How Well is Remote IT Really Working? – Interview with Patrick Kelley


Last week, Brian Meek sat down with Patrick Kelley and asked the following questions in regards to How Remote IT is really working for teams around the world. Patrick provided the following insight.

Brian: Is remote IT a long-term trend or simply an emergency tactic?

Patrick: I believe much of the reactionary remote workforce will return in 2021. In the short term, a fully remote workforce can be an effective answer to an emergency. However, the long-term, negative psychological impacts of a fully remote workforce are too significant to ignore. As the line between home and work begins to blur, the hours required to support a remote workforce become less defined. This makes capacity planning for support teams more challenging.

Brian: What kind of metrics should IT consider using to gauge how well its remote IT workforce is performing?

Patrick: That's a great question. I would recommend that IT and MIS Leadership have a clear grasp on the following indicators.

  • Response time - As capacity is exhausted, the typical response time to a support customer will become delayed. This will increase the irritation to the support customer. Irritated support customers tend to look for other avenues of resolution, which often work contrary to the overall support goals of the organization. Additionally, the increased conflict in support calls will increase the likelihood of burnout and churn of the support staff.
  • Mean resolution time - The mean resolution time provides insight into multiple different Key Performance Indicators, such as satisfaction, efficiency, and capacity. The quicker issues can be resolved or solutions can be automated, the more efficiency and greater capacity the organization’s support teams possess.
  • Service Complaints - The baseline of service complaints should always be tracked for identifying underperforming support personnel, as well as undertrained support customers. However, an increase in complaints could be indicative of burnout or capacity saturation. As support teams become more distant, morale can diminish.
  • Escalation of calls - An uptick in service ticket escalation could be testatory of improper or insufficient training of first-tier support. The most effective support teams should be capable of solving greater than 98% of all support requests. An escalation is not only aggravating to the user, but introduces inefficiency in multiple tiers of the support structure.

Brian: What are the top challenges of managing a remote IT staff?

Patrick: This shift to full-remote support changes so many aspects of the support experience. I track the following as an insight into how the team is performing.

  • Quality of the support experience - IT Support Teams are tasked with providing support in regards to complex problems in which support customers typically don’t have a complete understanding. Much like visiting a physician, quality of care is determined by how the experience, “feels”. Teleworking environments have a greater likelihood of being less controlled than those provided during by the organization. This could include negative impacts such as noise, distractions, and insufficient call and remote control quality due to consumer connectivity options being leveraged, as opposed to enterprise grade.
  • Team Communication Fragmentation - In a traditional support environment, team members are placed in relatively close proximity to each other. This provides the opportunity to quickly collaborate and learn from each other. There is immense value in team members having the ability to have those spontaneous brainstorming sessions to solve the more complex issues an organization faces. In many situations, team members are literally invisible.
  • Proper Capacity Utilization - As support teams are built for long term scenarios in which team members could live in multiple time zones, the ability to properly distribute support customer support while respecting home and work balance becomes exponentially more challenging.
  • Security and Privacy - Depending on the type of business the organization operates in, security and privacy challenges could be a hidden gremlin that many organizations don’t properly consider. If the organization deals with highly-sensitive information, it is paramount for the privacy and integrity of data handling to be in the forefront of the minds of those accessing it. As many home offices aren’t built with this sort of security in mind, the organization might be required to make an initial capital investment into their remote staff's home environments.

Brian: What are the most effective tools and strategies that can be assigned to remote IT staffers?

Patrick: Great question! I believe each tool needs to be directly aligned to a refined process that solves an issue, "head on".

  • Quality of the support experience - Virtual backgrounds and noise cancelling headsets are great for increasing the overall interaction quality that support customers will experience. Additionally, continual interaction with other team members will create a greater sense of belonging and increase morale.
  • Team Communication Fragmentation - The Slack or Teams platform does a good job of connecting far flung teams of professionals. However, the introduction of virtual team meetings where individual members can interact will also aid in preventing the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). It isn’t quite the same of being able to pop into someone’s office, but it closes some of the gaps.
  • Proper Capacity Utilization - Platforms such as Timely or SuiteCRM can provide the ability to perform capacity management in a measurable way. However, in my experience I’ve found that many team members will overcommit their time as there is a sense of “not doing enough”. Without the ability to “see” a team member and gauge their body language, managers will have to become more aware of their team members' health and balance.
  • Security and Privacy - This challenge is a bit tougher to address. The use of multi-factor authentication to prevent unauthorized access to devices and platforms by untrusted parties. Additionally, the use of privacy screens and administrative policies will aid in establishing and maintaining the integrity of the organization’s customer data. Additionally, the use of VPN solutions to provide direct visibility into threats posed to the organization’s assets and data is mandatory.

Brian: Is there a way to discover whether the tools introduced to the remote workforce, such as apps collaboration, are actually being adopted and helping workers?

Patrick: Most of the applications mentioned above provide audit logs for security and efficiency monitoring. As a security firm, we actually recommend collecting these logs and correlating them with the traditional logs you would find in a Security Event Information Management (SIEM) platform.

It is also recommended that organizations periodically check with their employees to get a proper understanding of how the tools are being used. It is often observed that a tool’s intended usage isn’t the use the tool is actually being used for. As an example, we’ve observed Slack being used for file transfers between employees. There are established platforms for file management, but the shortest path between two team members is a virtual conversation. Organizations should be prepared to manage that potential threat.

Brian: Is security a major drawback to building a permanent remote IT workforce?

Patrick: Definitely. Having a permanent remote IT workforce introduces challenges with visibility, accountability, and attribution. In a traditional environment, a significant amount of environmental variables are more easily addressed, such as segmentation of networks, visibility into user activity, the knowledge of known trusted environments and untrusted environments. To properly secure a permanent remote IT workforce requires an approach of “ZeroTrust”, meaning that no assumptions can be made to the integrity of a device or network when interacting with sensitive information.

These new challenges must be solved with a blend of administrative and technical controls which properly communicate the expectations of the organization, while also providing technical controls for the eventual and inevitable failure.

In particular, the use of VPNs, aggregation of cloud-based security logs into SIEM and Incident Response platforms, banning unsecured or public wireless networks, Mobile Device Management platforms to secure organizational data on employee owned devices, and lastly… an ongoing commitment to training staff members to the emerging threats to the organization.

Brian: Can a remote IT staff ever be as productive an on-site team?

Patrick: I think this is yet to be seen. If there is an organizational department that understands the technical challenges to working fully remote, the IT department will be the most educated. Their ability to adapt as opposed to a manufacturing team is more accelerated. However, there are many factors and KPIs that different organizations will choose to measure success.

Brian: Is remote IT the first step into transitioning to a fully automated IT environment?

Patrick: I don’t believe so. Automation is solving a different problem than team member geography. Automation is being leveraged in an attempt to offset limited capacity and consistency in pre-defined processes. Automation is great for dealing with events that are intentionally repeatable, such as password resets, performance reporting, patching, etc… However, support customers often provide problems that aren’t typical. As the workforce is becoming more remote-based, the environmental variables that surround a support customer’s problem are less controlled or static.

Brian: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Patrick: I believe that organizations will need to be very flexible to shifting requirements of keeping staff’s health and safety priority, while also keeping the organization profitable. I expect that 2021 will be very dynamic in regards to how organizations adapt over the long term to the changing environment.

I believe that many organizations will not be able to quickly adapt and will shutter in 2021 and into 2022.