My COVID-19 challenges.

I manage a series of different teams, many of which were office based and desktop machine oriented when covid-19 lockdown occured in March 2020.

Before we had the 1st lock down in London, our India team were warned of a potential lockdown due to a nearby office having a case of COVID. We thought we had 2+ weeks, in reality we only had 1.

We’ve been embracing cloud for a while and many of our services and tools were already cloud based, but over 60% of my users were desktop based and our shared DBs were a mix of on-prem and cloud.

We have policies set around IPs and how our machines were configured which we didn’t want to circumvent.

We went about quickly establishing a new gateway VPN service in the cloud to act as our central point for remote workers. After a few challenges all our VPN tunnels were up and working. Annoyingly, most cloud don’t provide native SSL VPN solutions (server to client), so we used a combination of 3rd party appliance and cloud ipsec connections to deliver our solution.

For Desktop users, we were fortunate that most of our staff had personal laptops but these machines (a) did not have a corporate policy, so could be a risk to our network and (b) were not necessarily that powerful.

To support these users we wanted separation between the users own (un-trusted) PC and our systems, we implemented that via a new AWS workspace account. The workspace let us setup a base image and deploy it to our users quickly and it gave us confidence that the machines access our trusted LANs followed our policies and did not introduce any risk to our systems.

The more complex part was routing calls, we were fortunate to have a SIP based phone system, but with off-shore teams this is a little more complex as there is legislation over the use of SIP as well as challenges with quality. Fortunately we were able to bridge the networks through the perimeter gateway router and route the call back to the UK via the MPLS links. We were fortunate that local connectivity was good with regard to quality, so it only added a few ms to the round trip. We introduced a variety of softphones and wifi phones and quickly implemented a distributed solution. It wasn’t perfect as there was sometimes latency, but it was acceptable.

In 4 days we had a solution which was ready which was fortunate as both India and the UK entered lock down sooner than expected.

That infrastructure has been running now for 6 months and on the whole running well.

What did we discover;

Not all SIP softphones are the same.

In the UK we opted for Apple IOS Sip phones for execs. we downloaded from the app store and these worked great outbound but were a bit intermittent for inbound.

It turns out keep alive isn’t properly supported in IOS. For those who were using their phones it was fine, but those who didn’t were not able to receive calls. Not something that the vendors state on your page.

After some investigation its an intentional design decision by apple, however fortunately the makers of Groundwire designed a softphone built around push notifications, we switched to that and it works great.

AWS Workspace is good, but AutoStop isn’t what it appears.

I’d budgeted for AWS workspace, an additional but necessary expense, but what I didn’t realise was that an always on solution works out cheaper if you users are using for more then 4.8h a day (5 days a week).

Taking into account the machine is otherwise off you would expect that the resources could be shared, but apparently not. If you are using AWS with AutoStop enabled, you could be paying significantly more than you need to.

Power and Internet are not always reliable.

In India especially, floods cause interruptions, and power isn’t as reliable as in the west. Staff are impacted in various ways and face times when they’re off, so you have to be flexible.

A non-work environment isn’t great for everyone.

Extreme heat in some places can make working conditions difficult for those without AC at home. Lacking a quiet place for calls, not having a space where the staff feel happy to show on video are all challenges which we didn’t face in our office environments. Being flexible on hours and working pattern can help.

Zoom, Google meet, slack, and Microsoft teams are your friend but they can’t fully replace face to face.

Conference calls are essential, video on by default is hard to encourage. For me the whiteboard on Zoom is the closest to colaborating in person and I’m always using it. Your face can express much more than your voice. Discourage mute as much as possible.

Check for changes in productivity and morale.

Being away from the office can be isolating, it can also be disruptive. It takes self discipline and it’s easier for some than others. Keep a check on performance and have discussions if performance changes early to check-in and help.

What changes will I make when we’re allowed to return to the office?

As a remote worker myself, I think COVID has helped demonstrate that working remote is possible for a lot of businesses.

For some businesses there will always be benefits of being in an office for most of the time, but for developers and product people, I think there’s benefits of working from home. I think this comes down to trust and environment. Systems shouldn’t be the blocker.

I’m not an advocate of working from home entirely. It can be challenging. But I am an advocate for remote working. So for me, I’m happy for teams to continue working remotely, but I’d like to see teams meet up at least once a week (both professionally and personally), and as a whole for the business to get together once a month. Social interactions are essentials, a life behind the screen can get routine, and that isn’t human.

When it comes to systems, I don’t plan to remove the remote gateways. Previously my users requested Desktops over Laptops because Desktops are faster. Going forward I believe we will have a laptop workforce, with more of a hot desk approach.