IT strategy: Supporting a distributed workforce

Prior to 2019, many corporate IT departments had evolved a fairly efficient end-user computing strategy, which kept PCs functioning and updated to support the enterprise software requirements of staff.

Then along came the pandemic, which broke the entire model for end-user computing. Literally overnight, IT departments had to enable people to work from home in response to nationwide Covid-19 lockdown measures.

This has permanently shifted the emphasis of end-user computing away from being predominantly office-focused to a position where remote access is no longer considered an edge use case. Even where office-based work has returned, the new normal means IT departments have to support a more hybrid workforce. It is rare now for people to be in the office five days a week, so the IT function must provide online collaboration and conferencing software alongside desktop productivity and access to enterprise systems.

A change in focus

Discussing this shift, and how it has evolved into the current struggle to balance remote and home working priorities, Forrester principal analyst Andrew Hewitt says: “We were traditionally used to managing devices and access to applications, and managing user connectivity into the enterprise through corporate networks. When everybody moved remotely, that became impossible.

“Everything we’ve seen in end-user computing since then has been about supporting the distributed workforce and what I would call an internet-first mindset in terms of how we deploy devices, how we manage them and how we give access to applications.”

The focus now is on providing the applications employees need to be productive, much of which has meant shifting end-user computing software to the cloud.

Hewitt believes it is unlikely that desktop IT administrators will see a return to the tried and trusted pre-pandemic model of delivering and managing large estates of on-premise desktop and laptop PCs. “There are instances where that’s not the case, and people are still managing things on-prem,” he says, “but the vast majority of organisations have moved their IT infrastructure into the cloud.”

Even in organisations that have returned fully to office-based work, Hewitt says the idea of enabling home and remote workers is now part of IT culture. IT administrators need to support people who work outside the office, even if much of the workforce returns to the office.

“IT is embracing remote working technology environments,” he says. “If you’re at a large financial institution, for example, that’s asking everybody to come back to the office, you’re still having to change the model and be remote-first in terms of how you manage the technology. This has been a major shift, regardless of what your policy is for hybrid work.”

Hewitt says technology enablement for end-user computing still needs to be internet-first to address edge use cases, such as people choosing to work from home when they are unwell. People may also need flexibility with childcare, or in the event of industrial action or other disruptions to their normal routine or commute. “It’s really about resiliency,” he adds.

From a technology perspective, this has resulted in a shift from desktop PCs to laptops, and increased use of software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to support collaboration. “IT departments have made these choices regardless of the company’s policy on office-based and home working,” Hewitt adds.

Supporting a hybrid and remote workforce

Enabling a hybrid or remote workforce has tech support ramifications. Hewitt says there has been more use of proactive IT support, through software that runs on user equipment to give support staff a view of endpoint devices, applications and network connections. The data provided by the software agent informs the support analyst on ways to solve problems a user might be experiencing.

One such product that enables remote IT support is TeamViewer, which is being used by optician Specsavers to provide IT support to its retail stores.

The setup is analogous to the IT support needed in a typical remote working scenario, as Neal Silverstein, head of technology customer service at Specsavers, explains. Silverstein says the TeamViewer remote connectivity tool, Tensor, was initially deployed as a remote support tool to alert the IT support team when something occurs that needs their attention and to provide advanced warning of IT failures.

The ability to support stores remotely creates a very different experience. Our colleagues in the store feel that we’re alongside them rather than stopping them from achieving their goal of supporting customers Neal Silverstein, Specsavers

TeamViewer is used to support about 40,000 users and 2,300 Specsavers stores. It is also used to support Specsavers staff who provide optician services directly to people’s homes or care homes.

Specsavers stores are operated as a joint venture, where each store is managed locally and services are tailored to the community it serves. Some offer hearing tests and ear wax removal, while others provide eyesight tests for the DVLA and services for the NHS.

The technology required to run a store is provided and supported centrally, but some of the decisions about what is needed and how it is deployed are driven by conversations with the store manager.

“The equipment can be configured remotely to enable the store to provide the services it offers locally,” says Silverstein. “Everything we do is underpinned by that ability to deliver a service to our customers, which is aligned to our vision, our values and our purpose.”

He says TeamViewer helps the IT support team “see what’s going on and become a lot more immersed”, enabling them to support the stores more effectively. “The benefit [of] the TeamViewer augmented reality is that, as soon as a support session is fired up, we can see the environment.”

This enables the team to talk someone working in a Specsavers retail outlet through how to fix something that is going wrong in the store’s communications cabinet. He admits “that might seem like a bit of a crazy thing to say” – this is perhaps where the analogy with enterprise end-user support diverges.

“In an office environment, the comms cabinet is probably locked away in the comms room. I’ve seen comms cabinets in Specsavers stores in a multitude of places. Imagine sitting at your desk as a support analyst, asking somebody in the store to open the cabinet.”

But, as Silverstein explains, being able to visualise and talk through technical issues with store staff has immediate benefits. “The ability to support stores remotely is massively enhanced by being able to visualise what we’re dealing with rather than having to use traditional support methodology of funnelling support questions. It creates a very different experience. Our colleagues in the store feel that we’re alongside them rather than stopping them from achieving their goal of supporting customers.”

Providing remote support does require staff in the stores to have some basic knowledge of the IT setup. Gurdeep Dosanjh, owner of Specsavers Dudley and Blackheath, says everyone working in-store is aware of TeamViewer and where IT equipment like the comms cabinet is located. This, he says, means they do not have to be IT savvy and can be supported remotely via TeamViewer.

“We put processes in place to make sure everybody is aware we’ve got TeamViewer and how to access it,” says Dosanjh.

Rather than speaking to an IT support analyst on the phone, which can be a long-winded process, he says: “If we do need to speak to IT support, it’s just a quick conversation and we can get the customer journey resolved and be back online.”

He sees one of the most important aspects of remote support as being that the IT support team has visited the stores, which he believes “makes a huge difference”.

Silverstein tries to visit stores as often as possible to meet colleagues and to witness and understand what goes on. “It’s all about understanding what the customer wants,” he says. “Then you bring this [knowledge] back to the office and think about how you deliver a service, aligning the service to meet the customers’ needs. If you understand your customers’ needs, that’s going to tell you what their value is, and as long as you’re delivering a service that meets that value, then you’re in a good place.”

This is equivalent to when corporate IT support understands the full impact of downtime on each category of end user and the business impact of a faulty device or sluggish performance in an enterprise application.

Providing remote support through TeamViewer also means members of the IT support team can be located almost anywhere. “It gives our colleagues the choice of where they work and still offer the same level of support,” says Silverstein.

Preconfigured devices

Remote support offers a powerful way to support users irrespective of where they are located or where PC support analysts are based. It is important to ensure those who are working from home can get devices fixed or repaired quickly and efficiently.

One aspect of IT support that has grown in importance since the pandemic is the ability of PC manufacturers to provide fully configured devices directly to workers, delivered straight to their home or office. Hewitt says during the pandemic, operating system providers started supporting greater automation of software deployment in the hardware lifecycle. For instance, Microsoft Windows Autopilot and Apple Business Manager enable IT buyers to purchase preconfigured devices that can ship directly to end users.

He says IT departments like the idea of drop-shipping a device directly to the employee’s home. “We’re continuing to see advances there, and I expect the majority of companies will be using this type of deployment mechanism going forward,” he adds.

Summing up, Hewitt believes the future of IT support for end-user computing is greater and greater levels of automation to support hybrid workers and distributed teams. “Generally, it has been a major goal for a lot of end-user computing organisations to automate the entire process because it’s very manually intensive and this doesn’t work fully in distributed workforces,” he says.


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