The IT industry has been advocating the concept of remote working for years but, to a large extent, business has been lukewarm to the concept.
Now, the Covid-19 lockdown has thrust the issue into the spotlight and organisations have been forced to implement remote working quickly.
“There can be no doubt that remote working – hurried though it has been – has saved the country from complete economic collapse,” says Ian Jansen van Rensburg, senior systems engineer and lead technologist at VMware. “But there have been pros and cons.”
People working for a company like VMware have had very little disruption, he points out. “We are a software-defined company so we took steps long ago to make our workforce mobile. We are all able to work from any place – a coffee shop, home, work, even from our cars. It shouldn’t matter where we are, as long as we’ve got a smart device and a connection we can work.
“This was the vision of our CIO, who wanted to get us working this way long before Covid-19. So when the pandemic struck, it was almost business as usual, just doing everything from home instead of also coming into the office.”
A lot of companies are obviously not fortunate enough to have been set up to deal with the virus, he adds. “Many organisations have had serious issues trying to get their workforce set up remotely, and they have spent a couple of weeks scrambling to get mobile, with IT departments under huge pressure to get users on to a virtual private network (VPN) to enable remote working.
“Many of these companies are not making use of easy technologies and solutions to solve their problems either: they are doing it the tough way, with users having to bring laptops to the IT department to be set up and enabled.”
However they managed it, a lot of the companies that are able to work remotely have now found ways to do so. “The situation pushed a lot of organisations into this direction, and they have had to get people working remotely.
“It has opened people’s eyes to the fact that a mobile workforce is possible. Even those organisations that haven’t got it right yet now have it on the radar, and they are planning with vendors to get their staff on to laptops and working remotely,” Jansen van Rensburg says.
Of course remote working isn’t for everyone, he adds. “It depends on the type of work people are doing. In the financial sector and call centres a lot of the staff can work remotely, so they’ve been quite successful in switching over.
“For a lot of these people, the pandemic could feel like they have gained freedom rather than a lockdown: they can get out of bed, shower, and get straight to work instead of having to battle traffic getting to the office.”
For companies being able to equip their staff, working from home has been lifeline. “If companies want to have a sustainable business and be profitable, their staff members have to be working.
“CIOs and IT managers have to keep the lights on, but the businesses that plan to still be around in three or four years should be engaging with smart vendors now to figure out how to get their workforce mobile. Otherwise they may survive the pandemic but they could be closing their doors anyway.”
So is the way people are working now the new normal? Jansen van Rensburg hopes not. “This cannot be the new normal: as members of the human race, we need interaction with each other – and it can’t always be digital.
“It’s great that we have the technology that lets us talk and communication, but we also need to meet face-to-face, with physical contact and social interaction. It feels like normal when we have it, but now that it’s been taken away it’s making us think differently about life and how we do work.”
Because it is a software-defined company, VMware staffers don’t have to go into the office, but people still do. “You can’t underestimate the human touch of people getting together in the office, chit-chatting in the coffee room. The human race needs that. At the end of this pandemic, I can see people rushing to get back to the office to get physical contact with their colleagues.”
The important thing for VMware, he adds, is that in normal circumstances they can go to the office if they wish, but they are also able to work from home.
“The new normal needs to be about giving people the choice,” Jansen van Rensburg says. “The choice is what is important, and not forcing people into one way of working or another.
“It is human nature to want to have choice, to feel in control of our own destiny.”
How to make it work
Organisations all have established processes and ways of working, many of them rooted in the idea of everyone getting together in the same office every day.
How to change the status quo to give people the freedom to work from anywhere comes down to personal levels of management, Jansen van Rensburg says.
“One of the biggest pitfalls in this exercise is management: they need to have their finger on the pulse and understand their employees and how they operate very well, because technology is not going to do this for them.
“You can’t micro-manage people if they are working remotely.”
For the exercise to be successful, Jansen van Rensburg explains that there needs to be trust relationship in place between employee and manager.
“Trust is difficult to build: remember, is it earned and cannot be forced on employees.”
The manager needs to ensure that staff have the rights toolsets to do their jobs effectively. “You can’t expect your team members to be productive if you’re not giving them the tools and know-how to do so.”
The company also needs to ensure that devices, connectivity and access are in place.
With these three elements in place, staff should be able to get up and running quickly, and work effectively from anywhere.
“For example, we had a new person starting in my team at VMware. He was up and running within 40 minutes. That is, from nothing, he was authorised, logged in, on the networking and accessing applications in 40 minutes.
“If any of our workers leaves their laptop at home, or it breaks or gets lost, they can also be up and running on another laptop in 30 minutes.”
Of course, this doesn’t happen by accident: the technology has to be in place. “But if the technology is there, the manager will have the tools available to ensure his team can deliver the goods.”
Managers also have to trust their employees to do their work. “You hired them, you need to trust that they will be able to deliver unless they give you reasons not to trust them,” Jansen van Rensburg says. “I believe that if this trust is not in place, for whatever reason, you will have serious problems.”
Trust is something managers have to work out with their team members, but the technology to enable the environment is relatively easy, he adds.
“If you are clever and you team up with good vendors or cloud providers that can quickly deliver the remote toolsets and applications people need, you can built the enabling environment.”
Jansen van Rensburg points out that the working environment at VMware ticks all of these boxes.
“The most important thing is choice; the ability to choose where to work from.
“For instance, I drive a Volvo which is permanently connected. If I arrive to see a customer early, I simply flip open my laptop and can work in the car replying to emails, doing quick meetings or more.”
He cautions workers and managers alike to watch out for work overload and anxiety from being connected – and available – all the time.
“This comes back to good management and trust.
“For instance, I have told my team members to engage with customers, and given them guidelines. Thereafter I don’t interfere, but if they need anything they can reach out and I will be available to help them.
“We will be able to see in the numbers if people didn’t do their work – which, again, is their choice.
“The important thing is to have the right people on board: responsible, mature people who know when to work and when to down tools.
“For managers, you can’t get bogged down in micro-management, but do whatever is necessary to help your team to work better.”
VMware is a multi-cloud and hybrid-cloud company, Jansen van Rensburg explains. “We have our own private cloud, possibly the biggest private cloud in the world, but we also use several of the hyperscale public cloud providers.”
Office 365 is the default personal productivity tool, used to deliver email and Teams, plus OneDrive for file sharing. Amazon’s AWS is used by developers to deliver some of the coding, while Microsoft’s Azure handles other coding requirements. VMware also uses both the IBM and SAP clouds for various applications.
“When it comes to delivering applications, we most definitely drink our own champagne: we use VMware Workspace One (the old Airwatch) to deliver applications and security to users.
“This is all seamless, regardless of what device I am using, or where I am.”
If a user wants to switch to a new device, it is enrolled into a secure web portal, which asks for authentication, whereafter he can start using it.
“I can sign in using a fingerprint, facial recognition or even my smart watch,” Jansen van Rensburg explains. “I have full secure access to all of the systems, on the VPN delivered from the application cloud.”