to create challenges and help desk tickets. I feel like while our goal is to ensure the health systems do not get overloaded so as many people get the care and equipment they need to survive is all of our goals. In order to achieve this and to support mass conversion to work from home, inevitably IT departments will end up with the suboptimal red curve in terms of support tickets and likely complaints.

We all may feel the pinch for the first few weeks while we try to react to employee’s requirements. Good appvirt products like App-V and Cloudpaging could be essential to enable a quick dynamic application deployment. FSLogix may help if the quickest or only solution is to put the app direct into the image but you need to restrict who has access to it via app masking.

Much like the great unity we have seen in our communities with people helping to support their elderly neighbors, police in Spain trying to cheer up those in isolation by playing music, people in Italy all singing together from their balconies and of course the many, many dank memes. The various arms of enterprise IT departments will need to be in lock step and support each other  (a change freeze for those not directly impacted by the WFH would be wise, sacrifice your project timelines for the greater good) and hopefully those who have moved to work from home will try to be understanding when they run into a missing application or issue and not chew anyone’s head off. We’re all in this together. One for all and all for one!

For management who may be feeling a little uneasy about losing visibility of their employees, I’d like to reassure them that the useless lump of crap who will abuse the situation and watch TV all day was most likely going on extended lunch breaks while in the office without you realizing and has been coasting through creating dead weight for their teams under your watchful eye. That’s not going to get any better or worse when your teams go remote. I had my concerns with sending entire teams or companies to work from home but have changed my mind.

 

What you should be concerned about though, is a productivity dip while people adjust to working from home and also a productivity dip due to the this event. You should assume it will happen and try to support your staff through this.

A lot of parents are trying to work from home while also looking after their kids. Leaving them with grandparents who are most at risk during this pandemic is not an option. Many people have loved ones who are immunocompromised that they have to care for and are worried about. The anxiety levels are also a very real factor right now. It can be hard for some to focus on work when the world is changing so rapidly around them.

While this may not be the best time to measure the benefits of work from home from a productivity and even staff morale standpoint. It may be a good time to measure the effectiveness of your remote access technology. What worked well?, what didn’t? what can be improved? Did your business continuity plan include this scenario? What are the potential cost savings real estate wise, electricity wise and soft costs wise? This could be a great opportunity to reassess your business strategy.

There are some great innovations in Software as a Service and Desktop as a Service like with Windows Virtual Desktop, Numecent Cloudpaging, Xi Frame, Cameyo and AWS AppStream to name just a few. It doesn’t hurt to try.

If you would like to keep up on the enterprise IT relevant COVID-19 news each week, please feel free to subscribe to my podcast which is available on all good podcast platforms.

My condolences to all who have lost loved ones. I am also sorry to those have lost their jobs in this terrible time and those who are struggling with anxiety and uncertainty.

Stay safe, everyone!

Pictures sourced from:

Markus Spiske

Sebastian Herrmann

Ani Kolleshi

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