With many organizations now having a significant portion of staff working remotely—and as things are looking, this is going to be the longterm reality—the old model of how companies support a “mobile” workforce is not exactly holding up well.
I’ve already covered some of the issues related to having a home-based workforce in previous articles in this series. Some companies are now giving employees an allowance to upgrade their home office to something more suitable for longterm habitation. And we’ve already gone over the network security and architecture challenges that come into play as well.
But as we push closer to a full year of full- or part-time home work with no end in sight, the old model for what is considered “mobile worker” support on the hardware front is starting to show some serious gaps.
It used to be that a select few employees were issued corporate laptops for mobile work. Over the past decade, as workforces have become less moored to specific physical locations, many organizations have more widely issued mobile devices or have adopted some sort of bring-your-own-device policy for smartphones and laptops. But the difference between “mobile” workers and full- or part-time home workers is significant—and the kind of work we’re all doing from home doesn’t neatly fit into the laptop-and-a-cell-phone model of hardware lifecycle management.
The compute device
Organizations have tried many things to cut down on the cost of maintaining employee workstations over the years—including moving whole classes of workers to Windows Terminal clients or other virtual desktops. Other types of work have long demanded mobility and have rated company-issued and managed laptops. Both of these tactics may have eased some of the pain of handling the lockdown workload, but they both have weaknesses for sustained work-from-home operations.
A laptop is built for mobility first. And right now, many of us are not particularly mobile. While laptop computers are adequate for part-time home work in many cases, they aren’t in and of themselves suited to work that involves significant data input of the keyboard-entry variety or fine-detail analysis work that requires long hours of staring at pixels on a screen. We’ve gone over some of the ergonomic issues of laptops previously, but to summarize succinctly: as a rule, compromises made for mobility make them horrible for extended use.
Ergonomics can be solved to some degree by an external keyboard and monitor—and any company that has people working involuntarily at home should be providing for those, either through that home office allowance or through direct provision.
But laptops are not well-suited for extended home work for other reasons:
- They are not great at heat management—especially when you’re running them all day with closed screens while tethered to external keyboards and monitors. Expect more early laptop failures as the pandemic progresses, from 24/7 tethered-operation heat death.
- They are more expensive to provision and deploy than many desktop computers, especially when monitors are factored in for both.
- Hardware support for laptops is more expensive or totally outsourced to the manufacturer, or both.
Another common complaint about laptops is their lack of expandability—not enough USB ports and, increasingly, no physical Ethernet support, for example. But for most people working from home, these aren’t really issues—as long as there’s a way to plug in a hub for a keyboard, monitor, and peripherals and the Wi-Fi network is not jammed by your kids playing Fortnite and doing distance learning at the same time.
On the other end of the spectrum is the thin client. While having an installed thin client infrastructure may have helped to some degree with a distributed workforce—many organizations have relied on Remote Desktop Protocol to give employees access to applications and data, with varying degrees of protection—performance of RDP sessions over even decent home broadband is less than optimal for productivity. And while employees may be able to make this work with their own PCs or other computing devices, many of them are placed in the position of having to share those devices with their kids for schoolwork.
One solution I’ve seen some companies turn to is all-in-one desktops pre-configured for use with corporate remote access. All-in-ones may not be significantly more powerful than laptop computers, but they’re better designed for cooling and ergonomic considerations, and they can be (depending on the manufacturer and model) somewhat less expensive to support.
In a similar vein, small desktops (like Intel NUC devices) may be a better solution for home workers than laptops from a cost-of-ownership perspective—especially for companies that adopt a cloud desktop model for remote workers or leverage remote desktop services from their own networks. They’re straightforward to configure and don’t take up excess home-office work-surface space. Then again, they’ll likely need more accessories as well—a Web camera and microphone for collaboration, for example.
In the long term, it might be smarter for companies to simply give employees a hardware allowance—and give them a managed virtual machine preconfigured to connect to corporate resources if necessary or require them to allow their computer to be managed much in the same way companies now enroll employees’ personal smartphones.
And speaking of smartphones, remember when you used to have this thing called a “work phone number”?
Zoom, Teams, Slack, Skype for Business and the like may have reduced our reliance on those things we used to call telephones, but there’s a universe of people who are not part of those bubbles of collaboration. The only way to reach many of them is Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS).
At my wife’s library, they took an interesting approach to working around home workers’ lack of access to the phone system—they had people check the voice mail messages, log them, and farm them out to people at home to return the calls using Google Voice. This led to some problems in interacting with elderly patrons, who saw the “unknown” or strange caller ID, picked up the phone, and screamed obscenities at the scam caller they believed to be on the other line.
Most organizational phone systems moved to Voice over IP (VoIP) and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) phone systems internally. Ars embraced SIP telephony pretty early on, and we all had work phones at home—mostly for external communications (and all the teleconferences we did—with the sound of a thousand keyboards not muted). And you don’t need a physical desk phone for these to work—software-based SIP phone clients such as the open source MicroSip can turn whatever computing device employees have into their work phone extension. There are similar SIP apps for iOS and Android as well, so employees can use their work or personal cell phone.
The companies that will succeed are the ones that will make the connection between home and work more transparent for employees.
Using a VoIP/SIP system for distributed workers is going to be an important step toward integrating them into a post-office organization, because it will allow them to have at least a virtual semblance of the communications services they had in the office—from direct-extension dialing to voicemail to how-do-I-do-this-without-hanging-up-on-everyone bridge calls. They can have conversations without suffering from Zoom fatigue. And it will help keep them from being yelled at by people who think they’re telemarketing scammers—at least, if they’re not working in telemarketing.
One thing that became clear to me early on as work-from-home started happening in 2020 was how unsuited my home network environment was to having everyone at home working, schooling, and otherwise streaming all day long. My daughter’s Zoom classes kept crashing, and there was general unhappiness about connectivity across the household. More importantly, I was having trouble staying connected to work resources when three people were rage-streaming different video services.
Having a reliable Internet connection—and one faster than DSL speed—is essential to productive home working. I’ve done a number of things to improve my home office bandwidth, such as upgrading to mesh wireless in the house and upgrading my Internet service to business-class. But I also have segmented my work network from my home network by using a separate virtual local area network (VLAN) and using a VPN to keep outbound traffic segmented from my kids’ video streams.
VPNs are not perfect, and using a corporate VPN system can create bottlenecks, as I’ve mentioned previously. But in some cases, using a VPN router at the employee’s end may make it easier to manage their device’s security and other policy settings and keep organizational data from accidentally ending up in a child’s math homework. And having a standard network device configuration deployed to employees at home also could address issues like quality of service (QoS) and specific protocol support required to ensure SIP phone systems and specific company applications get priority over Fortnite.
Most home routers support QoS in some form, but they may require more technical expertise to configure than employees can muster. Your IT helpdesk isn’t going to be very well prepared to walk employees through configuring random Wi-Fi routers, so it may help to select and standardize on a small number of supported routers—and to provide some backup connectivity options for employees when their ISPs fail (like a cellular modem).
The other alternative to all these things is the “bring your own office” option—having employees pick their own computer, smart phone, and networking hardware and making it as simple as possible for them to enroll them in the organization’s management infrastructure.
There are plenty of us who have lived that world already—contractors who bring their own kit, previously full-time remote workers who operate with the barest of IT support, and small businesses that don’t have the ability to do much other than provide the IT basics. For organizations that have regulatory and legal concerns about how their data is touched, “BYOO” is not going to be an easy pill to swallow. And some employees may balk if they’re facing footing the bill for meeting corporate IT requirements.
There are organizations that simply won’t change their strategies at all for supporting remote employees’ hardware needs. They’ll stick with the policies they had before and force employees to pick up the slack at home or come back into the office in some way. But there are some that will look at the whole office hardware life-cycle loop and realize there are opportunities to become more flexible in how employees are provisioned hardware. As the work-home life barrier becomes more and more permeable, the companies that will succeed are the ones that will make the connection between home and work more transparent for employees—and make working from home or the office virtually identical.