Over a Decade as a Remote IT Professional: Here's My Advice
April 28, 2020

Leon Adato
SolarWinds

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I'm no stranger to remote work. I've been an IT professional since 1989 and "online" since 1980. IT professionals back then were exploring how far we could push our online life — given the enormous advances in PC communication technology — and even though several employers leveraged my willingness to dial in after hours, my first full remote-work opportunity came in 1998. Back then, I was able to connect from home via a blazingly fast (for the time) 128k ISDN modem, and I've been working 100% remote for over a decade now.

That said, many companies (and far more individual employees) have never considered remote work as an option — certainly not for more than a handful of "special situations." However, remote work is not at all a new concept and it doesn't have to be a sea-change of the corporate culture.

For technology professionals who are now adapting to remote environments, I've compiled some techniques I've learned and cultivated over the years on how to manage a distributed, homebound workforce and work effectively.

The Technical Advice

From a technical standpoint, the process of setting up a remote workforce is well-known — first, set up a VPN concentrator somewhere within the corporate network (closely related: consider purchasing additional bandwidth for inbound traffic) and distribute the VPN client software to employees, making sure to provide for all device types and operating systems. You should then move on to reviewing your internal network and access controls to ensuring those VPN connections can get to the services they need and can't get to areas that should remain out of bounds.

One step you definitely shouldn't skip, as it's arguably the most important, is monitoring. This will allow the company to proactively understand when and where failures occur/pressure builds up and must be relieved. While I can't stress enough how important monitoring is, even more important is also understanding what exactly you should be monitoring. Sure, monitoring is good for looking into resource usage — bandwidth, user connections, percent utilization on affected systems, and so on. But you can build a more robust monitoring system by adding modules for necessary protocols like NetFlow for monitoring network traffic and adding application performance management (APM) solutions for monitoring internal business applications. It's also important for monitoring what information is being accessed (and by who), as a remote workforce comes with its own risks.

The Human Advice

As important as it is to have all the technical elements set up, the far more interesting part of remote work are the particulars of people and processes. Let's break each of these down into five categories:

1. Clear Communication: It's imperative for the communication channels natural in an office setting to not get lost while everyone is geographically dispersed. It's easy to lose important details, not to mention the sense of connection and being in sync. Also, you must not forget 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. All in all, communication is key and maintaining those social work networks are important to both, collaboration and your day-to-day work.

2. Staying Connected: Many employees crave and even thrive in the bustle of workplace interactions (especially those of us who identify as extroverts) while others will miss the office because it's a chance to interact with other adults who aren't their immediate family. One of the biggest non-technical challenges 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-related chat areas focusing on topics ranging from entertainment to parenting to hobbies.

3. Trust: A common 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 — who may be wondering how they'll know what's important to work on if they can't pop their head into the manager's office and ask. In the face of the oncoming crisis, managers should provide direction without micromanaging. Leaders should think about adding some structure to their workflow — how tasks are assigned, how staff can quickly and conveniently communicate progress and status in a way you can stay informed but doesn't interrupt them, etc. You also have to remember some employees have worked remote for years, but others haven't, so it's important to understand everyone's workspace at home will be different (some more suitable than others). Due to this (and other factors such as family, schedules, etc.) every employee will work and manage their time differently.

4. Creating a Work Environment at Home: Creating a comfortable workspace means having options. In the office we naturally get up and move around, so it's important to find this at home as well. Your options may be limited due to the need to share space with other household members, but if you're able to get a little creative, you'll have options to break up the monotony.

The Business Advice

Communication is essential. Businesses need to adopt a policy of open "no fault, no blame" communication and be prepared to start the conversation with their employees on what is and isn't working. It's necessary to ask critical questions, knowing it will never be a "one-size-fits-all" approach. Which employees could shift their work to a fully remote schedule by the end of next week? What are the limiting factors? These questions are critical, and they need to be addressed in clear, honest, and non-judgmental conversations, preventing employees from feeling as if "their back is against the wall."

At the same time, organizations need to have conversations 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 who less experienced managers can lean on for advice. At other times there are more specific challenges, and each business will have to address those separately.

Business leaders should be flexible, allowing organizations, teams, individual managers (and their staff) to adopt the habits, structure, and tools that work best for them (while still accomplishing the business's goals). One such tool is the concept of "work-life blending," where the hours worked are far more flexible and varied. Leaders should also build into the corporate remote work plan a consideration those employees who cannot work remotely — from maintenance workers and cleaning staff to the people who maintain the systems in large data centers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, everyone — from business leadership down to each individual employee — should keep in mind not everything works for everybody — if it's really not working for you, then it's OK to acknowledge that and find your own way to accomplish a goal. Many work from home guides emphasize a quiet organized space, however, some people might find silence distracting and music helps them focus. Others suggest a dedicated workspace, but not everyone has that luxury — making space for work can take many different forms. So, you, your team, and your manager need to approach this with an open mind and a willingness to experiment when the effort you're making isn't generating the results you want. If you aren't 100% productive in the first day or two, remain calm. As many others have said already, nothing about the situation we're in is normal. Nothing about it is your typical "work from home" transition. It's going to take you time to settle in and find what works best for you.

Leon Adato is a Head Geek at SolarWinds
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