Coronavirus Plan: How IT Can Enable Remote Work

Is your organization prepared to implement widespread remote work to protect employees against coronavirus? Here's what you need to do.

Jessica Davis, Senior Editor

March 4, 2020

5 Min Read
Image: velimir -

Is your enterprise IT organization smelling a little more like hand sanitizer these days? It's going around. As organizations in the US and around the world prepare for the advance of the coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, plenty of unknowns remain about the virus that has killed thousands around the world. Several US metropolitan areas have reported cases of the illness, and the spread can be tracked by this dashboard and map from Johns Hopkins.

Public health officials are also tracking the spread, and the corporate world is proceeding with caution.

"When you walk into an event like this, there's a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt," said Rick Barr, Chief Operating Officer at OneLogin, an identity management and workforce access company that also helps customers with business continuity. That FUD is already changing how organizations do business.

Several companies, including Apple, Amazon, Cargill, EY, Salesforce, and Twitter, have curtailed all but essential business travel. A number of big industry events have also been cancelled including Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Google Next and Adobe Summit are going digital only. The Game Developer Conference (which is owned by Informa, the same company that owns InformationWeek) is postponed.

That's a lot of disruption for the technology industry and for most industries, especially since the virus has not spread very far in the US yet. Still, public health experts recommend keeping a "social distance" from other people of 3 to 6 feet. That's hard to do if you are wedged into an airplane seat, a keynote auditorium seat, an open-office workstation, or even one of those old-fashioned cubicles. That's probably why many companies are also allowing or even encouraging employees to work from home. In some cases, the directive to work from home is just if the employee is sick. In other cases, such as Twitter, all employees are being encouraged to work from home.

Is your enterprise IT organization ready to support the entire workforce of your company working from home? Thanks to digital transformation and cloud computing, you probably already have migrated a lot of work to the cloud. You may also have collaboration tools in place such as chat software and video conferencing. Still, are you ready for the day your CEO tells everyone to work from home tomorrow?

If you haven't prepared at all for such an event, it's a good idea to start with a team of maybe eight employees and tell them all to work from home starting tomorrow. That's according to John O'Duinn, author of the book Distributed Teams. O'Duinn is also a longtime software development leader who worked for the US Digital Service under the Obama administration as well as for multi-national organizations and non-profits. He currently works as a senior strategist for CivicActions.

You want to make sure that this pioneering team has someone from the C-suite on it, so that there's someone who can override any bureaucratic bottlenecks to making it work, such as authorizing a software purchase.

That team works from home for one day with each person doing their normal work. They interact with co-workers, clients, and partners. Use all the systems the company has set up. 

The next day, do an assessment. How did it go? Were there any hiccups? That's where you need to direct your attention. Troubleshoot the problems and then roll out the solutions to the team. It's only through practice that you will turn this new way of working into muscle memory, making it as natural as working at your desk at the office.

If you are the one who will be working from home for the first time, or for an indefinite amount of time, O'Duinn recommends that you test your VPN before you leave the office. To do that, first disconnect from that office network, then turn on your mobile phone's WiFi hotspot, and connect to the corporate network that way. Make sure you can connect via VPN or gain entrance through whatever security measures your enterprise has in place. Do this while you are at the office so that you can enlist the help of IT workers while you are there. Make sure you can access your email, your chat, your video conferencing, and any other essential tools this way.

Look at your physical desk. Are there any physical files you need to take with you? Do you need the phone number of the help desk in case you can't get access to the network from home? Bring it with you, along with your laptop and your mobile phone. (Don't forget chargers).

If you'll be using your mobile phone and video conferencing, you will also want to make sure you have a headset and maybe an external webcam, according to O'Duinn. These can be a step up from the webcams built into your laptop, allowing you to position them to show you at a more flattering angle.

For management, pull out those rules and procedures you wrote up to deal with emergencies and crises, according to Barr. Figure out the way that you will communicate directives with employees. Will instructions go out over an office email, or a group text message, or a robocall? How will you communicate so that all employees get the message?

Now is the time to lay this foundation for how you will continue your business operations in the wake of an emergency like a viral outbreak. Barr said, ask yourself, "What are the systems, communications, and processes I need to implement to continue on as an existing business entity serving customers and employees."

For more on IT Strategy, read these articles:

Fighting the Coronavirus with Analytics and GIS

5 Key Trends Enterprises Must Address in 2020

How Startups Fit into Healthcare's Transformation

What AIOps Could Mean for the Future of Remote Work

About the Author(s)

Jessica Davis

Senior Editor

Jessica Davis is a Senior Editor at InformationWeek. She covers enterprise IT leadership, careers, artificial intelligence, data and analytics, and enterprise software. She has spent a career covering the intersection of business and technology. Follow her on twitter: @jessicadavis.

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