The shift of our work into our homes has highlighted a number of inequalities. Perhaps the most significant in my experience was how the choices management makes in technology provision impacts the success of the home worker. If your organization does not plan for staff to work away from the office – business continuity – that burden falls on the staff. Which means you better have planned your personal technology around work.

One of my early jobs was to work in a movie theater. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was playing that summer. A line in that film has become a meme – “he chose poorly.”

Clip from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. There’s a lot of screaming before the knight says the line.

I don’t adhere to the idea of “work life” balance. Work is just an aspect of life, not a counterweight to it. Work forces many decisions for us: where we live, availability, etc. It shouldn’t require us to invest in technology for job continuity.

But we don’t always plan for our work place. That’s what our organization should be planning for. The gap that was caused by the pandemic between haves and have nots within the same organization will need to be closed.

Getting Connected

Most organizations of more than a handful of people will have some computer standards. The types of computer people use, the size monitor, and operating system. Are tablets supported? Do we provide phones? All of these create the organizations technology standards.

Inevitably, deviations appear. I don’t believe in following standards when there’s a good business reason not to, but it should be based on business. Not on hierarchy.

I’m sure our organization is similar to many others; it’s certainly not the first organization I’ve been in that was like this. The front line staff have a different technology setup than more senior people. The C-suite may have a more refined setup than anyone else.

If you work in a lawyer-centric organization, this caste effect can be amplified. Roles filled by lawyers may receive better, more flexible technology, regardless of need. Half an organization may need laptops. But if it’s only the top half, you may want prod that assumption a bit.

In the library context, we all tend to work from a physical location. None of my staff had work-provided laptops or tablets when the order to work from home came. This meant that, in order to participate in work-from-home, they needed to have their own devices and connectivity.

We don’t normally plan that way. If we have a phone, we may not bother with a PC at home if we have one at work. About 20% of my staff were in that position. If we don’t make video calls, we may not have a conferencing app and camera.

Either the work place or the employee is going to have to keep that gap in mind. Someone will need to fix it. Most staff, like me, used their home PCs. For those without, we acquired laptops. Fortunately, the laptop users had internet access at their homes.

It isn’t enough to provide remote desktop (RDP) servers and VPNs. Someone needs to plan for the endpoints that are going to connect to those servers. It’s a bit like an emergency phone call list. Who has what and who will need something if our staff are away.

What we as an organization could have done differently:

  • assume staff that had no laptop or tablet provided by the organization had no laptop or tablet (and no camera).
  • enhance the desktop PCs with a wi-fi card (around C$50 internal or external) rather than acquiring new laptops ($1000+). When staff return, we are going to have a glut of laptops. This would also have enabled us to adhere to our standard hardware and software build.
  • assess whether the technology we were required to use was necessary. As I posted recently, when you add video, you create a significant new layer for participation.

This has highlighted a huge hole in the organization’s disaster planning process. The assumption was that, if the library was physically inaccessible, the library staff would stop work for that period. In part that’s because the plan didn’t foresee a multi-week physical barrier. The reality is we can deliver – and are expected to deliver – services even without our physical collection.

Tool Access

The choices you make when you buy your home technology will impact your ability to keep a job if you are put in a work-from-home position. I tend to buy a burner phone, pre-paid and no data, every 4 or 5 years.

Even having a phone may not be enough – my phone was sufficiently old that it wouldn’t run the Zoom app. I could Skype on it but since our organization has opted for Zoom (even though it has a paid Skype license), it meant I needed to find a way to run the software on a device with a camera.

Voice over IP (VOIP) is another good example. Our organization switched to VOIP years ago. There is a desktop app that opens when a phone call is made. That software lives on my desktop.

If you are using your organization’s laptop, you probably have that app and it’s configured to connect. If you’re not, you’re out of luck. Our software doesn’t work through RDP. I can’t reconfigure my settings (to forward to a phone number, for example) remotely. I’m fortunate that I set it up initially to email me all voicemail. At least I know who has called and left a message and can follow up.

These are small things. Our attendance system requires Microsoft Internet Explorer running Microsoft Silverlight. Our RDP server needs IE for a web-based connection, so Mac users need to know how to configure their systems to make a direct connection. Our passwords time out on a quarterly basis. You can update yours but you need to connect to the server with IE. Otherwise that email client you configured to check office email from your home PC will stop working. Our finance system doesn’t use single-sign-on. Once you RDP in, you will need to open up a terminal to reset your finance password too.

These small things – that work from the office – become big things when you’re working from home. They’re exacerbated because we are no longer using standardized technology. What happens when all of your technology standards assumptions are no longer correct?

Many of these problems are caused by a hardware-centric set of assumptions but we don’t really need new hardware to fill these gaps. We can fix them in other ways:

  • If you have a license for Skype then use the web-based Skype. Avoid conferencing tools that require specific platforms or operating system versions. If you can’t, then rethink your conferencing requirements.
  • If you use an office suite like Microsoft Office, then be prepared to train your staff before a crisis on how to use the Office apps on mobile devices or the free online Office web apps. Even better: migrate to your online G Suite or Office 365 so that they are living in that world all the time.
  • Eliminate tools that require you to use RDP unless you have no other option.
  • Eliminate quarterly password changes unless they can be changed easily remotely and from any device.

In other words:

Use cloud-based technology as a core part of your business. If you do, when you find yourself in a crisis, the transition for your staff will be less dramatic. Web-based, web interface tools that can be accessed from any device can eliminate the inequities of your organization’s technology purchasing.

Also, train them. If you have a license for Skype and it’s installed on every computer, make sure every staff person knows how to use it. If you have to send them to work from home, the transition to web-based Skype won’t require as much training as it will if they’re starting from scratch.

One reason some of our teams were stretched during the first few weeks of work-from-home wasn’t because of the work. It was because of the train-the-trainer and having to get everyone accustomed to using the new toolset. We could have saved time if we had already made it the regular toolset.

One thing is clear. When we return to work, and our front-line staff are cleaning out the backlog of books and invoices, library leaders have a lot of work to do. It’ll be time to pull out our disaster planning procedures and assess what worked, and what didn’t. We’ll need to ask the staff about their experiences to get this right for the next time.