On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, like much of the rest of the world, Verndale's leadership team met to discuss preparation and mitigation of the swiftly moving Coronavirus situation. It was decided that our physical offices in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Quito Ecuador would be closed and all staff would begin working from home for at least the next month. By the end of day Friday, March 13th, 2020, just two days later, our workforce was completely remote and executing as normal. We didn't skip a beat.
As I hear anecdotally about other organizations' struggles to make the transition, I realize Verndale has been inadvertently preparing for a situation of this nature for some time now. We can perform all services required for our clients, with no limitation, as long as they themselves are not disrupted. I'm hoping that by sharing what we have in place and how we cope with this new world, we can help our clients and other organizations catch up and become successful as well.
Back in 2005, I moved away from our corporate headquarters in Boston, to live in New Jersey. At that time, permanent work-from-home was still relatively unheard of. We at least had a VPN, which allowed me to access Verndale's drives, servers, and other in-network systems. I had to use a landline for conference calls and had my own personal laptop. I believe we were using Google chat for instant messaging. Verndale's servers, which hosted all of our production and non-production client environments, were spread across a server room in Boston and a data center in Somerville. The cloud didn't exist.
But as others joined me in remote working, we began to enhance and prioritize our support for a decentralized workforce. By 2012, we had opened up our hiring opportunities to include those who would be permanent remote workers. Verndale's infrastructure team worked hard to provide the ability for all employees to perform their job from almost anywhere, while maintaining our strict security standards.
We switched completely over from desktop computers to laptops. This made it easy to supply company equipment to those who work from home, and also allowed more freedom for those in offices to take work home with them if needed. We added external monitors as optional hardware for those at home. We implement various VoiP technologies to allow for phone calls over the internet. Meraki devices became standard home equipment, enabling seamless VPN connectivity.
As the cloud became more accessible, Verndale de-centralized our network - the days of a central, corporate network were in the past and we realized that concept would not support today's modern workforce. More and more services were and are being developed and deployed across the globe on the multitude of cloud services available today (think Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, etc).
By the end of 2017, we had migrated all our infrastructure into the Azure cloud and switched over to Microsoft subscription accounts for every employee (including our international contingent!), with access to OneDrive and Office365. With this adoption, we now had instant access to our work and tools regardless of where we were and what device we were using. The Atlassian suite of collaboration tools (Confluence and JIRA) became central to our process. We adopted Slack as our official chat tool and then switched to Zoom a year ago for audio and video conferencing, both of which can be used for screen-sharing. Speaking of video, we coincidentally rolled out a recommended video use initiative in Q4 of 2019, which meant our employees had gotten over their camera shyness by the time the coronavirus forced video as the primary communication method for the foreseeable future.
Mark Broehm, Verndale's Director of Infrastructure, and the one primarily responsible for our pandemic readiness, had these key considerations to share:
This is one of the most important considerations when moving a network into the cloud.
- Integrate systems with Active Directory Federation Services, and enforce multi-factor authentication
- Mobile applications can segregate corporate data from personal data
- Clear policies should be in place to keep corporate data on corporate systems
- Ensure policies and procedures are reviewed and understood by employees
- VPN (still necessary for legacy applications and more sensitive/internal information)
The tools and hardware enabling our employees: the right equipment allows remote workers to setup their workspace according to their personal preferences and provides for the best work environment.
- Laptops and external monitors
- Wireless in-network access points at home (like Cisco Meraki)
- Conference room 360-degree video cameras (like the Owl Labs Meeting Owl)
- Although this isn’t particularly helpful with everyone at home now, this is a great addition for remote employees to feel connected to those in the office when it is business as usual.
- Mobile applications (employees work better with the technology they already use, for example mobile phones and tablets, can be used for work)
Usability and Accessibility
Any time zone, any emergency, day or night, weekday or weekend, data, tools, and the cloud should always be accessible.
- Services need to be available 24x7
- Services need to be easy to use and understand
- Consider the location of your remote workforce
Backups / Disaster Recovery
Yes, devices fail. You need to plan for WHEN it happens to you.
- Ensure employees have an easy-to-use corporate service that will backup data securely and transparently with minimal user interaction
Simply put, cloud applications reduce the strain on IT resources in managing and maintaining them (nobody wants to drive to the data center to replace a failed disk drive at 3am on a Saturday morning!).
- If you make investments now in some of these key infrastructure and tool upgrades, you can quickly improve your ability to execute your business with a remote workforce. Focus on the things that will enable better collaboration: shared notes and files, video conferencing, VoIP, screen-sharing, instant messaging, mobility, and everything cloud.
Before wrapping up, I wanted to leave you with some tips from myself and other long-term work-from-home Verndalians, that address the softer skills of surviving a long-term remote situation.
- Always 'change' into different clothes when you get up, don't stay in your PJs
- Keep your same morning ritual whatever that may be - shower, breakfast, morning workout, etc
- Same recommendation for your end of day routine
- Get outside a couple times during the day, it could be as simple as a 10-minute walk before work and a 10-minute walk after work. We are not under house arrest; you can go outside
- Try to work in an area of your home that you don't use for anything else, even if it is just a random spare bedroom or a nook off to the side
- Use a real desk if you can; as tempting as it is to sit on the couch all day your body will hate you after a couple days
- When you finish for the day, make a point of doing something that clearly defines the end of the day and puts closure to your workday
- Use video conferencing for meetings when you can
- Coordinate with others when your lunch break might be and do a group video conference while having lunch
- Try to eat healthy
- Keep water at your desk or wherever you’re working. It’s easy to forget to stay hydrated
- Try to keep yourself away from anything that might be distracting (eg: TV streaming coronavirus news all day)
You may think #9 sounds questionable, but Verndale just had our very first virtual happy hour on Friday, where more than 50 of us joined in on a Zoom video call. We drank our favorite beverages, showed off our kids and pets (who of course are at home with us), and just let all the stress and worry go for a while. It was a lot of fun and the crazy thing is, at a time when the world feels so isolated, this geographically disparate group probably felt closer than we ever have before. It was a special moment and I hold strongly onto my optimism that great days lie ahead.