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Remote work tests corporate pandemic plans

IT leaders share what's working and how they are supporting remote work mandates for employees as part of their corporate pandemic plans, as well as social distancing among IT.

When Anthony Murabito joined Wave Life Sciences, a biotech firm based in Cambridge, Mass., as vice president of IT 18 months ago, he initiated an end-to-end network refresh that boosted capacity, increased VPN licenses and moved a lot of operations to the cloud. While those actions have made mandatory work from home during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic far more doable for the 250-employee company, problems associated with long-term remote work still need to be resolved.

"Some of the things we are dealing with are much more tactical, such as employees requesting to take their desktop machines, multiple monitors or docking stations home," he said. Users want to recreate their workspaces at home, but in a highly regulated industry, this poses a significant risk and consumes the user services team's time. So, requests are being approved on a case-by-case basis. Every piece of equipment must be inventoried, able to be tracked and properly secured before it leaves the building. Once it's in the user's home, equipment must be properly set up for network access and connectivity to peripherals such as printers.

IT leaders across the country are shifting gears from accommodating short-term remote work strategies for snowstorms, hurricanes and other natural disasters to how to help workers plan for and remain productive in a longer-term remote work environment.

Due to the duration of the pandemic, Miami-based ChenMed, an operator of 60 senior health centers in the eastern U.S., intends to offer the small number of 2,500 users who don't have a laptop, such as front desk staff, the opportunity to take home their desktops so they can continue to answer patient calls and conduct other business. "Yes, it creates a lot more complexity in helping users set that up, but we want them to have a great experience versus trying to use an old computer at home," CIO Hernando Celada said.

This strategy gives him confidence that the machines will be secure when the time comes for workers to be sent home, which will be at the first sign of community spread of the virus because ChenMed's patient population is the most vulnerable. ChenMed's workers will need computers that can securely access patient data via custom-built applications hosted on AWS and video conferencing tools for virtual visits and collaborative consultations with peers via RingCentral's unified communications platform. A full 100% of the company's applications and data are in the cloud, either as SaaS or IaaS, a move only recently completed in response to the region's hurricanes.

Although SaaS helps alleviate pressure on the corporate VPN, Celada still expects far more than the usual 10% of employees to require access to the applications housed on AWS. As a result, he has provisioned significantly more licenses to handle the increased load.

"Other folks in my position would have had to think about how to upgrade the VPN hardware to accommodate more users," he said. "We just have to add more licenses." As for the increased performance requirements expected on the AWS platform, Celada said it's a logical change that can be handled remotely through the AWS dashboard.

Readying a home workforce

At Miron Construction Co., a construction company based in Neenah, Wis., that has 800 users across the Midwest, Director of Technology Edward Ruffolo and his team have started to ensure the half of the company's workforce not used to working from home will be ready. The IT team will check and update employees' VPN clients and assess the ability of their home network, specifically the bandwidth, to support heavier applications, including 3D modeling software.

"If their VPN client is out of date, we can fix that. If their network isn't robust enough, that's harder to deal with and might require them to call their internet service provider," he said. He also worries that, with all family members at home and using the network for work, school work, streaming and other activities, even a standard consumer cable connection won't be enough.

While Ruffolo would rather his team focus on more business-critical tasks, keeping home workers productive during the pandemic will be a priority. "Even though Miron has nothing to do with how the home network is set up, we will have to help," he said. Tools that enable IT to remotely control a user's machine will be critical in efficiently diagnosing and resolving issues, as well as clear communication from IT to users, he added. Already, IT has been sharing tips with users, including sending out alcohol wipes and stressing the importance of keeping device surfaces clean and free from germs.

We're a small IT team, but we can work remotely and don't need to see each other physically for the next couple of weeks.
Anthony MurabitoVP of IT, Wave Life Sciences

Prior to the company encouraging employees to work from home if they are able, Ruffolo encouraged users to take their machines home and test drive their VPN connections, as well as their ability to reach the applications and data they need.

The network is 60% in the data center and 40% in the cloud, he said, and with a call to the provider, the company's 1 Gbps pipe can expand to 4 Gbps without needing to install additional circuits.

Pandemic plans call for IT isolation

At Wave Life Sciences, Murabito has instituted a rule that prevents IT workers from being in the office together. "Business continuity plans tell you to identify your single points of failure. Well, we can't afford to all be out sick," he said. "We're a small IT team, but we can work remotely and don't need to see each other physically for the next couple of weeks."

IT also did skills and access inventories to understand who can do what and who has access to what in order to prevent any delay in services. Users also submit all IT requests through a centralized ticketing system so IT has complete visibility into user needs.

Although all nonmandatory personnel have been told to work from home at Wave Life Sciences, Murabito has a rotating support crew for the mandatory lab and manufacturing employees. "We continue to evolve our business continuity plans, especially around manufacturing and lab services, the two areas critical for the business," he said.

Murabito said, although it is in the early stages of responding to the pandemic through remote work, he believes, if IT provides the tools and support necessary, most employees will be able to be as productive at home as in the office.

This was last published in March 2020

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